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

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

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

Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­


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

i oen­marpy pwe iegxl­i­tornee.

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