Cut into seven pieces on the orders of its French owner, the fragments were bought by two collectors at auctions since 2010 and have been reassembled.


A mutilated, painted Chinese scroll from the 17th century will be shown in full in Hong Kong for the first time next month, bringing to life a depiction of one of the most fabled surveys of the country undertaken by a Chinese ruler.


The scroll had been cut into seven pieces in the 20th century in France.
Experts think that a French general probably took it from the Forbidden City in 1900, when Beijing was invaded by the Eight-Nation Alliance of troops from Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy and Austria-Hungary.


In 1689, Emperor Kangxi commissioned artist Wang Hui to record his inspection tours of the Jiangnan area in eastern China. The region, in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, was referred to as “The South” in relation to the palace in Beijing and the land of Kangxi’s ancestors, Manchuria.


The emperor made numerous visits to the area, and the paintings were part of a major propaganda effort to convince the country’s majority Han population to accept the Manchurian invaders as benign rulers who respected traditional Chinese culture. Later, the phrase “Southern inspection tour” was also used to describe tours by Emperor Qianlong and modern leaders Deng Xiaoping and .


Scroll number six traces the emperor and his entourage’s movement through the area near modern-day Nanjing and Wuxi. Though certainly part fantasy, part history (each section was checked personally by the emperor to make sure it suited his image), the detailed illustrations of the group crossing the river, making their way through low-lying plains and the fanfare that awaited their arrival in a major city offer a fascinating glimpse into the landscape and society of that part of China more than three centuries ago.


The fragments were later sold in auctions from 2010 to 2016. Lin Xiao, a Hong Kong collector and co-founder of the Jinmotang Calligraphy Research Foundation, bought six pieces.


In 2016, he lost the seventh fragment to another bidder in Hong Kong, who paid US$9.5 million for it when it was sold by Sotheby’s in New York.


“All seven fragments have been here in Hong Kong. Mr Lin showed the six fragments that he owns at Long Museum in Shanghai in 2015, but the seven pieces have never been shown in public together until now,” Chow says.


Hong Kong has long been a major centre for the buying and selling of Chinese national treasures, with much of it taking place in the antique shops on Hollywood Road, Hong Kong Island, in the early days. The city’s tax-free status, its popularity as a second home for mainland Chinese collectors and its US dollar-lixed currency have turned it into the world’s third largest art market (with a lot of sales made through auctions) in the last 15 years.


The reassembled scroll will be displayed, fully-opened, in Hall 1 of the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre in Wan Chai during Sotheby’s autumn auctions from October 3-8, 2020. It is not for sale.