Roy­alty on the road

Mu­seum shows ob­jects from Em­peror Qian­long’s vis­its to Hangzhou

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAO XU zhaoxu@chi­

Ma Sheng­nan of the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing is cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion Ruler of

A Golden Age at Hangzhou’s Zhe­jiang Mu­seum

When Em­peror Qian­long ar­rived in Hangzhou for the first time in 1751 at the end of a jour­ney last­ing as long as four months, he was al­ready 40, and it her­alded the start of a re­la­tion­ship with the city that would play an im­por­tant role in the sec­ond half of his life.

In fact over the next 33 years he would un­der­take the 1,500-kilo­me­ter jour­ney from Bei­jing six times. These days, when we can be blase even about hav­ing break­fast in Bei­jing and din­ner in Ber­lin the same day, it is easy for us to un­der­es­ti­mate Qian­long’s un­der­tak­ing. How­ever, given the lo­gis­tics and phys­i­cal rig­ors of such a jour­ney — he was 73 when he made the last one — it is clear that Hangzhou held a spe­cial place for Qian­long, the longestliv­ing — and reigning — em­peror of Qing (1644-1911), China’s last feu­dal dy­nasty.

The trips he made in those 36 years are known to­day as the “jour­neys to Jiang­nan”. The term Jiang­nan means south of the Yangtze River and refers to large tracts of land cov­er­ing what are now Zhe­jiang and Jiangsu prov­inces. Jiang­nan was long China’s hot­house, cul­tur­ally and com­mer­cially, with its tal­ented peo­ple filling the cab­i­net and taxes the royal cof­fer.

Hangzhou (also known as Lin’an when it served as the cap­i­tal of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty be­tween 1129 and 1279), with its su­perb nat­u­ral scenery and strong lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, was the best place that Jiang­nan had to of­fer. On every “jour­ney to the south”, Em­peror Qian­long stopped in Hangzhou. In fact, five times, Hangzhou was the south­ern­most spot he reached be­fore em­bark­ing on the re­turn trip.

“Nowhere else beck­oned him in the same way that Hangzhou did,” says Ma Sheng­nan of the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing. Ma is the cu­ra­tor of an ex­hi­bi­tion now on at the Zhe­jiang Mu­seum in Hangzhou. The ex­hi­bi­tion, ti­tled Ruler of a Golden Age, seeks to reestab­lish the link be­tween the em­peror and the city of his love, through more than 200 ob­jects rang­ing from beau­ti­fully crafted jade, porce­lain and lac­quer­ware to works of paint­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy com­mis­sioned or that he ex­e­cuted him­self.

“We in­tend to do jus­tice to him. While try­ing to find time to play his other roles in­clud­ing the coun­try’s No 1 cul­tural pa­tron and art col­lec­tor, Qian­long was first and fore­most a ruler with a strong sense of his own royal du­ties.”

And when it came to Hangzhou, a city by the Qiantang River, ful­fill­ing royal duty meant to push for­ward and mon­i­tor the build­ing of lev­ees.

“The Qiantang River, run­ning for more than 500 kilo­me­ters be­fore pump­ing its tor­ren­tial wa­ter into the East China Sea, was Hangzhou’s big­gest nat­u­ral threat un­til very late in the coun­try’s con­tem­po­rary his­tory,” Ma says. “Bear­ing in mind that Hangzhou and its sur­round­ing re­gions were the em­pire’s cru­cial source of tax in­come, keep­ing the de­struc­tive wa­ters at bay was the em­peror’s top pri­or­ity.”

Ac­cord­ing to Le Qiao­qiao of the Zhe­jiang Mu­seum, who is also be­hind the ex­hi­bi­tion, the em­peror even aroused de­bate in his court as to the type of lev­ees to be built.

“The choice was be­tween wooden ones and stone ones. The first were cheaper and rel­a­tively easy to build, and the sec­ond were stronger so could be ex­pected to last longer. Most court of­fi­cials opted for the wooden ones, ar­gu­ing that Hangzhou, so far from Bei­jing, the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal, would pose no seri- ous threat to so­cial sta­bil­ity even in case of a flood. The mat­ter also be­came tan­gled up — as such mat­ters in­vari­ably did — in court pol­i­tics.

“How­ever, the em­peror stood firmly be­hind the sec­ond op­tion, and the de­ci­sion was made to build ex­tended stone lev­ees dur­ing his fifth visit. That de­ci­sion proved to be the cor­rect one, no se­ri­ous flood oc­cur­ring af­ter the lev­ees were com­pleted, and only small-scale mend­ing was re­quired in en­su­ing years.”

It is also worth not­ing that one of the em­peror’s most im­por­tant ap­pointees was an of­fi­cial named Zhu Shi. Zhu made his way into the em­peror’s ser­vice through sit­ting a test presided by Qian­long him­self dur­ing one of his early trips to Hangzhou. The ex­am­i­nees were re­quired to an­swer a ques­tion about the levee.

The lev­ees were made of stone blocks piled up neatly one layer upon an­other, vividly dubbed the fish-scale levee. Ves­tiges re­main, re­mind­ing us of an em­peror whose mul­ti­ple jour­neys to Jiang­nan are of­ten viewed as mere fun trips.

Of course there was an el­e­ment of fun in these jour­neys, which the em­peror hardly de­nied. Be­ing a pro­lific poet — the Palace Mu­seum now houses 53,000 pages of the em­peror’s draft po­ems, with more than 20,000 pages dis­cov­ered in 2014 — Qian­long wasted no chance to record his thoughts and de­lights on his trav­els.

