King of the road and man of let­ters

Em­peror’s pen­chant for travel was tightly bound to his rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing highly ed­u­cated

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By ZHAO XU

On all the ev­i­dence, Em­peror Qian­long of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) loved to be on the road: he trav­eled 11 times to Shan­dong, the home­town of Con­fu­cius, whose mus­ings be­came al­most holy writ to gen­er­a­tions of rulers.

How­ever, it was his trips to Jiang­nan, ar­eas south of the Yangtze River, that are bet­ter known to mod­ern-day Chi­nese, partly thanks to pe­riod TV dra­mas loosely based on these jour­neys.

In these ren­di­tions, which in­vari­ably ro­man­ti­cize Qian­long (17111799), the Qing Dy­nasty’s longestreign­ing em­peror of­ten comes across as a dash­ing man whose ap­peal lay as much in his courtly style as in his courtships. And Jiang­nan, known for its strong lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, was a nat­u­ral place for the em­peror to wield his fold­ing fan and show off his prow­ess with words.

He would no doubt have ob­jected to many as­pects of this im­age, but there is at least one he would have agreed on: power aside, he was in­deed a man of words and a right­ful heir to the coun­try’s mil­len­niaold lit­er­ary tra­di­tion.

As such, it was al­most oblig­a­tory for him to pay vis­its to Jiang­nan, the spir­i­tual home for any Chi­nese of his time who con­sid­ered him­self, and rarely her­self, a mem­ber of the literati.

Ma Sheng­nan of the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing says: “What’s spe­cial about Qian­long is the fact that as an em­peror of eth­nic mi­nor­ity de­scent he used this tire­less lit­er­ary pur­suit — through­out his life, the man him­self penned an as­tro­nom­i­cal num­ber of po­ems, 90,000 of them — as a way of gain­ing le­git­i­macy for his rule.

“In his­tory there were only two groups of eth­nic mi­nor­ity peo­ple that had ever ruled over all of China. The Manchus, founders of the Qing Dy­nasty, who hailed from the frozen plains of the far north­east, was one of them. From the very be­gin­ning, gen­er­a­tions of Qing rulers tried to em­brace the clas­si­cal ma­jor­ity cul­ture, a pol­icy Qian­long im­ple­mented with heart and soul.”

Ma is the cu­ra­tor of an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Zhe­jiang Mu­seum, the largest on the em­peror since 2015, when the Palace Mu­seum mounted a show with works of paint­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy within its hold­ing. For the 2015 dis­play all the se­lected works were from Shi Qu Bao Ji, an enor­mous com­pi­la­tion the em­peror com­mis­sioned based on his royal col­lec­tion.

The cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion, at the Zhe­jiang Mu­seum in Hangzhou, fea­tures 202 pieces, with 168 from the Palace Mu­seum and most of the rest from the Zhe­jiang Mu­seum. On view are var­i­ous ar­ti­cles from the em­peror’s own study back in his royal palace, the For­bid­den City (to­day the Palace Mu­seum). These in­clude a white jade brush rest in the shape of a moun­tain, an ink bed, a wild duck-shaped wa­ter holder and a dark green jade brush pot with vividly carved peo­ple in dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios, against a back­drop of rock­ery and pine trees.

It is worth not­ing that the scenes were meant to de­pict the pri­vate garden of a noted scholar and court of­fi­cial from the Song Dy­nasty (9601279), a pe­riod that long ago came to rep­re­sent a pin­na­cle in Chi­nese art and lit­er­a­ture. Em­peror Qian­long, a dili­gent his­tory learner and pas­sion­ate art col­lec­tor, long ad­mired and even sought to em­u­late the artis­tic heights reached by Song (and its rulers, best rep­re­sented by Em­peror Huizong, pos­si­bly the great­est em­peror-artist of all time.).

Qian­long avidly col­lected Song Dy­nasty an­tiques, one such be­ing a pale-green porce­lain brush wash, whose de­mure color and min­i­mal­ist de­sign went against a ri­otous, dec­o­ra­tive style more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with the reign of Qian­long.

The piece was from the royal kiln of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (11271279), a pe­riod dur­ing which a be­lea­guered Song court moved its cap­i­tal from Kaifeng in what is now the cen­tral prov­ince of He­nan to Hangzhou, cap­i­tal of Zhe­jiang prov­ince, and which lies at the heart of Jiang­nan. (For those un­fa­mil­iar with Song his­tory, the em­pire spanned two pe­ri­ods: the North­ern (960-1127) and the South­ern. Con­stantly de­fend­ing it­self against the ha­rass­ment of Jins (the an­ces­tors of Manchus) Mon­gols and oth­ers, the em­pire shrank by one third dur­ing the sec­ond half of its ex­is­tence. How­ever, the re­lo­ca­tion of the cap­i­tal to Hangzhou served to fur­ther en­hance the lit­er­ary am­bi­ence the city was al­ready known for.

Qian­long, whose an­ces­tors con­sti­tuted a con­stant source of pain for the Song em­pire, longed for clas­si­cal beauty. The afore­men­tioned pale­green brush wash was among his most trea­sured col­lectibles. The em­peror also used a writ­ing brush made es­pe­cially for him by mas­ter brush-mak­ers in Hangzhou. And this predilec­tion for the life of a lit­er­ary­minded man in­flu­enced other as­pects of the em­peror’s life — and col­lec­tion, filling it with a sen­si­tiv­ity un­usual in a strong­man. The ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures a red-lac­quered wooden box with an iron han­dle. Two fe­ro­cious dragons play­ing with a fire ball adorn the side of the box; in­side it is com­part­men­tal­ized, with dif­fer­ent sec­tions in­tended for dif­fer­ent things: food, tea, and of course pa­pers and brushes. The box, dubbed moun­tain tour­ing tool, was pop­u­lar in the Song era, when peo­ple with sim­i­lar tastes and views formed small lit­er­ary groups, and these groups fre­quently went on out­ings, to drink tea, com­pose po­ems and be in­spired by na­ture. The box, which in­vari­ably ap­peared on such oc­ca­sions, was of­ten an ob­ject of beauty it­self.

