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‘Treasures’ collects 800 years of Chinese imperial art

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A 15th century porcelain “cup with chicken design” from the Ming dynasty is among the antiquities from the National Palace Museum on view at the Asian Art Museum. (Courtesy National Palace Museum, Taipei)

“Priceless pork belly” is the catch phrase the Asian Art Museum has for the highlight of its new exhibition “Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Tapei.”

The “pork” is actually a small piece of jasper, a semi-precious stone nearly 200 years old, dyed and sculpted during the Qing dynasty, which indeed looks a tasty morsel.

When the famed “Meat-Shaped Stone” went on view in Japan in 2014, it drew 6,000 people per day, and created demand for “dongpo rou,” the dish it takes after, according to officials.

To that end, the Asian Art Museum is partnering with a bunch of local eateries, including Mission Chinese and The Slanted Door, for a month-long pork fest in which chefs are serving dishes inspired by the “mouth-watering” gem. (The museum’s Café Asia menu also is featuring pork, and the gift shop is selling a Meat-Shaped Stone magnet for $7.95.)

Yet the rock is just one of some 150 antiquities — many in the U.S. for the first time — spanning 800 years and nine emperors in the exhibit, which runs through September and is presented by the Hong Kong-based Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation.

Four dynasties are represented: The dignified Song (960-1279, “China’s renaissance”; the bold yet subtle Yuan (1271-1368, “multi-ethnic”); the brilliant Ming (1388-1644, “restoration of Han culture”) and the dazzling Qing (1644-1911), “triumph of innovative techniques, designs and materials.”

Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu, who assisted on a similar show featuring works from the Taiwan museum about two decades ago at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, called this collection “the best of the best of Chinese imperial art,” and one that uniquely tells the “human story” behind key leaders.

A Song-era scroll, for example, features a poem by Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) done in exquisite calligraphy, showcasing how the ruler’s identity was expressed through writing.

The influence of Islamic culture, and of Mongols, on China came with the Yuan era, and the introduction of color, particularly cobalt (which led to the famed blue-and-white Chinese porcelain).

Perhaps the most valuable piece in the show is a small cup from the Ming dynasty reign of 15th century Emperor Chenghua depicting a quaint family scene of a rooster, hen and chicks; a similar extremely rare piece sold for $36 million in 2014.

Later, during the Qing-era, emperors were collectors whose tastes expanded to include Western influences, and increasingly intricate designs and materials, from jade to enamel to lacquer and embroidery (including the pork-themed rock, whose creator is unknown).

The show features contributions from one influential woman, Empress Dowager Cixi, who hired female artists, was known for extravagance and whose reign ended just before the close of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century.

IF YOU GO
Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except until 9 p.m Thursdays; closes Sept. 18
Admission: $10 to $25
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org

Select special programs

The Chairman Tasting Menu: Co-owner Kevin Kiwata and chef Curtis Lam speak about their popular food truck chain and eatery at 6:30 p.m. June 23; tickets are $15.

Pork: Jamie Chu, curatorial assistant, speaks about the history of dongpo rou and the Meat-Shaped Stone at a tasting event at 6 p.m. July 7; tickets are $15.

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