On view at the ex­hi­bi­tion are two pages of writ­ing ti­tled “Five Po­ems on Eight Sights along the West Lake”, which Qian­long wrote in 1784, dur­ing his sixth and fi­nal visit to Hangzhou.

The value of the two pages, Ma says, re­sides in the fact that they were drafts, so faith­fully re­flect the au­thor’s thought pro­cesses, at least in part.

“An­other thing is that rather than leav­ing

While try­ing to find time to play his other roles ... Qian­long was first and fore­most a ruler with a strong sense of his own royal du­ties.”

his works to open in­ter­pre­ta­tion, the em­peror in­sisted on get­ting his true thoughts through. What he did was to fill the space be­tween lines with ex­plana­tory notes. It’s like say­ing: ‘This is what I in­tend to say. Don’t get me wrong.’ The em­peror was cer­tainly not one to ap­pre­ci­ate ab­struse beauty.”

“The eight sights men­tioned here were all from the em­peror’s palace in Hangzhou, built in 1750, one year be­fore his first visit. And as a man of means, he ex­tended his pas­sion for the beauty around him eas­ily from page to re­al­ity, once he had re­turned to Bei­jing. Con­struc­tions of tem­ples, mini-palaces and bridges took place in Yuquan Moun­tain in the cap­i­tal’s west­ern sub­urb, to con­jure up a view sim­i­lar to the one that Qian­long en­coun­tered in Hangzhou’s Shengyin Tem­ple.

But noth­ing was more telling than the re­tire­ment garden Qian­long built for him­self in­side his grand royal palace in Bei­jing — the For­bid­den City (now the Palace Mu­seum). The garden, in the north­east­ern cor­ner of the For­bid­den City, was com­pleted in 1776 and fea­tures build­ings with so­phis­ti­cated in­teri-

or de­sign, clearly in­flu­enced by the Jiang­nan style.

Yet Qian­long never spent a sin­gle day in his garden of re­treat. Of­fi­cially hand­ing over the crown to his son, Em­peror Ji­aqing, in 1795, he stayed in the cen­ter of power for four more years, un­til his death in 1799.

Dur­ing Qian­long’s last visit to Hangzhou in 1784, near the end of his fi­nal trip to Jiang­nan, he turned 73. And the em­peror, who prided him­self on his many mil­i­tary achieve­ments, in­spected his Manchu trooped sta­tioned in Hangzhou. (The Qing rulers were of Manchu ori­gin, a horse­back mi­nor­ity group from north­east­ern China.)

“Zhe­jiang was one of the few places where the Qing court trained their navy,” Le says. “But the Manchu sol­diers, hav­ing been pampered for so long thanks to

their spe­cial status, had long been dis­con­nected with their horse­back tra­di­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to the record, dur­ing that in­spec­tion, some Manchu sol­diers, de­spite their ea­ger­ness to im­press the em­peror, failed dis­as­trously in archery.

“The deeply dis­ap­pointed em­peror, who watched the show with his son the fu­ture em­peror, even left po­ems ex­press­ing his sad­ness,” Le says.

By that time it may have been too early for the pow­er­ful em­peror to sense any real cri­sis. But if he did, he was proven right, again. The em­pire af­ter his death was shaken by in­ter­nal re­volts. Pres­sure from the out­side was also mount­ing: the door of the em­pire, af­ter be­ing kept closed since the 14th cen­tury, was about to be pounded open by West­ern pow­ers.

To­day the em­peror is of­ten blamed for his van­ity and ex­trav­a­gant life­style as partly ev­i­denced by the royal jour­neys he made, a charge he would no doubt have coun­tered vo­cif­er­ously, given the chance.

“Peo­ple talked about these jour­neys, imag­in­ing up all the ro­mances that could have hap­pened, with­out ever men­tion­ing the royal du­ties he per­formed,” Le says.

“Over his­tory, es­pe­cially over the past 30 years as pop­u­lar pe­riod dra­mas on tele­vi­sion have be­come a ma­jor chan­nel for young peo­ple to be­come ac­quainted with his­toric fig­ures, Qian­long has emerged, from time to time, as a he­do­nist and a lady killer.

“This ex­hi­bi­tion is about to put that right.”

How­ever, this does not mean the six jour­neys, on top of oth­ers Qian­long

made to other parts of his em­pire, should be im­mune from any crit­i­cism. As self-sat­is­fac­tory as Qian­long (In his twi­light years, he or­dered a carv­ing of jade seal to com­mem­o­rate his 10 ma­jor mil­i­tary tri­umphs, a seal on view at the ex­hi­bi­tion), the em­peror looked back at his “life’s jour­neys” in a can­did and re­flec­tive tone. The words are kept in Qing of­fi­cial doc­u­ments.

“I have been em­peror for a whole 60 years, with few blem­ishes ex­cept for the six jour­neys to the south,” he said, talking to Wu Xiong­guang, a con­fi­dant.

“They de­pleted the royal cof­fers, leav­ing a bur­den upon my peo­ple. If any fu­ture em­peror would like to go on sim­i­lar trips, you must try to stop him. If you don’t, you had bet­ter not face me in the af­ter­life.”


Three parts from Em­peror Qian­long’s Jour­ney to the South, a long scroll painted by court pain­ter Xu Yang de­pict­ing the em­peror’s first trip to Jiang­nan in 1751. See the other two parts > p14-15 From left: Em­peror Qian­long; his cer­e­mo­nial gar­ments; his...

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