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History of Rongbaozhai

Currently one of the most illustrious traditional art galleries in China, Rongbaozhai's birth was far humbler -- and some might even call it secretive.

The shop at Liulichang opened in 1894 when China's ruling Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was collapsing under its own weight and foreign powers were grabbing larger and larger slices of the nation.

But Rongbaozhai's roots go back much deeper: beginning with the establishment of its predecessor, Songzhuzhai, more than 300 years ago.

The story began with the Zhang family of Chunshu Lane in Beijing. Renowned papermakers, they owned and operated Songzhuzhai.

Songzhuzhai mainly sold art and writing paper to the literati. All the paper used in the imperial civil service examinations was selected and made by Songzhuzhai. This, of course, gave the shop great prestige and promoted the sale of its goods.

Zhang Yangshan inherited Songzhuzhai during the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1821-1850). However during the time the shop was in his care the job of providing paper for the imperial examinations was taken away and given to rival shop-owner, Yiwenzhai.

It was the beginning of a nightmare. Before long, Zhang Yangshan died, it is said, of anger and hatred. His only son died in his prime. Songzhuzhai was heavily in debt and the burden of the family fell onto the shoulder of Zhang Yangshan's daughter-in-law, whose family name was Li.

Ms. Li had no choice but to hire a manager, and Zhuang Huchen became the first hired manager of Songzhuzhai. His contract stated that he was to get half the shop's profit, an equal sharing scheme that was all but unheard of at the time.

Zhuang Huchen was a typical successful Chinese businessman -- he had a close relationship with the governor as well as rich and varied experiences in business.

With the permission of Ms. Li, Zhuang Huchen ordered one of the shop's employees to circulate rumors that Songzhuzhai had lost too much money to survive and would soon be closing its doors forever. Meanwhile, he bought a building at No. 86 Liulichang. All the shop's best antiques, paintings, calligraphy, brushes and ink were secretly transported to the new location in the dark of night. To outsiders, it appeared that Songzhuzhai had no assets save for its name. It was only a matter of time before it declared bankruptcy.

Rongbaozhai opened for business at No. 86 Liulichang in 1894.

Liulichang was already well known as one of the city's cultural centers, so the new location provided fertile ground for Rongbaozhai's growth. It wasn't long before the new shop was overtaking its competitors.

The year 1900 was not a good one for Beijing. It suffered the misfortune of invasion and occupation by the Eight-Power Allied Forces. But Beijing's misfortune turned out to be Rongbaozhai's good fortune.

The German forces occupied Liulichang, and most owners closed their shops and left. But Zhuang Huchen and some of the other owners and managers negotiated with the invaders and managed to protect the street. When Emperor Guangxu returned to Beijing and saw Liulichang standing safe and almost unharmed, he gave Zhuang Huchen a civil service appointment as a grade-seven official.

The prestigious position gave Zhuang several advantages over the competition.

Zheng Maoda, a specialist in Rongbaozhai's history, says, "He was appointed to keep the roll of Beijing officials, which listed their names and personal information. It was an important document, a sort of 'Who's Who in Beijing Government.'"

Zhuang's position was the envy of other shop owners, who were not permitted to enter the Forbidden City or to wear the ceremonial robes of office.

He made sure he kept the information in the roll updated and accurate, and the workmanship on the printed document was exquisite. Zhuang's "Roll of Officialdom" soon became a bestseller among bureaucrats and courtiers new to Beijing.

As Zhuang Huchen grew old, he had the pleasure of watching Rongbaozhai develop into one of the most prosperous stores on Liulichang Street.

In 1922, a decade after the founding of the Republic of China , a new manager took over the helm of Rongbaozhai. Wang Renshan had grown up in the shop, serving his apprenticeship there and moving rapidly up the ladder of promotion, eventually to deftly steer Rongbaozhai through the rough waters of the young republic.

Since the Qing Dynasty, most of Beijing's painting and calligraphy shops had been concentrated along Liulichang. Artists hoping to sell their works were eager to have them hanging on Rongbaozhai's walls, knowing that the store's reputation would mean almost certain sales.

When he first arrived in Beijing, Qi Baishi -- eventually to become one of modern China's most famous artists -- could hardly give his paintings away. Because of their guileless simplicity, and because of Qi's humble beginnings as a carpenter, at best, Beijingers ignored him, or at worst, they laughed at him.

But when Wang Renshan saw his paintings, his sharp eye spotted the talent that the others had missed. He accepted all of Qi's works and hung them in the most conspicuous spots in the shop. Gradually, Qi Baishi gained fame, and in the process he forged an indestructible bond with Rongbaozhai.

In 1927, Nanjing became the seat of China's government and the nation's economic center gradually moved south as well. The name of Beijing -- "Northern Capital" -- was changed to Beiping -- "Northern Peace."

The astute Wang Renshan, seeing that the wealthy and powerful had moved south, was quick to open branches of Rongbaozhai in Nanjing and Shanghai .

Wang Renshan and the shop prospered for a time, but the situation took a drastic turn for the worse. Beiping was occupied in August 1937 by the Japanese, and Shanghai fell in November. The Nanjing branch of Rongbaozhai, where most of the stock was kept, seemed to have escaped harm for a while. But in December 1937, the Nanjing Massacre began. The Nanjing branch of the shop was ransacked.

Once again, as it had been in its days as Songzhuzhai, the shop was heavily in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy. But after the founding of the People's Republic of China , and with the avid support of many artists and other cultural experts, Rongbaozhai was reorganized. In 1950, it became a public-private joint ownership company.

The 27-year-old Hou Kai, a former military officer, became the new manager of Rongbaozhai.

At the CPC's Eighth Party Congress in 1956, Chairman Mao Zedong set out a new policy: "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." Collecting art, far from being considered a bourgeois tendency, was encouraged. Rongbaozhai thrived once again, not only as a gallery of excellent art but also as a gathering place for famous painters and calligraphers.

Rongbaozhai was finally back on the right track.

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