Getting to know emperors through their stuff
| A small sampling of objects from the Forbidden City, which holds the largest royal collection in the world, is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It speaks volumes about who the last emperors of China really were, reports CHRISTOPHER DAVIS from N
In its day, it was the largest royal palace in the world. Its 178 acres, enclosed by massive walls and a moat, contained980 buildings and courtyards, dwarfedBuckingham Palace’s 40 acres and Versailles’ mere 17. From the time it was completed in the early 15th century until the fall of China’s imperial system in 1911, the Forbidden City — the centerpiece of Beijing — was the home of two lineages of emperors from the Ming through Qing dynasties. It is now the largest museum in the world’s most populous country.
The collection housed within the massive storage capacity is estimated at 1 million pieces — most said to be of very high quality and rarely displayed — and it’s only in the last 10 years that scholars have been allowed in to start doing research andunearth the vast quantity of extraordinary treasures.
The more objects that are shown to the world, two things become obvious: the emperors were collectors with plenty of wealth, and they had exquisite taste.
“On the one hand, the emperors were extremely powerful and had unlimited means and could collect whatever they wanted and needed,” said Timothy Brook, Republic of China chair in history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
“But there’s also a sort of cultural element to this because the emperors needed to show themselves to be men of culture. You couldn’t just rule China as a generalissimo. As a ruler in China, you needed to be able to present yourself as upholding the values of the culture — probably true anywhere in the world — but it seems particularly true in China.”
Brook was the chief consultant for an exhibit of 200 rare and priceless objects from the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the largest royal collection in the world — nearly half of which have never been outside of China. The Forbidden City show, which was organized by the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery through Jan 11.
“We were really interested in the course of the exhibition to highlight how these objects were emblematic of the emperor’s power,” said Daina Augaitis, chief curator and associate director of the gallery.
The items — from armor and bow and arrow to sedan chair, throne, portraits and tea cups — show how the emperors projected their power. “The objects you see are all about being emperor,” Brook said. “Not being emperor for the emperor’s sake, but being emperor for the world.” Auspicious symbols
The throne in the exhibit, for example, one of many that would have been in the Forbidden City, features auspicious symbols — cranes and elephants in particular — reminding everyone that the emperor was the intermediary between celestial beings and earthly beings, he being the one in between who relays messages back and forth and convenes that power not just for China, but for the whole world.
“There was a herd of elephants that was kept by the palace,” Augaitis said, “so the thousands of people who would come into work every morning and enter the gates of the Forbidden City would be greeted by this herd of elephants — another display of power and wealth and authority.”
The emperor and his family had no choice but to wear clothes adorned with five-clawed dragons, which no one else could do. “Anyone outside the imperial family who was caught wearing clothing embellished with a dragon would be executed for lese-majeste, the crime of infringing on the emperor’s sovereignty,” said Brook. The exhibit features several examples, the embroidery, in many cases goldthreaded, is so well preserved it looks new.
Anyone entering the Forbidden City, something officials and even foreign visitors were required to do before dawn, took part in a tightly scripted ceremony that drove home one main theme — the impregnable omnipotence of the emperor.
The ceremony was accompanied by percussionists playing two racks of bells and chimes set up on either side of the entrance to the throne room. Using music as metaphor, the tones were a reminder that just as every note should harmonize with every other, no person should step outside the harmony of his or her proper place in the order of things.
The rack of 16 gilt bronze bells — one row of eight yang (masculine) bells and one row of eight yin (feminine) — in the exhibit were cast by order of Emperor Qianlong in 1764 and are decorated with double-headed dragons. Recordings in the exhibit give visitors a taste of their timbre.
An ink-on-silk portrait of Emperor Qianlong, a pivotal figure in the Qing Dynasty, painted in the last decade of his reign in the 1790s, is considered an accurate likeness.
Qianlong took over from his successful father and grandfather, inheriting a solvent throne with secure borders and a reasonably honest and uncorrupted administration. With no pressing matters as a young emperor, Qianlong turned to literature and produced more poetry than any of his predecessors. As he grew older, he turned to war and through 10 perfect military campaigns, pushed the boundaries of China out to roughly where they are today.
“China in the Ming Dynasty was about a third of what it was by the end of the 1800s,” Brook said.
