Christo­pher Allen and the art of Em­peror Qian­long at the NGV


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

A Golden Age of China: Qian­long Em­peror, 1736-95 Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne, un­til June 21.

This ex­hi­bi­tion deals with a pe­riod late in China’s long his­tory, many cen­turies af­ter the great ages of the Tang (618-907) and Sung (960-1279) dy­nas­ties. In the 13th cen­tury, the Mon­go­lian Kublai Khan, grand­son of Genghis Khan, es­tab­lished the Yuan dy­nasty, but Han Chi­nese rule was re­stored with the Ming dy­nasty in 1368. Af­ter the decline of Ming power in the early 17th cen­tury, and tak­ing ad­van­tage of peas­ant re­volts in the south, the Manchu in­vaded from the north and es­tab­lished the Qing dy­nasty, which en­dured un­til 1912.

Even more strik­ingly than the Mon­gols, the Manchu il­lus­trate a prin­ci­ple that we can also see in the Tur­kic in­va­sions of Per­sia, the Ara­bic in­va­sion of large parts of the Eastern Ro­man Em­pire and of Per­sia, and the Ger­manic in­va­sions of the West­ern Ro­man Em­pire: that when bar­bar­ians con­quer a civilised peo­ple, they are in turn, sooner or later, trans­formed by the su­pe­rior cul­ture they en­counter.

In the case of the Manchu, the as­sim­i­la­tion ap­pears to have been more rapid and deeper than that of the Mon­gols, who never seem to have learned to write Chi­nese. The Manchu also were for­tu­nate to pro­duce com­pe­tent and long-lived rulers such as the sub­ject of the present ex­hi­bi­tion, who took the reign name Qian­long and who lived to 89, and his grand­fa­ther, Kangxi, whose even longer reign, from 1661 to 1722, was al­most con­tem­po­rary with that of Louis XIV in France.

One pos­i­tive con­se­quence of the Manchu’s for­eign ori­gins was no doubt their greater open­ness to di­verse cul­tural in­flu­ences and a broadly tol­er­ant pol­icy to­wards dif­fer­ent re­li­gions, in con­trast to the Ming, who tended to pro­mote the na­tive Chi­nese tra­di­tions of Tao­ism and Con­fu­cian­ism, and to dis­cour­age if not per­se­cute Bud­dhists. Chris­tians were par­tic­u­lar ben­e­fi­cia­ries, and of th­ese the Je­suits were the most suc­cess­ful.

Ear­lier mis­sion­ar­ies looked and be­haved like for­eign­ers and used trans­la­tors when they preached. The Je­suits adopted Chi­nese dress and cus­toms and, most im­por­tant, mas­tered the lan­guage, pro­duc­ing in the process the first gram­mars and dic­tio­nar­ies of Chi­nese in Europe. They were also tol­er­ant of lo­cal cul­tural prac­tices and tra­di­tions, which led to com­plaints by their ri­vals that they were com­pro­mis­ing with pa­gan­ism.

One Je­suit — a lay brother rather than a priest — is par­tic­u­larly prom­i­nent in this ex­hi­bi­tion: Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), also known by his Chi­nese name Lang Shin­ing. He ar­rived in China in 1714 and spent the rest of his life there, de­vel­op­ing a unique fu­sion be­tween a mod­i­fied Euro­pean style — bright, flat and with­out chiaroscuro — es­pe­cially for fig­ures, horses and build­ings, and a tra­di­tional Chi­nese man­ner for land­scape, rocks and plants.

Castiglione be­came the pre-em­i­nent court artist of Qian­long’s reign and in­flu­enced many lo­cal pain­ters, and it is his im­age of the em­peror in a full-scale eques­trian por­trait that greets the vis­i­tor at the open­ing of the ex­hi­bi­tion. The fig­ure is ma­jes­tic and ex­e­cuted in in­cred­i­ble de­tail and an al­most hy­per-real level of fin­ish — seem­ingly record­ing ev­ery stitch of the elab­o­rate bro­caded cos­tume with its five-clawed im­pe­rial dragons — yet oddly soft, flat and dis­em­bod­ied com­pared with the way the same sort of sub­ject would be treated in oil paint and in Europe.

All around and in the fol­low­ing rooms are paint­ings by the same artist: seated por­traits of the em­peror and a high-rank­ing con­cu­bine who be­came the mother of his suc­ces­sor, and views of Qian­long en­gaged in elab­o­rate court cer­e­monies or re­turn­ing with an in­nu­mer­able train of fol­low­ers from a deer hunt in the moun­tains.

