WANG SHIXIANG, China's leading authority on Ming dynasty furniture, threads his way through the overflowing clutter in the living room of his Beijing home. Piles of books and papers teeter on writing desks, stools, tables and chairs. In a corner, a microwave perches on top of a traditional, multi-drawered medicine cabinet. A day bed is prominent on one side of the room. It's a scholarly, yet homely place. Wang clears a space and apologises for the mess. In a kitchen off the main room, his son chops food. Wang is also a skilled amateur cook, and during our conversation takes a call from someone whom he compliments on the quality of his cabbage. 'Much better cabbage than most,' he says. The combination of the esoteric and the mundane characterises Wang's interests and lifetime of study. Exemplifying this, the 89-year-old was recently awarded the Prince Claus Fund Principal Award by Prince Johan Friso of the Netherlands, in recognition of his decades of scholarship in the diverse arenas of classical furniture, lacquerware, pigeon-breeding, pigeon whistles, gourd-making, art and music. Wang started collecting Ming dynasty furniture in 1945, and it is for his work in reviving the connoisseurship of traditional furniture after the Cultural Revolution that he is most famous. Two key books established his international reputation in the field: Classic Chinese Furniture and the second volume, Connoisseurship Of Chinese Furniture, Ming And Early Qing Dynasties. Today, top quality Ming furniture commands high prices at auction and is collected by museums worldwide. But after the end of the second world war in 1945, when Wang began collecting, it was cheap, valued mostly for its wood and often taken apart and used for other things. Wang donated his 79-piece collection to the Shanghai Museum in 1993. As his 10th decade approaches, Wang wants to get his personal affairs in order. His collection of 143 artifacts - ranging from a Buddhist copper statue from the Liao dynasty (960-1125) to Qing calligraphy - was auctioned last month at China Guardian Auctions in Beijing, and fetched an astonishing 63 million yuan (HK$60 million). About 800 people attended and prices raced past expectations. 'We auctioned the artifacts in the hope that those who pay the money will be more careful about guarding and preserving the valuable relics,' Wang told the China Daily newspaper. Wang will be donating his HK$900,000 Prince Claus prize money to develop a Sino-Dutch friendship school in Wuyi Shan, Fujian province. Similarly, he plans to donate the money from the sale of 'Cherished Treasures of the Twin Pine Studio' - as he called his personal collection - to Chinese educational charity Project Hope, which helps children from poor families attend school. 'The value of human life is not what you possess, but what you observe, enjoy and then what you discover, study and elevate into knowledge so as to help further cultural development,' Wang told the China Daily. Born in Beijing in 1914, Wang came from a family of scholars and Qing dynasty officials. His father, Wang Jizeng, was a diplomat who served abroad. His mother, Ji Zhang, was a famous painter. Wang attended the American School in Beijing, and received both a western and Chinese education. 'When I was young I used to go out and wrestle with the former wrestlers from the Qing dynasty court,' he says in nearly flawless English. 'They were almost 70 by then. They also taught me how to train dogs, to catch badgers, and how to have falcons. I played all the time. Actually, I wasted a lot of time.' Few would agree. The years Wang spent in traditional Chinese leisure pursuits formed a rich basis for his later, eclectic interests. But if Wang spent a lot of time raising dogs, keeping falcons and playing with singing and fighting crickets, his favourite pastime was keeping pigeons. Not the blue-grey, ubiquitous city pigeon, but varied, traditional breeds that still exist in China's countryside but have disappeared from the cities. They are beautiful birds, lovingly recorded by artists in paintings held in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Later, Wang would write a book about them, illustrated by those paintings. Wang attended Yenching (now Beijing) University, graduating in 1938 with a BA in Chinese literature. A year after the 1937 Japanese invasion, he enrolled in Yenching's graduate studies programme. In 1939, Wang's mother died. It was a turning point in the 25-year-old's life and he resolved to stop 'playing around', as he says, and begin serious scholarship. In 1943, he finished his thesis. Two years later, he married Yuan Quanyou, and they remained married for 58 years, until her death from cancer in October. Beijing in 1943, under Japanese occupation, was a difficult time to find work. Like many, Wang headed south to the free zones. The journey took him to a small village in Sichuan where he joined the relocated Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture under renowned scholar Liang Sicheng, who later fought - in vain - to save Beijing's ancient city walls. Wang returned to Beijing in 1945 and joined the Palace Museum, retrieving cultural treasures that had been stolen or sold to the Japanese and Germans. In 1948, he travelled to the US on a one-year Rockefeller scholarship. But Wang's background made him a marked man under the communists. An intellectual with family ties to the Qing dynasty and a returned overseas student, he regularly ran into trouble after the 1949 Cultural Revolution. In 1953, he was expelled from the Palace Museum. In 1957, he was branded a rightist. Twenty-one years of persecution followed. 'I hate to tell stories about it,' he says. 'But I have victory. The Cultural Revolution, everything is over. I'm very proud of myself.' Since the early 1980s, Wang has published prodigiously, his oeuvre now totalling about 20 books. Two more are due out before the end of the year: one a reprint, with a preface, of a book by Ming dynasty lacquer expert Huang Chen, called Lacquer Decoration. The original is in Tokyo. Wang's edition will include a photocopy of the original plus a mid-20th century, wood-block version, made by a former teacher of Wang's. Of the 200 original wood-block copies printed, 199 were sent to Shanghai shortly before the Japanese invasion, and disappeared, probably in a fire. Wang has the 200th. 'It's the most important book on Chinese lacquer,' Wang says. 'Even for France. Chinoiserie, you know,' he says, referring to a version of traditional Chinese aesthetic popular in Europe during the late 17th century. Wang relishes his publishing freedom today. 'Back then, you could kowtow to people and they still wouldn't publish you. And then you had to write a self-criticism. Now they're practically forcing me to publish.' Wang is deeply concerned about the loss of cultural knowledge in China today, a development he believes is hastened by post-1949 changes to written Chinese, when the new communist government 'simplified' the written language, partly because they thought it would improve literacy but also because it signified a useful break with the past. Wang holds that one day China will revert to the old-style, 'complicated' characters. 'I think it was a big mistake to change from fanti to jianti because nobody can read the old books now,' he says. 'It was a terrible mistake by old Mao. I think some day we will change back.'