The Forbidden City was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and emperors lived there through the Ming and Qing (16441911). Brook explained that there wasn’t much left from the Ming Dynasty, so most of the objects in the exhibit — and most of what they describe — is of the Qing rulers.
“The Qing emperors were kind of unusual because they weren’t Chinese, they were Manchus,” Brook said. “They came from a seminomadic background up in southern Siberia and very much felt at home out on the Steppe, out on horseback, hunting, these are the things they loved to do.”
Where a Ming emperor might have spent most of his life in the pampered privilege and luxury of the Forbidden City life-style, the Qing emperors spent roughly two-thirds of the year in the palace and the rest of year out further north, hunting or at a summer residence in northeast China.
Formal portraits of emperors were done at every stage of their lives and they varied from court portraits, where they dressed in the precisely prescribed robes they had to wear, to more slice of life fare.
Some emperors had themselves painted doing other things. One painting shows a young emperor in the 1660s at his desk holding a writing brush looking very studious.
Qing emperors, Brook said, weren’t overweight hedonists sitting around the harem. They were out doing things. A good Qing emperor was somebody who could ride, shoot, hit a pig at 100 paces with a bow and arrow, a man of the outdoors, who knew how to be active out in the world. They projected a kind of imperial charisma, a hands-on quality ruling.
Another painting from 1630 shows a young Qianlong out hunting, on one knee lighting the fuse of an arquebus — an early form of flintlock musket —cradled in a crutchand aimed at a deer. Speaking to the issue of power, a reminder that “the Qing was as much a gunpowder empire as any other was of that era,” Brook writes in the exhibit’s brochure.
“For Manchu warriors, war was best fought on land and so hunting was the best practice for war,” he writes. “When a Qing emperor had himself painted on the hunt, it was to remind his Manchu subjects that he had not forgotten his origins on the grasslands of Manchuria, unpolluted by the sapping effects of sedentary life.”
What Brook found most amusing was the “Album of Emperor Yongzheng Enjoying Himself”, a series of 13 paintings each depicting the emperor in a different guise — as a magician tempting a monkey with a peach or a drunken scholar turning away from his books to take in the beauty of a garden, a Taoist sage, a Mongol prince, even a Frenchman in a wig.
“I take this as a reflection of the fact that these men aren’t Chinese and they have a sense that, in ruling the Qing dynasty, the Chinese were just one of their constituencies,” Brook said. “They had Manchus, Mongols, Uyghurs, Zunghars, Tibetans. They had a lot of subjects spread out over Asia, and they had to appear legitimate to all their constituency.
“So they would appear to the Chinese dressed in Chinese clothes, but to the Mongols they would dress up as Mongols,” he said. “They were extremely good at living in a kind of multiculturalism that I think we kind of forget about. We think of China today as rather monolithic, the Chinese culture is one thing and everybody lines up behind Chinese culture.
“The Qing dynasty was anything but that. It was a very multi-cultural world. And the emperors were sensitive to this. They knew they couldn’t just be Chinese, because they weren’t Chinese. They tried to be all things to all of their constituencies,” Brook said. Savvy politicians. Mysterious concubine
Another painting holds an intriguing revelation. It’s a portrait of one of Emperor Qianlong’s concubines sitting in a window doing her hair. At first glance it looks like a very Chinese painting — there’s a lotus pond in the background with a Chinese balustrade, two signature standards of the form.
But on closer inspection, some things don’t click. The whole composition of the painting — the woman at the window, heavy blue shutters on either side and a brick wall below — is not only not Chinese but it’s a cliché of 17th century northern European painting.
Her facial features, as well, at first glance look Chinese, but up close reveal three-dimensional shaping and shading characteristic of Italian portraiture of the period, unlike the more flat style of the Chinese. The position of the hands and their anatomical precision also suggest the Italian Renaissance.
The palace collection had labeled the artist of the work “Anonymous court painter”, but two artists actually worked on it — Qing court painter Jin Tingbiao, who did the background and costume, and an Italian Jesuit missionary named Giuseppe Castiglione, who went to China around 1715 and died there in 1766. There are four of his paintings in the exhibit.
