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Remembering Wen Fong, pioneer in Chinese art

Professor of Art History Emeritus Wen Fong, one of the world’s most renowned scholars in Chinese art history, left an indelible legacy both within the University and beyond. He died of leukemia on Oct. 3, at the age of 88.

Many of Fong’s former students and colleagues professed that it is difficult to overstate the impact Fong left in his field. During his time as a professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology from 1954 to 1999, and as department chair from 1970 to 1973, Wong helped establish the nation’s first Ph.D. program in Chinese art, personally advising more than 30 doctoral candidates.

“When he began, there may have been only two or three Ph.D.s in the field,” said art history professor Jerome Silbergeld, one of Fong’s mentees.

Today, graduates of the program and their students account for almost three-quarters of the country’s faculty in East Asian art, according to the Department of Art and Archaeology website.

Moreover, while faculty curator of Asian art at the University Art Museum, Fong assembled one of the greatest collections of Chinese calligraphy outside of China itself, and helped build the museum’s Asian art collection into one of the most comprehensive in any university in the world.

Fong’s contributions, however, extend further than the University.

A prolific writer, Fong published numerous dissertations concerning the evolution and practice of Chinese art, and his papers are still widely cited among scholars today.

Additionally, as the first consultative chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum — a position he held from 1971 to 2000 alongside his professorship — he was credited with resurrecting the museum’s collection when “most people thought it was too late,” according to Silbergeld.

Under Fong’s leadership, the museum’s department grew from a single permanent gallery to over 50. He even oversaw the construction of the Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Met, one of the museum’s most visited and beloved attractions.

“Underlying all of his work was the conviction that Chinese art was at once unique and universal and that, with the right words of explanation, it could be made accessible to us all,” wrote Fong’s former student Maxwell Hearn GS ’90 in an email to The Daily Princetonian.

Hearn now serves as the Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Met.

Teaching at the University while simultaneously consulting at the Met provided Fong’s students with numerous opportunities to view masterpieces of Chinese art hands-on.

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“He would come in with a brown paper shopping bag, and inside would be a painting that we’d never seen before,” said art history professor Andrew Watsky. “A year later, it would be on display at the Met.”

Watsky is now the director of the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art, a position he took over from Silbergeld.

The Tang Center, which began in 2001, seeks to continue Fong’s vision by supporting scholarship in the field of East Asian Art through lectures, publications, museum exhibitions, and more.

In many ways, the Tang Center “institutionalized something [Fong] had been doing for decades,” said Dora Ching, a former student of Fong and associate director of the Tang Center.

Inside the classroom, Fong — standing at over six feet tall — was an imposing, yet animated presence. Ching and Watsky remember lectures that would extend hours after they were scheduled to end. Classes that began at 2 p.m. could easily continue until dinnertime, sometimes later.

“If we weren’t done, we’d go out for dinner, and then come back,” Watsky remembers.

Student said the knowledge Wong imparted upon them during those long lectures may have ultimately been the most consequential part of his expansive legacy.

Students said they will always remember his piece of advice: “The object is always right; we simply have to hear what it is telling us.”

Ching recalled that Fong would tell his students to dismiss preconceived notions about the object. She said that sometimes, she would have to stare at a single work for hours on end to decrypt its meaning.

“He really trained all of his students to relate to objects as unique individuals,” Silbergeld said.

This pedagogical tool influenced the way in which Fong’s mentees would teach their own students for years to come — though Fong would be the first to admit that there was no single correct way to understand art.

“I can only teach you how I look at art,” Ching remembered Fong saying. “I hope you find your own way.”

The Department of Art and Archaeology will hold a memorial service in the University Chapel at 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 13.