2015 No.3
Interview with Professor James C.Y. Watt
Date:June 26, 2015
Location:Room 124, the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS)
Interviewee:Professor James C.Y. Watt, J.S. Lee Professor of Chinese Culture at the Institute of Chinese Studies, former Brooke Russell Astor Chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, current Curator Emeritus of the Department of Asian Art
Interviewer:Professor Lai Chi Tim, Director of the Centre for Studies of Daoist Culture, Associate Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, and Professor at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, CUHK
Recorded by:Xu Yanlian, Research Associate, ICS

The Institute of Chinese Studies Bulletin is honoured to interview Professor James C.Y. Watt for a new feature article. During his interview with Professor Lai Chi Tim on June 26, 2015, Professor Watt recalled his ten years of work as the Founding Curator for the (then) Art Gallery of the ICS. He commented on the development of both the Department of Fine Arts and the ICS, and summarised his own research. Edited excerpts from the interview are recorded below.

Professor Watt is a descendent of the famous Ming i-min (loyalist) Qu Dajun, whose family is eminent in Guangdong and Hong Kong. Born in Hong Kong, Professor Watt studied at Lai Chack Primary School and the Diocesan Boys' School before he went to King's College, Taunton, Somerset, in England. He later gained admission into Queen's College at Oxford University where he received his M.A. in 1959. He returned to Hong Kong in 1960 as a teaching assistant at the University of Hong Kong, where he studied under Professors Frederick Drake, Lo Hsiang Lin and Jao Tsung-I for four years. From these professors, he gained a solid background in guoxue (Chinese classics), Chinese literature, history, and arts. In 1964, he was appointed Assistant Curator of the Hong Kong City Museum and Art Gallery, supervising projects on Chinese relics, calligraphy, painting and archaeology. The Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong was founded in 1971 when the Institute of Chinese Studies moved into a new building on the university campus, and Professor Watt took up the position of Founding Curator.

According to Professor Watt, to establish an Art Gallery at the ICS was the idea of Dr. Lee Jung Sen, who continued to fully support the Art Gallery throughout its existence. The ICS building features a central courtyard that was designed by the University architect, Szeto Wai, in consultation with I.M. Pei, a good friend of Dr. Lee Jung Sen. Mr. Pei suggested building a traditional Chinese landscape garden structure but with modern architectural materials and techniques, a concept that Szeto Wai integrated into his design. During the opening ceremony of the Art Gallery, the Consul-General of Japan in Hong Kong suggested putting carp in the pond in the middle of the courtyard. One month later, he generally sent over more than a hundred valuable carp, which were later sent to Chung Chi College. These days, carp can be seen throughout the university campus.

Professor Watt recalled that during the early years of the ICS, many distinguished scholars and professors gathered to support its development. The Founding Director, Vice-Chancellor Professor Li Choh-ming, eagerly invited famous professors such as Yan Geng-wang, Chuan Han-sheng, Mou Runsun, Wang Dezhao, Chen Ching-ho from New Asia College, and Chou Fa-kao from Chung Chi College to work at the ICS. Their offices were all set up in the ICS buildings. As a young man at the time, Professor Watt recalled often consulting with these professors and learning a lot from them. He recounted one particularly interesting story about his friendships with these professors. Professor Chou Fa-kao, despite being from Northern China, was passionate about Cantonese cuisine. Professor Mou Runsun, on the other hand, loved Peking cuisine. The two professors often competed to host meals at different restaurants, and Professor Watt was lucky to be invited by both professors in their food "campaign" and to participate in their academic circle.

Initially, the Art Gallery had practically nothing. Professor Watt proposed to Dr. Lee Jung Sen that the Art Gallery start collecting on two fronts. The first was to form a small collection of representative Chinese art works of different periods for teaching purposes. This would be gradually collected, mainly through donations. The second was the systematic acquisition of specialised works of art for research projects. For this, Professor Watt made a strategic collection plan to focus on rare and valuable collections that the famous international museums had not recognised. He thus suggested the two collection themes of bei tie (rubbings of stele inscriptions that are recut in stone or wood), and seals. In addition, when Professor Watt had worked in the Hong Kong City Museum and Art Gallery, he had noticed the late Mr. Jen Yu-wen's great collection of over a thousand highly valuable Ming, Qing and modern Guangdong paintings and calligraphies. He decided to acquire Mr. Jen Yu-wen's collection for the Art Gallery.

