Heaven on Earth: Cleveland Museum of Art premiers works from China’s Jiangnan region

This past Sunday, Sept. 10, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) opened its landmark exhibit, “China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta,” which explores the historical and cultural riches of the pivotal region Jiangnan.

The exhibition—the first in the West to focus on this area and the artistic production and cultural impact of a region located in the coastal area south of the Yangzi River —features more than 200 objects relating to Jiangnan which has remained one of China’s wealthiest, most populous, and agriculturally fertile lands.

The exhibit runs through January 7, in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall.

The Jiangnan region has historically been one of the wealthiest, most populous, and fertile lands in China. For millennia, it has been an area of rich agriculture, extensive trade, and influential artistic production.

Literati Pursuits-Painting, 1700sLiterati Pursuits-Painting, 1700sArt from Jiangnan—home to such great cities as Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing, as well as to hilly picturesque landscapes stretched along rivers and lakes—has defined the image of traditional China for the world.

The exhibit features more than 200 objects from Neolithic times to the 18th Century, ranging from jade, silk, prints, and paintings to porcelain, lacquer, and bamboo carvings.

“So much of what we associate with traditional China today—such as rice, silk and lacquer production, color printing, garden culture, landscape painting—either originated or flourished in the Jiangnan region,” Clarissa von Spee, the show’s curator and the James and Donna Reid Curator of Chinese Art, Interim Curator of Islamic Art and Chair of Asian Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, said in a statement.

“To bring these rare, unique treasures together from around the world provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors, nationally and abroad, to witness the richness and unsurpassed quality of art from a part of China that is still associated with natural beauty, elegance, high culture, and erudition. Jiangnan imagery and goods that reached 18th-century Europe shaped our idea of China more than any other region.”

Jiangnan’s lush, green scenery inspired artists to conceive the region as heaven on earth.

“China’s Southern Paradise” explores how this region gained a leading role in China’s artistic production and how it succeeded in setting cultural standards and features works from private and public collections and museums in the United States, Europe, China, and Japan.

Tickets are $15 for adults; $12 for seniors aged 65 and older, college students, and children ages six to 17; and $10 for adult groups of 10 people or more. “Southern Paradise” is free to CMA members and for children aged five and younger.

Additionally, CMA will host a lecture on Sunday, Nov. 5, “Heaven Is High and the Emperor Is Far Away”: Jiangnan in Ming Dynasty China,” given by Craig Clunas, professor emeritus of the history of art, University of Oxford.

Although the Jiangnan region of China, meaning “south of the Yangtze,” was the site of the first Ming dynasty capital, the court relocated to the north of China half a century after the dynasty’s founding. From this time, emperors and their immediate families were largely absent from the culture of this prosperous and vibrant heartland. But many ties still linked the culture of Jiangnan’s “Southern Paradise” and that of the Ming court. This lecture focuses on what artworks, as well as literature, can tell us about the often-fraught relationship between Jiangnan, its people, and their distant rulers in the north. 

The lecture takes place in the Gartner Auditorium at 2 p.m. on November 5. A free ticket is required.