Nanchang, a clash of old and new

Updated 2016-12-01 17:54:24
The Bada Shanren Memorial Museum was expanded in 2010.

The Bada Shanren Memorial Museum was expanded in 2010.

It is the canvasses that perhaps reveal most about Nanchang, rather than the artwork itself. From scrolls to skyscrapers, the most modern face of China crashes against the truly traditional in the southeastern city.

By day, visitors ponder Bada Shanren's melancholy creatures on scrolls at a Memorial Hall dedicated to the master of literati art -- the trifecta of poetry, calligraphy and painting. Housed in a former Taoist monastery where it is believed the master painter spent time with his friends here, the modest buildings and inner courtyards create a peaceful setting.

Many of his paintings feature just one tree or one animal, often a bird or deer. Our guide tells us this is because he was very lonely.

"He said, 'the ink is less, the tear is much'."

Our guide proudly declares just one of the works would sell for 120 million yuan. The three-inch thick steel doors guarding the entrance to the gallery rooms suggest this is no exaggeration.

Curator Wang Kaixuan says Bada Shanren, a pseudonym, is known not just for his skill, but his life during political upheaval.

Born Zhu Da in 1626, he was a descendant of the Ming Dynasty. At the demise of the Ming dynasty he retreated to the monastery for 40 years, before returning to paint under his new name.

"The paintings are a reflection of the social change that he lived through," Wang says.

Apart from the Gan River that divides Nanchang, Bada Shanren's literati scrolls are likely to be the only original pieces of the past a visitor will see, despite the city's 2,200-year history.

The beautiful Tengwang Pavilion was reconstructed as recently as 1980s, after the previous replica was destroyed by fire.

The reconstructed Tengwang Pavilion helps light up Nanchang in bright red and green.

The reconstructed Tengwang Pavilion helps light up Nanchang in bright red and green.

It is its relatively more recent "red history" that Nanchang is most proud. It is known as "the city of heroes" after the first shots were fired against the Kuomintang in 1927 leading to the formation of the People's Liberation Army.

Since 1949, the population of Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, has shot from 250,000 to more than 5 million people. Cranes dot the skyline, as endless residential and commercial towers spring up to accommodate more and more people. One new development suggests "everything pleases your heart is extraordinary" while promising to deliver buyers "superior natural".

By night, the city's skyscrapers that line the riverbank become the canvas for a new kind of artwork. Darkness banishes the persistent haze that dulls the skyline during the day and frees the city to shine bright. Once the sun sets, the steely facades perform a dazzling light show, their sleek surfaces serving as screens for a cartoon adventure taking us across the globe, complete with kangaroos, camels and crabs scurrying from one tower to the next. The technological feat is a fitting nightly welcome for tourists to the rapidly developing city. As entire buildings light up in formation, it is nearly impossible to imagine Bada Shanren once sat in the same town creating beauty with ink on scrolls.

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