An early collection of 265 seals was donated to the Art Gallery by Bei Shan Tang in 1971. These seals were mainly from the collection of Hong Kong collector Hu Shaoyun, a large part of which originally belonged to the late Qing collector Duan Fang. It was based on this collection that Professor Watt published Seals Collected by the Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1980. He also invited Mr. Wong Yan Chung from the Palace Museum to collect and research seals for the Art Gallery. As a result, Mr. Wong Yan Chung published Seals Collected by the Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong-Sequels I, II, III. With their efforts, the number of seals in the Art Gallery steadily increased and now exceeds a thousand pieces.

During this time, the Art Gallery also acquired a number of rubbings. Professor Watt shared a particular story about Li Yan, the eldest grandson of the Qing official Li Wentian, who was teaching at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at the time. Li Yan had inherited a Song rubbing of the Huashan Temple Stele from Li Wentian. Only four Song rubbings from the original stele, erected in E. Han (165 A.D.) to commemorate the renovation of the Huashan Temple, are known to exist. The Qing collector Duan Fang attempted to acquire all four and had already managed to secure two of them, but Li Wentian refused to give in and insisted keeping the copy in his family. Through the efforts of Professor Watt, the precious Song rubbing of the Huashan Temple Stele was added to the collection kept by the Art Gallery.

Another core item in the Art Gallery's collection of rubbings is the Song rubbing of the Lanting Preface. The year 1973 was the twenty seventh guichou (癸丑 fiftieth-anniversary) of the xiuxi (修禊) ceremony at Lanting. Professor Watt suggested staging an exhibition of the Lanting Preface in celebration. Professor Li Yan participated and provided a lot of helpful advice for the exhibition. At that time, the Art Gallery often staged exhibitions by borrowing related objects from other institutions and private collectors. During the Lanting exhibition, one private collector lent ten kinds of precious Song rubbing of the Lanting Preface bearing seals of You Si, a Prime Minister of the S. Song period, and Zhu Gang, a Ming prince. Impressed by this rare collection, Professor Watt talked to the collector and convinced him to sell the rubbings to the Art Gallery. Again, Bei Shan Tang fully supported the purchase. The Art Gallery has now become the best university museum in China for rubbings and seals. The collection boasts over twenty kinds of Song rubbings alone, and the seal collection amounts to more than a thousand pieces. As these rubbings and seals are closely connected with jinshi (bronzes and stones) studies during the Qing dynasty, these collections are very important for academic research.

The late Mr. Jen Yu-wen's collection of Ming, Qing and modern Guangdong paintings and calligraphies is now a major collection of the Art Gallery. Professor Watt had initially planned to collect the paintings and calligraphies for the Hong Kong City Museum and Art Gallery, but he was unable to secure them due to a lack of funding. The paintings and calligraphies had not been preserved well, and Professor Watt assisted Mr. Jen in making a brief catalogue of the collection for future reference and conservation. The impressive collection consisted of more than 1,300 items of paintings and calligraphies dating from the Ming dynasty to the modern period. With generous donations from kind supporters and collectors in Hong Kong, the Art Gallery was honoured to purchase the collection. Professor Watt also hired and trained technical staff to mount and restore the paintings and calligraphies. Forming the core of the paintings and calligraphies of the Art Gallery, the collection also provides a clear direction for research in Guangdong arts for the Art Gallery.

In addition to these three collections, export Chinese ceramics form another significant collection for research in the Art Gallery. Professor Watt was often invited by the National Research Centre of Archaeology in Indonesia to excavate and identify Chinese ceramics found in Indonesia. He also organised exhibitions and international conferences on the topic of export Chinese ceramics. The collection of export Chinese ceramics in the Art Gallery mainly consists of ceramics from South-East Asia and is fairly comprehensive and important for both teaching and research purposes.