“It’s really kind of a hybrid of European and Chinese styles,” Brook said. Jesuit missionaries who went to China to convert the Chinese were by and large kept sequestered inside the Forbidden City and worked for the emperor. Thus the emperors learned European mathematics, geometry and surveying, art and music.
“China in the 18th century wasn’t particularly open to Western influences, but the court was,” Brook said. “I think again because these emperors were not Chinese, they were Manchus, they were receptive to cultures coming from all over the world.”
“It also speaks to those moments of extraordinary influence that went back and forth,” Augaitis said, “and ideas of hybridity that we think of so much today but in fact they go back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
The cultural objects in the exhibit express the ways in which the emperors wanted to be seen — as patrons of religion, patrons of the arts, as highly educated collectors, as men of literature and as men of leisure.
Brook said that if there was anyone in the 18th century who didn’t have leisure time, it was the Chinese emperor. It was, after all, a huge empire to run and part of the exhibition is about the business of doing just that — carrying out the role of being the emperor, appearing to be the emperor, doing the things that emperors had to do. Their lives were occupied with ritual obligations, meeting foreign delegations and having to sign off on all significant legislation, including personnel decisions.
“They were extremely busy men,” Brook said, and they often griped about it. “The standard complaint of an emperor was: ‘I was up to all hours of the night reading documents and I had to be back holding audience at court the following morning before dawn’. It was quite an onerous responsibility.”
With the variety of objects in the exhibit, Broker and Augaitis also hope visitors come away with the sense that Chinese culture in the Qing Dynasty was multi-sided and complex with many parts to it. Priceless tea cup
Hands down the most expensive object in the show is a small delicate porcelain tea cup decorated with a brightly colored and whimsical rooster, hen and three chicks. It was made in the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in the late 15th century exclusively for the court of Emperor Checghua, whose dowager empress mother was particularly fond of small utensils — and chickens.
The three-inch cup is one of fewer than a dozen of its kind in museums around the world and one of only two left in the Forbidden City collection. Last April, one of the chicken cups at an auction at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong for $36.3 million.
The exhibit also shows that as collectors, the emperors were global. Among the objects on loan from the Forbidden City Palace Museum is a set of optometry equipment made in Tokyo. There was no documentation accompanying it, so Brook put on his sleuthing hat.
“I put two and two together and that was to come up with Puyi, the last emperor,” Brook said. He knew that Puyi, as a child was severely short-sighted, a condition discovered by his English tutor, Reginald Johnston, who sent for American and Chinese ophthalmologists.
The dowager consort then ruling over the court in its final days decreed that no foreign doctor could be trusted with anything so precious as the imperial eyes and that the wearing of spectacles by an emperor was something that was just not done.
Nevertheless, the empire fell and on November 8, 1921, at the age of 16, “Henry” Puyi, the last emperor of China, got his eyeglasses and liked them so much he rarely took them off. The celebrated incident has been immortalized in Johnston’s memoir Twilight in the Forbidden City, as well as the Hollywood film The Last Emperor, clips of which are played at the exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The exhibit ends with the Jar with TenThousand Shou Characters,a three-foot-high ceramic urn made for Emperor Kangxi on his 60th birthday in 1713. It is porcelain white with a cobalt-blue underglaze and written on it, in 975 different calligraphic styles, is the character shou, meaning “longevity”, written 10,000 times, impeccably inscribed, smaller on the neck of the vase and then expanding on the shoulders.
Ten thousand was the highest number at the time in China, Augaitis explained, “So to have 10,000 wishes of 1,000 different versions of longevity was like longevity cubed,” she said, “you could not have a better, more auspicious wish of longevity than you had on this ceramic vase.”
eGriuosresp eCraest mely powerful and had unlimited means and could collect whatever they wanted and needed.” TIMOTHY BROOK UNIVERSITY OF BC
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Clockwise from above: An ink and color on silk formal portrait of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong in his ceremonial robes; a Ming Dynasty Chicken Cup, one of which sold at auction in Hong Kong in April for $36.3 million; a Qing Dynasty emperor’s ceremonial armor made of cotton padding, woven silk, gilt copper studs and metal plate. They are all part of TheForbiddenCity:InsidetheCourtofChina’s Emperors exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery through Jan 11, 2015.
Portrait of Emperor Qianlong’s Concubine co-painted by 18th century Italian Jesuit
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