In the early rooms, the artis­tic per­son­al­ity of Castiglione is al­most as strik­ing as the im­age of the em­peror, for all the grandeur and the metic­u­lous de­tail of the paint­ings he ex­e­cuted in com­mem­o­ra­tion of his pa­tron. But as we go on we re­alise that the ex­hi­bi­tion has been de­signed with con­sid­er­able skill as a por­trait of the ruler that leads us pro­gres­sively from the ex­te­rior vis­i­ble to most of those who would have had the op­por­tu­nity to see him in life, to­wards the more pri­vate in­di­vid­ual known to far fewer of his con­tem­po­raries.

Thus the early rooms em­pha­sise his cer­e­mo­nial im­age, wear­ing the sump­tu­ous but stiff court cos­tume that com­bined tra­di­tional Chi­nese de­sign with cer­tain fea­tures, such as the form of the sleeves or the for­mal head­dresses, that al­luded to a specif­i­cally Manchu iden­tity. They show him en­gaged in the of­fi­cial public ac­tiv­i­ties of the monarch, which were even more

com­pli­cated and the­atri­cally staged than those of Louis XIV at Ver­sailles.

A later room deals with the ques­tion of reli­gion and takes us, for the first time, past the of­fi­cial im­age and closer to the man him­self. The orig­i­nal reli­gion of the Manchu was shaman­ism and they had es­tab­lished shaman­is­tic rit­u­als, no doubt to the dis­gust of Chi­nese tra­di­tion­al­ists, as part of the rou­tine of the court. But, as al­ready men­tioned, they were tol­er­ant of wide va­ri­ety of re­li­gions that were prac­tised within the em­pire.

Qian­long him­self was drawn to Bud­dhism, par­tic­u­larly to Ti­betan Bud­dhism. His per­sonal guru and spir­i­tual ad­viser be­longed to the same tra­di­tion to­day rep­re­sented by the Dalai Lama. There are sev­eral fine works — sculp­tures and a beau­ti­ful jade bowl in­scribed with a su­tra in gold char­ac­ters — that al­lude to this tra­di­tion, but most re­veal­ing are two por­traits of the em­peror in the guise of im­por­tant Bud­dhist fig­ures.

In one he ap­pears as Vi­malakirti, who was a con­tem­po­rary and early sup­porter of Gau­tama Bud­dha. In this paint­ing he sits in con­ver­sa­tion with Man­jushri, Bod­hisattva of wis­dom. In a sec­ond, even more strik­ing work, ex­e­cuted in the flat and stylised Ti­betan man­ner, the em­peror is shown as the Bod­hisattva him­self, sur­rounded by lo­tuses and with his guru rep­re­sented in a roundel above his head.

The last room in­tro­duces us to the most in­ti­mate level of this com­plex por­trait. Here we dis­cover the ruler as col­lec­tor and con­nois­seur but also as painter and poet, as­sum­ing and em­body­ing the Chi­nese ideal of the scholar-artist. In­stead of the for­mal and elab­o­rately em­broi­dered cer­e­mo­nial cos­tume of Castiglione’s of­fi­cial por­traits, we find him dressed in the loose clothes of the Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tual.

Noth­ing fur­ther from the of­fi­cial pomp of the court can be imag­ined than a moun­tain­ous land­scape in which the monarch is seen sit­ting on a rock in the mid­dle of a clear­ing, ac­com­pa­nied only by a boy who pre­pares tea over a char­coal bra­zier: a scene familiar from older paint­ings of sim­i­lar sub­jects and from Chi­nese writ­ings that cat­a­logue the best ways to en­joy nat­u­ral sites, mu­sic or po­etry. His gen­uine love of art is clear from a paint­ing at­trib­uted to Ming pe­riod mas­ter Ni Zan, rep­re­sent­ing a gar­den that the artist him­self had laid out in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a Bud­dhist ab­bot. When the em­peror was in the south on an of­fi­cial tour and re­alised that the gar­den was still in ex­is­tence, he sent for the scroll so that he could com­pare the paint­ing with the site that had in­spired it.

We know this be­cause he added an in­scrip­tion to the orig­i­nal scroll. He also made a copy of the paint­ing with fur­ther an­no­ta­tions and po­ems. Th­ese and other ex­am­ples of his paint­ing, po­etry and cal­lig­ra­phy demon­strate his com­plete as­sim­i­la­tion of the prac­tices that, within the Chi­nese tra­di­tion, rep­re­sented the most re­fined ex­pres­sions of the civilised mind.