Reviewing the first ten years of the Art Gallery, Professor Watt said that the Art Gallery took on the responsibility of promoting research on Chinese culture. The collections of rubbings and seals provide real objects for research on the traditional Chinese subject of jinshi studies. The collections of the Art Gallery are also used for teaching. The comprehensive collection of ceramics in the Art Gallery has been successfully incorporated into a course on the history of ceramics in the Department of Fine Arts. The gradually increasing collections of lacquers and jades are also very good teaching resources. From its beginnings as a practically empty shell, the Art Gallery made use of the limited resources in Hong Kong and achieved its goal for the first ten years of establishing a comprehensive and representative collection for valuable academic research, to which Professor Watt made an indispensible contribution. With his keen insight and discerning judgement, Professor Watt helped the Art Gallery to build up a collection of over two thousand items by the time he left office ten years later. Several books on the seals have been published, and an exhibition and conference on Song rubbings will be held in September, 2015. Studies on Guangdong paintings and calligraphies are also now possible.

Professor Watt strategically trained staff for research, restoration and conservation positions. After collecting the late Mr. Jen Yu-wen's work, the Art Gallery received a donation from Bei Shan Tang and with it built an annex across the car park adjoining the ICS as a unit for mounting and restoring paintings and calligraphies. From then, Professor Watt started to train staff in different technical units. Although small, the Art Gallery was well equipped.

Professor Watt reported that the 1960s, when he returned to Hong Kong, was a golden age for archaeological studies. A large number of distinguished scholars gathered in Hong Kong, including Professors Frederick Drake and Jao Tsung-I from the University of Hong Kong, and many great collectors and discerning antique dealers of famous families from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Professor Watt said that he learned a lot from them. However, he commented that the environment and rich resources of that golden age are no longer available now, and that it is now far more difficult to attain valuable collections for academic research.

Working at the Art Gallery and the Department of Fine Arts at the same time, Professor Watt reported that communication between the two units was regular and unproblematic. He brought his fine arts students to see the ceramics collections in the Art Gallery to supplement his course on the history of ceramics. He also started the annual graduation exhibition in the Department of Fine Arts, hosted every year by the Art Gallery. It has become a lasting tradition.

The Department of Fine Arts started as a department in New Asia College, and at the beginning had limited resources. With only several local artists to teach painting skills, the department was not initially able to offer formal courses on art history, and so it was not strictly a university discipline. Later on, Professor Kao May-ching returned to the university and started courses in art history, and the department began to gradually develop. Professor Watt insisted that the department set up a balanced and comprehensive programme of both art history and studio practice. The academic staff in the department was mostly local. The teachers of art history were mostly local students who had returned from overseas studies. The teachers of artistic practices were local artists. When Dr. Jao Tsung-I, an erudite master of Chinese studies, was invited to be Honorary Professor and to participate in the teaching of postgraduate students, the department set up its first postgraduate programme, an M. Phil. in the History of Chinese Art. Professor Watt is very glad to see that with difficult but steady growth, the department has formally become a well-established university department that clearly differentiates art history and studio practice.

Professor Watt summarised his own research as taking place over two phases in Hong Kong and the United States. When he was in Hong Kong, he did his utmost to make use of the local resources that were available. In addition to learning from senior distinguished scholars, he communicated with collectors in the Min Chiu Society. On the invitation of Mr. Hu Huichun and Dr. Lee Jung Sen who founded the Society, Professor Watt became a member. The Society consisted of thirty great collectors from Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Professor Watt benefitted greatly from his association with them.

