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We Are Like Vapours: Pacifying the South China Sea

03 Mar 2013 - 18 Aug 2013

The Pacifying the South China Sea scroll, painted by an anonymous Qing painter almost two hundred years ago is considered one of the jewels of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. And in many ways it is also one of Hong Kong’s most important tangible cultural heritage artefacts. Painted in twenty different scenes with minute detail, the scroll chronicles the story of how piracy was supressed in the early nineteenth century by the forces of the Jiaqing Emperor. 

The year was 1809. The three sea trade passages of Guangdong were under the control of a ruthless band of pirates. Coastal villages were being held ransom by an overwhelming force of outlaws. The Jiaqing Emperor appointed Bailing Governor General to Pacify the South China Sea by annihilation or appeasement. Painted years after these events, this scroll depicts the events of the day and shines a light on how this awesome task was accomplished.

A Chinese scroll is a storybook. And it is the very nature of the narrative intent of the artist that makes it such a wonderful object for a museum to take complex topics like piracy, trade, appeasement, symbolism and force and place them in a time and place context for the public to appreciate.

We Are Like Vapours

One of the principal figures in the story of piracy of the early nineteenth century was Zhang Bao. The nineteenth century historian Yuan Yunglun of Shunde tells us that Bao was the son of a fisherman. He was probably adducted as a youth and indoctrinated into a pirate band. He was later handpicked to become to be the chieftain of the pirate squadrons that controlled the South China Sea passages. Prior to Bailing’s arrival, Bao was involved in a clash with the government navy. During the engagement Bao had a near death experience. Subsequently one of his men would kill Lin Kwo Lang, commander of the Humen forts in cold blood.

Yuan attributes an intriguing quote to Bao concerning this murder, “We…are like vapours dispersed by the wind; we are like the waves of the sea, roused by a whirlwind; like broken bamboo sticks on the sea, we are floating and sinking alternately, without enjoying any rest. Our success in this fierce battle will, after a short while, bring the united strength of government on our neck.”

Perhaps this was a turning point in Bao’s thinking? He foresaw the eventual destruction of the pirate bands and thus he began mentally making his escape. Bao would eventually surrender himself to Baliling and become an officer in the government navy. He would help to destroy the pirate bands that he once led. It is interesting to speculate if Bao was sorry for Lin’s murder or if he was sorry that he would be blamed.

Digital Presentation

We are like vapours is a digital presentation that is based on the original Qing scroll. It uses Bao’s concept of vapours as the main story’s catalyst. The exhibition uses a series of vapours that have been digitally superposed over the original scroll. As the vapours are dispersed they reveal each of the twenty scenes of the scroll. And within each scene select portions are brought to life with animation. The animations help to bring greater meaning to the precise details that the artist. All of the animations are based on the original artwork, no additional characters or flourishes have been added.

The vapours are a powerful symbol in the presentation. They obscure the scenes from the viewer and only gradually reveal the key scenes. The vapours are a window in which we today look back into the events of the day. Bao’s fear was his actions in life would forever doom himself to a perpetual state of unrest. Today we are still witnesses to these events and pay homage to the events that help shape the South China Sea into the vibrant trading centre it is today.

The AVIE system in which the exhibition is seen provides an immersive experience. It is a modern day system that continues the tradition of showing art in the round. Surrounded on all sides by the action, participants will follow the story as the scroll unrolls to reveal more sections. Light, sound and images are combined to make a holistic experience.

Building the Digital Exhibition

The Hong Kong Maritime Museum created this exhibition in partnership with City University of Hong Kong. City University has a worldwide reputation as a force in the museum community combining culture and 21st century technologies to create energetic exhibitions. 

The Hong Kong Maritime Museum gratefully acknowledges Oak Maritime (HK) Inc., Ltd. for their support of this exhibition.