All of this is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing when we know the em­peror also strongly sup­ported Man- chu tra­di­tions and the Manchu lan­guage. He wanted to pro­tect and pre­serve the spe­cific tra­di­tion of his fam­ily and peo­ple, but at the same time he as­pired to per­son­ify the ideals of an un­de­ni­ably more so­phis­ti­cated cul­ture. Per­haps this was even more im­por­tant as the ter­ri­to­rial ex­pan­sion that he and his fore­bears had achieved had turned China into a vast and multi-eth­nic em­pire.

A cou­ple of works re­veal even more sur­pris­ingly pri­vate as­pects of the em­peror’s per­son­al­ity, such as a beau­ti­ful land­scape of 1763 that is copied from an­other Ming pe­riod mas­ter, Xiang Shengmo, rep­re­sent­ing a scholar in his study look­ing out on to a snow-cov­ered land­scape, with the scholar re­painted as a por­trait of Qian­long. In the ac­com­pa­ny­ing in­scrip­tion, he rather touch­ingly ad­mits that be­cause of his in­ex­pe­ri­ence in paint­ing fig­ures, he had asked Castiglione to ex­e­cute the por­trait. The em­peror was about 52 at the time, and his Je­suit friend, who af­ter close to a half-cen­tury living in China must have ab­sorbed the cul­ture al­most as deeply as the monarch, was 75.

Much later and af­ter Castiglione’s death, there is a mys­te­ri­ous dou­ble por­trait of Qian­long that is signed by the em­peror but must be mostly if not en­tirely painted by court artists, be­cause it is in the pre­cise and il­lus­tra­tive style of pro­fes­sional pain­ters rather than the more in­for­mal man­ner of the am­a­teur scholar paint- er, which has al­ways been most highly es­teemed in the Chi­nese tra­di­tion and was prac­tised by Qian­long.

He is seen sit­ting in a study sur­rounded by the an­tiq­ui­ties that he col­lected and an­no­tated in vast num­bers — jades, bronzes, ce­ram­ics, mir­rors — while a boy pours wine into a cup. The por­trait it­self is re­peated in an iden­ti­cal but reversed bust hang­ing on a scroll be­hind him, while the poem in­scribed by the em­peror muses over whether he is one or two peo­ple, a fol­lower of Con­fu­cius or of Mozi, who re­jected the le­gal­ism and fam­ily or clan at­tach­ment im­plicit in the Con­fu­cian tra­di­tion in favour of a more per­sonal sense of in­tegrity and a doc­trine of uni­ver­sal love. He seems to con­clude, per­haps in a Taoist spirit, that such ei­ther-or ques­tions are ir­rel­e­vant.

The most fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­ple of Tao­ism is that the good ruler ex­er­cises his in­flu­ence not by act­ing but most es­sen­tially by be­ing wise and in a state of har­mony. In this spirit, the pur­suit of aes­thetic and spir­i­tual devel­op­ment can be un­der­stood as hav­ing a po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion, even if in re­al­ity we know that some of the min­is­ters to whom the prac­ti­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion of the state was en­trusted were cor­rupt in the later years of the reign.

At any rate, the sin­cer­ity of the em­peror’s pur­suit of per­sonal cul­ti­va­tion is not in doubt. His col­lec­tions were not in­tended to im­press oth­ers, for they be­longed to his pri­vate world, and his prac­tice of paint­ing at­tests to his love of art and his pro­found feel­ing for na­ture. One work in the fi­nal room is a large land­scape that he ex­e­cuted, de­pict­ing a favourite moun­tain retreat. Ev­ery time Qian­long vis­ited this place where he could no doubt imag­ine him­self as a reclu­sive scholar com­muning with na­ture, he would take out his paint­ing and in­scribe a new poem. Af­ter many years and many so­journs, scarcely a spot re­mains un­cov­ered by his cal­li­graphic med­i­ta­tions.

From far left, Qian­long Em­peror in Cer­e­mo­nial Ar­mour on Horse­back

(1839) by Giuseppe Castiglione; Spring’s Peace­ful Mes­sage De­pict­ing Prince Hongli (Fu­ture Qian­long Em­peror) and His Fa­ther Em­peror Yongzheng (c. 1736) by Castiglione; Qian­long Em­peror Ap­prais­ing (1780); Chi­nese em­press’s sleeve­less cer­e­mo­nial sur­coat

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