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Wan-go Weng, who gave his family’s centuries-old Chinese art collection to the MFA, dies at 102

Wan-go H.C. Weng.
Wan-go H.C. Weng.Nancy Berliner/Museum of Fine Arts Boston/2018

Wan-go H.C. Weng was a poet and a historian, a filmmaker and an artist. He also was, quite significantly, a descendant.

The sixth generation of his family to steward and add to a monumental collection of classical Chinese art, Mr. Weng moved the paintings and calligraphy out of China, his homeland, more than 70 years ago, months before the Communist revolution.

Caring for the collection for nearly his entire life, he believed, was his duty and his role.

“There is such a thing as a heritage from generation to generation,” he told Foster’s Daily Democrat in 2007. “Not only to pass on the painting and calligraphy, but also the study of it, the enjoyment of it, and even become a practitioner of it. I am a link and that’s my life.”

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Mr. Weng, who donated his family’s collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2018, died Dec. 9 in his Lyme, N.H., home of congestive heart failure. He was 102 and had outlived even his own projections as he finished multiple projects.

“I didn’t know I was going to live this long,” he told the Globe in 2007. “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.”

The family collection he gave to the MFA was the largest donation of Chinese paintings and calligraphy in the institution’s history, 183 works in all.

“For us, it was a moment of celebration,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the MFA. “It is a truly extraordinary collection of works.”

Mr. Weng’s daughter, Ssu, said the MFA “was the first museum to have an exhibit emphasizing the importance of father’s collection as a family collection, and his role in preserving and doing research on it.”

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She added that her father and the family “are honored that the MFA is the final home” of the paintings and calligraphy.

Teitelbaum and Nancy Berliner, the MFA’s senior curator of Chinese art, stressed that Mr. Weng gave the MFA more than simply an outstanding collection of works that complemented the museum’s already substantial holdings in Chinese art.

“Wan-go carried in him a joy of life and a wonderful sense of humor and a deep, deep ingrained sense of generosity, and a passion for art and painting,” Berliner said.

An artist himself, and a scholar of the artists who created works in his collection, Mr. Weng offered impromptu lessons every time he sat to look at a painting.

“He would talk about the beauty of the brush strokes and the variety of the brush strokes,” Berliner said. “He knew these artists so thoroughly and yet he continued to get utter pleasure, deep, deep pleasure, looking at the art. You could see it in his eyes and his smile.”

Mr. Weng was equally engaged in meetings about his collection, parts of which the MFA exhibited before he donated them.

“He was funny, he was direct, he was ideas-centered. He was into things very quickly when we sat down,” Teitelbaum said.

“He was the custodian of his family’s collection and he took that responsibility very seriously,” Teitelbaum added. “He was not just somebody who held on and put his arms around the collection. He also brought it to life. He brought it to life through scholarship, through documentation, and through sharing.”

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Born in Shanghai on July 28, 1918, Mr. Weng was the third of seven siblings.

At 16 months old, “he was ‘borrowed’ by a childless uncle” who needed an heir, Anita Christy recounted in a lengthy 2007 profile in Orientations magazine.

He soon was adopted by that uncle and aunt, under the condition that Mr. Weng continued to live in the house of his biological parents.

The uncle died in 1920, leaving Mr. Weng, a toddler at the time, two-thirds of an ancestral home, along with the massive collection of paintings and calligraphy that had belonged to his adoptive ancestor Weng Tonghe, a scholar who had been a tutor to two Chinese emperors.

Mr. Weng told Christy that his uncle had chosen him to be his heir “because he thought I was smart. How he knew that, I don’t know. But I was lucky.

At 18, Mr. Weng began studying at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, but his parents sent him to the United States to complete his college studies after Japan attacked China in 1937.

Though he graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in electrical engineering, the field held little interest.

Taking the advice of China’s ambassador to the United States, Mr. Weng switched from working in engineering to making documentary and educational films.

During World War II, he also was part of a unit run by famed film director Frank Capra that produced films to be shown to the US military.

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While working as a consultant with the US State Department’s cultural relations division in Washington, D.C., during the war, Mr. Weng met Virginia Dzung, a Bryn Mawr College graduate.

They worked together on a history of Chinese students in the United States, fell in love, and married in 1944.

Mr. Weng and his wife, who died in 2003, were lifelong collaborators.

“She helped him with everything, including research on his writing,” said their son, Hugo. “They were a team.”

While visiting China in 1948, the Wengs packed the art collection on a ship that arrived in New York City three months later.

Mr. Weng, who became a US citizen in 1955, worked with his wife translating and adding Chinese subtitles for films made in English, among them “Casablanca,” “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Mr. Weng also continued making documentary, educational, and industrial films.

The couple moved in 1977 to Lyme, N.H., where they lived in a house Mr. Weng designed. They returned to visit relatives and friends in China — for the first time in three decades — after the United States established diplomatic relations with the country in 1979.

Having previously coauthored “China: A History in Art,” Mr. Weng turned to writing and scholarship full time in Lyme. He also served as president of the China Institute in the United States from 1982 to 1986.

His book “Chen Hongshou: His Life & Art” was awarded a national book prize in China, and he received an honorary doctorate from Purdue. He also self-published a book of his poetry in Chinese, printing copies that he gave to friends.

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Though Mr. Weng slowed physically with age, “he was very present,” Teitelbaum recalled. “He told me that his body wasn’t good, but his mind was very good. And he was right.”

In addition to his daughter and son, Mr. Weng leaves a brother in China; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

The family will hold a private service.

“I just feel like he has left us such a legacy,” Berliner said.

Along with the paintings and calligraphy, “he left a legacy of how to be a human being,” she added. “He had such a spirit of generosity. Not just with the collection, but with the way he gave of himself, whether it was in a conversation or the way he respected other people.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.