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Dream of the Red Chamber: The First Complete Art Collection Created by Visionary Watercolor Artist Xiang Li (400+ Paintings)

My fascination with Xiang Li’s artwork started when I saw her portrait paintings for the first time (more on that in a future post) led me to the world of her Chinese Empress paintings, a collection that gave me a better insight into Chinese Imperial history. My interest in further exploring her artwork took me into the world of another important topic of Chinese history and culture that I had not known before: the world of the Chinese literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber.

While living in India, Singapore, and the United States, I was exposed to many aspects of Chinese history and popular culture through movies like The Last Emperor, Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Bruce Lee’s movies, etc. but surprisingly I had never heard of this classic Chinese epic.

One of Xiang Li’s famous painting collections is based on this classic novel. In Chinese literature, few works have captivated the imagination and hearts of readers like Dream of the Red Chamber. It is generally considered China’s greatest novel and an encyclopedia of its’ past feudal society. A partly autobiographical work, it is written in vernacular by the author and describes in lingering detail the decline of the powerful Chinese aristocratic Jia family in Imperial China (19th century China). The novel describes the Jias’ wealth and influence in great detail, and charts the family’s fall from the height of their prestige, following some thirty main characters and over four hundred minor ones.

Among the novel’s many admirers is Xiang Li, whose dedication to this classic has left an indelible mark on the art world in China. She achieved the remarkable feat of being the first person ever to paint all 430 characters from the novel in watercolor, culminating in a historic exhibition in Hebei, China, in 1985 when she was only 35! It was a cultural event that celebrated the enduring legacy of Dream of the Red Chamber. It provided the visitors with a new vivid and visual way to experience the age-old classic story.

The literary work is remarkable not only for its huge cast of characters and psychological scope but also for its precise and detailed observation of the life and social structures typical of the 18th-century Chinese aristocracy. It provides great insight into its depiction of the Chinese culture of the time, including a description of the era’s manners, expectations, and consequences. Many aspects of Chinese culture, such as cuisine, medicine, music, painting, mythology, classic literature, architecture, Confucianism, Taoism, social structures, etc. are vividly portrayed in the novel.

Dream of the Red Chamber: Origin Story

Her journey with Dream of the Red Chamber began as a personal challenge, a way to pay homage to the literary masterpiece. The novel, known for its intricate portrayal of a vast array of characters, provided a fertile ground for Xiang Li’s artistic exploration. She worked on these paintings, from 1975 to 1985, during which she painstakingly brought to life the novel’s 400 characters through her watercolor paintings.

Each character, from the beloved protagonist Baoyu to the tragic heroine Daiyu, was rendered with a unique blend of traditional Chinese painting techniques and Xiang Li’s personal style. Her use of vibrant colors and stylistic brushwork captured the essence of each character, the culture, artifacts architecture of the times, and the novel’s themes of love, loss, and the transience of life.

In the years following the Hebei exhibition, Xiang Li’s paintings continued to garner attention and acclaim. Her collection was featured at the Grand View Garden in Beijing for 20 years before being sold to The National Studies Museum in Qingdao, China.

Li at her public exhibit of the collection in Hebei, China in 1985. Dream of the Red Chamber

Epilogue

This collection of paintings and their impact on Chinese society highlights the power of literature to inspire creativity across different art mediums seen in the past and present across different civilizations. More importantly, it also emphasizes the role and significance of art and art history education in our society as a tool to pass on and preserve these legends of timeless relevance and precious human stories from one generation to the next.

Read more about the social and cultural impact of this painting collection here:

You can also buy some of the merchandise related to this collection on Xiang Li’s Etsy store.

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