Professor Watt was invited by the National Research Centre of Archaeology in Indonesia every summer to identify Chinese ceramics excavated in Indonesia. It was at this time that he started to collect ceramics for the Art Gallery and carry out his own research on export ceramics. He had always had a keen interest in archaeology. In 1968, he was invited to attend an international conference on export ceramics in Manila where he met many important scholars in the field, including the famous Japanese scholar Professor Mikami Tsugio. With Professor Tsugio's help, Professor Watt continued to carry out a lot of important research projects after their introduction. Ten years later, Professor Watt organised a second international conference on export ceramics at the Art Gallery. He kept close and friendly contact with archaeological scholars and organisations in South-East Asia, including with The National Research Centre of Archaeology in Indonesia, the National Museum of the Philippines, and related organisations in Thailand.

Professor Watt also studied jade. He learned from the collectors of the Min Chiu Society that Chinese jade was best during the Three Dynasties (the Xia Dynasty, the Shang Dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty) and Han China, and other jade was not worth studying. However, Professor Watt found that the jade of the Three Dynasties and Han China were very rare in Hong Kong, while the jade of later periods was more common. He thus became interested in Chinese jade after the Han dynasty, and went on to conduct further research in this area. He later organised an exhibition on "Chinese Jade from Han to Ch'ing" and published the corresponding academic catalogue Chinese Jade from Han to Ch'ing, filling a gap in contemporary studies on Chinese jade.

After he left Hong Kong, Professor Watt worked at the Department of Asiatic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which has the largest collection of Asiatic arts in the West. He spent several years rearranging the twenty-six exhibition halls on Asiatic arts, and established the first South Korea Artistic Hall in Boston. He left Boston in 1985 and joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as Senior Advisor for Chinese Arts. He was later appointed Brooke Russell Astor Senior Curator and Brooke Russell Astor Chairman of the Department of Asian Art. Professor Watt had a talent for discovering valuable collections that had not been previously noticed. He collected great amounts of Yuan textiles for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and organised the grand exhibition "When Silk was Gold". Such a display had never been seen before, and a catalogue was subsequently published. Professor Watt also organised two impressive exhibitions on "East Asian Lacquer: The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection", and "The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty". The most influential was the 2004 exhibition "China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D.", which was unprecedented in its theme, exhibits, research and academic originality. Professor Watt reported that during this golden age of development the Metropolitan Museum of Art had ample funds, providing him with great opportunities and support for his career. Now reviewing his academic life, Professor Watt modestly attributes his successes to his fortunes in finding good opportunities and great friends.

At the end of the interview, Professor Watt expressed his expectations of the future development of the ICS. He recalled that during the early years, the ICS received strong support from Vice-Chancellor Professor Li Choh-ming and many senior scholars who formed a closely-connected academic unit to promote Chinese studies. Professor Li Choh-ming would always listen patiently to proposals and suggestions from different research centres and would provide solid support. Professor Watt pointed out that many professors in the ICS nowadays have to hold several positions at the same time, making it difficult to fully focus their responsibilities on the ICS. He considers this to be one of the major current problems for the ICS. He hopes that today's academics will present themselves to the international world while bearing their own country in mind. The ICS must make full use of the available resources in Hong Kong and adopt the important mission of reviving Chinese culture.  

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor James C.Y. Watt
Event: Conference on Labour, Mobility and Development in the Pearl River Delta and Beyond, Universities Service Centre for China Studies
Event: Film Screening, Universities Service Centre for China Studies
Event: Inter-Regional Forum on Dialectal Grammar, T.T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre
Event: The Fourth Summer School on Chinese Translation History, Research Centre for Translation
Event: Special Programmes for the Exhibition "The Art and Culture of Yixing Zisha Stoneware", Art Museum
New Publications
ICS Luncheons, Institute of Chinese Studies
Public Lecture by CUHK-CCK Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies 2015 Visiting Scholar
The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Rubbings of Stone Engraving and Model Calligraphy Public Lecture, Art Museum (Oct 17, 2015)
The First International Conference on Chinese Translation History, Research Centre for Translation (December 17–19, 2015)
Editorial Board Committee
Past Issues
Copyright 2024. Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. All Rights Reserved.
This E-Newsletter is solely owned by Institute of Chinese Studies. The Institute accepts no liability for any loss or damage howsoever arising from
any use or misuse or reliance on any information in this E-Newsletter.