Other lac­quer ware is on view, in­clud­ing a box in the shape of a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment known as the guqin, and an­other one whose cover is dec­o­rated with a repet­i­tive pat­tern com­posed of fallen plum fol­low­ers be­ing car­ried away by wa­ter. Both were made dur­ing Qian­long’s reign, yet both ex­ude a melan­cholic beauty thanks to it dec­o­ra­tive mo­tif.

The most con­crete proof of the em­peror’s Song ma­nia comes in the form of his own por­trait, painted by the court pain­ter Yao Wen­han at his com­mis­sion and ti­tled Em­peror Qian­long Giv­ing Ap­praisal to An­tiques. In the scroll, painted purely with dark ink, the em­peror ap­peared as a Han scholar in flow­ing robes, Han be­ing the ma­jor­ity Chi­nese group. The eu­nuch, mean­while, was re­cast in the role of a shu-tong, or “book boy”, teenage boys hired by schol­ars and would-be ones to grind their ink-stick when they were in the mood for writ­ing and carry their books on the way to court ex­ams in the cap­i­tal.

All around, the em­peror is sur­rounded by cul­tural ob­jects from the by­gone era, in­clud­ing cop­per, jade and porce­lain ware. Right be­hind him hangs a land­scape paint­ing, one that clearly de­picts the scenery of a lake-stud­ded Jiang­nan.

How­ever, it is an­other por­trait of his, one that con­stitues part of the pic­ture and shows the half bust of the em­peror, and for that, part is a mirror im­age of the em­peror’s full-length por­trait, which re­ally cap­tures the viewer’s at­ten­tion. The em­peror, so re­laxed to have taken one foot out of his shoe, is con­tem­plat­ing his room­ful of trea­sures un­der his own mild gaze. Ma says the paint­ing is the only one found any­where de­pict­ing an em­peror and fea­tur­ing this pic­ture­within-a-pic­ture ar­range­ment.

“But it was not as novel as it may seem; the paint­ing is based on a Song Dy­nasty one that played the same vis­ual trick.”

Speak­ing of por­trai­ture, the ex­hi­bi­tion has three of the em­peror’s most fa­mous ones. One was painted about 1734, when the would-be em­peror was 23. Again he is dressed in typ­i­cal Han style, in an idyl­lic ru­ral set­ting (with a deer and a hoe-car­ry­ing boy). The sec­ond is a world apart from the first, de­pict­ing an em­peror don­ning his heav­ily em­broi­dered royal gown, seated on the throne. The man in this pic­ture is vis­i­bly in his 70s or 80s, his tightly closed lips and slightly gloomy eyes con­trast­ing with the splen­dor in which he is wrapped.

The third one was also painted in the em­peror’s twi­light years, in 1783, when Qian­long was 71. The writ­ing in gold color on the up­per right side of the paint­ing clearly states who the pain­ter was, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), an Ital­ian Je­suit mis­sion­ary who im­pressed three gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese em­per­ors — Qian­long, his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther — with a fu­sion style that merged West­ern and Chi­nese aes­thet­ics and paint­ing skills seam­lessly on pa­per.

“With his vivid brush stroke, Shin­ing re­stored to me my long-lost youth,” the em­peror wrote in an amused tone, call­ing the pain­ter by his Chi­nese name, Lang Shin­ing. “Who is this? Those who come across it must have won­dered.”

In the paint­ing, a mid­dle-aged Qian­long, again dressed in Han style, is hold­ing a branch of plum flow­ers in the com­pany of an­other man. The deep blue back­ground — an un­usual touch that be­lies the pain­ter’s “for­eign­ness” — adds a sur­real sense and helps high­light the fig­ures in the fore­ground.

Le Qiao­qiao, a re­searcher with the Zhe­jiang Mu­seum, says: “Be­tween these three paint­ings is a man who ruled over one of the world’s largest em­pires of his time, who is ever con­scious of his own cul­tural legacy — Qian­long pushed for the stan­dard­iza­tion of the Manchu lan­guage — and who, at the same time, fell gen­uinely for an­other cul­ture and art tra­di­tion, which he em­braced and pro­moted tire­lessly.”

To Ma, of the Palace Mu­seum, the ex­hi­bi­tion could not be more timely, given how mis­con­strued the em­peror is to­day. “His taste is ques­tioned,” she says, re­fer­ring to the em­peror’s love of in­tensely crafted and of­ten heav­ily em­bel­lished pieces, a love that con­trasted with the pared-down aes­thetic of his fa­ther Em­peror Yongzheng.

“How­ever, it ap­pears to me that what the em­peror re­ally was af­ter was not any par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic, but a cul­tural le­git­i­macy and a sense of undis­rupted con­ti­nu­ity,” she says, re­fer­ring to Qian­long’s rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Shang Dy­nasty (c. 16th cen­tury-11th cen­tury BC) bronze ware, in dark green jade.

“It’s true that he rated art works from his­tory and left count­less stamps on them, some­times ob­scur­ing the orig­i­nal work. And it’s true that such prac­tices say a lot about his per­sonal pride. But this pride drove him to col­lect and pre­serve with even more fer­vor. And we all thank him for that.”

Clock­wise from top left: along the West Lake in Hangzhou

From left:

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