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In love with a ghost: classic Chinese painting to appear at new Hong Kong museum

EIGHTEEN CENTURIES AGO, two princes fell in love with the same woman, Zhen Mi. But only one could have her.

Circumstances led Zhen Mi to marry the older one, although she preferred the younger, who had been sent into temporary exile during the chaotic Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history.

When the exiled brother finally returned, he learned that Zhen was dead – some versions of the story say she was killed by her husband, others say a concubine had called for her death.

Gone? Never to be seen again? The broken-hearted younger brother went to sit by a river, consumed by grief. But as lay on the riverbank, he saw a strange vision: a beautiful river nymph floating in and over the waters, and moving towards him. It was Zhen Mi. The presence of the ghost proved the truth of a principle that most humans feel is true, although it cannot be proved: love is stronger than death.

The younger brother and the ghost of Zhen Mi finally embraced – together at last, and yet forever separated. But afterwards, there was a question in his heart: had it all been a dream? Or is does life continue in some way?

The powerful tale (although its historical roots are rather shaky) has all the elements of a classic Chinese story – sibling rivalry, a woman torn between two lovers, a supernatural element, and a sad but philosophical ending.

But the remarkable thing is this. It apparently inspired the bereft younger brother to write a poem – and the poem inspired a calligrapher to create a piece of word art. This in turn inspired a painter to capture the riverside scene, which became one of the most celebrated classics of Chinese painting. All three pieces, the poem, the calligraphy, and the painting, are considered masterpieces of their genres.


Several copies of the painting were made, and three survive. One of these will be transported to Hong Kong to be displayed at the new Palace Museum. It’s old. The artist lived between 348 and 409 AD. For comparison, the Mona Lisa was painted in or about 1500, more than 1,000 years later. The painting, or at least the surviving portion of it, shows the two main characters several times at different parts of the story (see image at the top).

Some of China’s finest treasures have been chosen for Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

Ancient and delicate, the painting known as Nymph of the Luo River by Gu Kaizhi will be on show for the first time in the city. It is one of a number of classic pieces from China’s history to be allowed out of Beijing for the launch of the new Hong Kong Palace Museum.


Beijing curators have picked 914 treasures from the Beijing Palace Museum to be shown at the opening of the new museum in July. The range of formats will be wide, from painting and calligraphy to jade, bronze, metalwork, ceramics, enamelware, lacquer, and so on. There will be costumes and jewellery too, with some pieces spanning the nearly 5,000 years of Chinese history.

This headrest dates back to the Northern Song dynasty, starting in 960 AD. Photo: Handout.

The painting “Nymph of the Luo River” is considered a grade one treasure. Bernard Chan, the Chairman of the board of the new museum in Hong Kong, expressed his delight at the range of items being transported to the city.

The story of Zhen Mi, although unknown outside China, and probably little known in Hong Kong, is much loved in Chinese culture. Henan TV recently showed a dance drama version of the story, filmed entirely in water. Sixth Tone reported that the video clip racked up six billion views on social media.

Image at the top shows detail of Nymph of the River Luo

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