Sat, Jun 13, 2009 - Page 16 News List

Red Cliff redux

Though scholarly and enlightening, the National Palace Museum’s exhibition on the Battle of Red Cliff disdains heaven-sent opportunities to co-opt popular culture

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER


The Battle of Red Cliff is an event known to every Chinese school student, not just as an encounter that altered history, but as a story that defines all manner of human virtue and vice. The National Palace Museum’s exhibition A Thousand, Thousand Churning Waves: The Legendary Red Cliff Heritage (捲起千堆雪 — 赤壁文物特展) looks back over some of the works, both in literature and in the visual arts, that helped define this millennia-old conflict as part of a Chinese national consciousness.

The exhibition, which runs until Aug. 31, mainly consists of calligraphy, books and paintings. Many of them are beautiful, but their significance is often buried deep in the notes that accompany each piece. To endow these scholarly items with greater dynamism, the museum has launched a series of artistic and educational activities that will take place in conjunction with the exhibition. The most elaborate component is the staging of two outdoor performances, one tonight and one on June 20, of theatrical pieces that feature characters who took part in the great battle.

The two performances, by the Beijing opera troupe of the National Guoguang Opera Company (國立國光劇團) and by puppetmaster Huang Chun-hsiung (黃俊雄), show that the story of Red Cliff remains very much a living part of Chinese traditional arts.

Like Agincourt or Waterloo, the figures in the battle lines on either side are more than dusty characters from the past. They have been turned into living embodiments of a cultural and moral consciousness. In recent years, comic books and video games have introduced the characters of the story to the young, and recently, the popularity of the story has been given a further boost by John Woo’s (吳宇森) massive star-studded two-part epic, Red Cliff (赤壁). The second installment was released in Taiwan at the beginning of this year.


WHAT: A Thousand, Thousand Churning Waves: The Legendary Red Cliff Heritage (捲起千堆雪 — 赤壁文物特展)

WHERE: Exhibition Halls 103 and 104, National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院), 221, Zhishan Rd Sec 2, Shilin Dist, Taipei City (台北市士林區至善路二段221號)

WHEN: Until Aug. 31, daily from 9am to 5pm, with opening hours on Saturdays extended to 8:30pm



Linking the National Palace Museum’s academic might with a topic that is so closely connected with popular culture seemed to be a winning idea. It was, therefore, disconcerting to hear the show’s chief curator, Lin Tien-jen (林天人), eagerly disowning any association with the popular expressions of interest in the story. That he might not want his serious and painstaking research undermined is understandable, but the determinedly scholarly presentation of the show runs counter to many major museums’ efforts to create exhibitions that wear their scholarship more lightly in an effort to foster a broader appeal.

For an audience familiar with the history of the Three Kingdoms and the works of literature that brought it to life, the exhibition has some astonishing treasures, not least a Sung Dynasty scroll by the poet Su Shi (蘇軾) of the Former Ode on Red Cliff (前赤壁賦), which helped turn the Battle of Red Cliff into a potent literary symbol both of the splendor of great ambition and of the impermanence of all man’s work.

Lin sees this work as a major milestone in the establishment of Red Cliff as a literary theme. The other side of the exhibition looks at the historical and practical aspects of the battle, with exhibits including a Sung Dynasty copy of pages from Sun Zi’s Art of War (孫子兵法) as annotated by Cao Cao (曹操), a major protagonist whose ambitions to bring southern China under his sway were scuppered at the Battle of Red Cliff. Then there are the illustrated books, the comics of former centuries, shown alongside learned speculation from ancient scholars about mundane aspects of archaic warfare in treatises such as the delightfully abstruse Description of the Machinery and Implements Employed on Rivers (河工器具圖說), an academic work from the Qing Dynasty.

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