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Wan-go Weng
Wan-go Weng, the 89-year-old owner of a legendary collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy, at his New Hampshire home.

A history, saved

Thanks to an aging collector and a young curator, Chinese treasures reach the MFA

You know who knows how to mix a martini? I.M. Pei." Wan-go Weng says this as he prepares the drink in his kitchen. "His dry martinis are as good as his architecture."

Weng is nearly 89 now, his once oil-black hair still thick, though threaded with white strands. He's preparing one of his regular late-afternoon treats for a younger man he introduced to martinis. Then they sit at the table and do what's natural. They talk about what they have in common. That they were both teenagers when they left Shanghai. That they remain devoted to Chinese art. And that they're forever linked by the Museum of Fine Arts' new exhibit "Through Six Generations: The Weng Collection of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy."

It is the first show organized by Hao Sheng, 34, assistant curator of Chinese art at the MFA. It is also the most extensive exhibition ever featuring Weng's collection of scrolls, calligraphy, paintings, journals, and assorted objects. The works, created over hundreds of years, were primarily collected by Weng's great-great-grandfather, Weng Tonghe, a 19th-century Chinese government official who also tutored two emperors. The collection remained in China until 1948, when Weng, then just 30, shipped it to the United States only months before the founding of the People's Republic of China. He feared the political unrest leading to the rise of communism would place the works in jeopardy.

Now a filmmaker, poet, historian, and artist, Weng has welcomed a steady stream of collectors and historians to his rural New Hampshire home over the years to see parts of the collection. (The MFA requested that the town where Weng lives not be revealed to safeguard his privacy.) He's also sold and given pieces to major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Harvard University Art Museums.

But at the MFA, several objects will be on display to the public for the first time, including the 53-foot, 300-year-old scroll "Ten Thousand Li Up the Yangtze." For the collector, the exhibition marks an important step in his 50-year relationship with the MFA. He's known virtually every curator of Chinese art at the museum, often stopping by to research materials for the books and documentary films he's made. Yet the collector has never placed anything in the MFA's permanent collection. The trouble, he says, is that the museum has been too passive.

"Boston," he says, "was for a long time like a sleeping giant. Just inactive."

That, Weng says, has changed. Then he looks over at Sheng, seated across from him.

Building connections
Weng doesn't remember the first time they met. But Sheng does. It was 1999, and he was a student at Harvard working in storage at the university's art museums. Sheng heard a familiar dialect in the room. It reminded him of his grandparents, who remained in China.

On that day, Weng was in Cambridge to look at objects in his collection, some of which he stored at Harvard. The next interaction came in 2000 when Sheng's class made the drive north to visit Weng. Then in 2004, when Sheng was interviewing for the MFA post, the aspiring art historian suggested that the MFA needed to build more connections to local collectors. He mentioned Weng in particular.

"I always wondered, 'Why didn't we have his show earlier? ' " says Sheng. "It's such an obvious thing to do."

A month after getting the job, Sheng drove with Joe Earle, chairman of the MFA's department of art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa, up to see Weng. Then they went again. This time, the young curator suggested an exhibition. Weng said yes.

"It was so easy and unexpected," remembers Sheng. "I thought maybe it was so easy he might retract."

But Weng never had second thoughts. He had long known of the significance of the MFA's collection of Asian art, and through visits and chats with mutual friends who had worked with Sheng, he had developed a liking for the curator.

"Number one, he's a young man," Weng explains. "Younger people have much more energy and vision to explore. Then we have a similar background."

By that, he means that they both left China to attend college, and after an initial focus on science, each decided to pursue a career in the arts. Weng left in the late '30s to earn a degree in electrical engineering at Purdue University. But he abandoned engineering to become an artist and a translator for Hollywood studios. (Among the movies he and his late wife, Virginia, translated into Chinese: "Casablanca.") Weng returned to China in the '40s but left the country in 1948 and was unable to return for three decades, until China resumed a diplomatic relationship with the United States.

Between 1982 and 1986, Weng served as president of the China Institute, a nonprofit created to promote Chinese culture in the United States. He has written or edited more than a dozen books, ranging from volumes of his own poetry to Weng Tonghe's letters to a hardcover three-volume set about the 17th-century painter Chen Hongshou, whose work is in Weng's collection and the MFA exhibit. The book won the National Book Prize in China in 1998.

Sheng pursued a physics degree at the College of Wooster in Ohio, but then shifted his focus to art history and crafting ceramics; he considered becoming a potter at one time.

When Tom Wu announced he was retiring after three decades as curator of Asiatic Art at the MFA, Yukio Lippit, one of Sheng's professors at Harvard, told him he needed to pursue the position.

"It won't open up for another 30 years," he told Sheng.

Home is where the art is
Weng's house is about a 2 1/2-hour drive north from Boston. He and his wife moved to the 22 acres of woods and rambling hills in 1978 after nearly 40 years in New York City. Weng designed the house, with its high, sloped living room ceiling and a series of sliding screens that serve as shades and doors.

Downstairs, he does his writing. There are separate desks and computers for each current book project: Memoirs, art history, and studies of his collection. And there are library stacks for the approximately 30,000 books he owns. (Back in 2000, Weng sold the family's rare book collection to the Chinese government for $4.5 million.)

Weng remains strong, the only sign of age his need for an occasional nap and a desire to sit on a firm chair, not the couch, because his muscles stiffen from sinking into the cushions. Sipping a cold cup of green tea, Weng shows off a book he has visitors sign.

The names in the book include Robert Mowry, Chinese art curator at the Harvard University Art Museums, MFA trustee and committee member Susan Kaplan, and Nancy Berliner, the Chinese art curator at the Peabody Essex Museum.

The first entry, dated April 16, 1978, is from then Cleveland Museum of Art director Sherman Lee.

"What a wonderful honor and great pleasure to be one of the first guests at your 'square retreat in the round hills' -- feasts for eyes, taste and spirit," it reads.

Two years after that visit, Lee and the museum bought a scroll from Weng.

Sheng says the MFA exhibition is a way to show Weng the museum is serious about studying his works. Obviously, he says, the MFA would welcome the pieces into its holdings. "He's definitely aware of our wishes, and it will be up to him," Sheng says.

When asked about his plans for the MFA, Weng says his attitude toward his collection has changed. He still wants to make sure the works end up in a museum, but he's not eager to sell or give away anything right now. He's more interested in his plan to publish an illustrated catalog of his collection.

"I didn't know I was going to live this long," Weng says. "Now, I'm nearly 90, and I've got a longer plan. I'm very confident I can hold on for a few more years."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more on the arts go to boston.com/ae/ theater_arts/ exhibitionist.

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