Marvellous History of Shengjing
An exhibition is currently being held at Beijing’s Capital Museum showcasing items from a former imperial palace in Northeast China. Visitors can view these ornate works and learn about the compelling history of China’s last dynasties.
Awell-preserved, ancient, imperial palace complex lies in the heart of the old city from the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties in present-day Shenyang, Liaoning Province. It was once the imperial palace in Shengjing, which was the capital of the Qing Dynasty from 1625–1644. It is now known as the Shenyang Palace Museum. The museum features a grand, solemn, antique appearance. Its red walls protect it from the bustling world outside.
The birthplace of the Qing Dynasty, this imperial palace was first constructed in 1625 and expanded during the Nurhachi (reign: 1616– 1626) and Abahai (reign: 1627–1643) periods. It was also an important stopover area for Qing emperors including Kangxi (reign: 1662–1722), Qianlong (reign: 1736–1795), Jiaqing (reign: 1796–1820) and Daoguang (reign: 1821–1850). They would collect treasures and stay there when they conducted inspection tours of the east after passing through the Shanhai Pass. The facility now exists as a wellknown museum of ancient palace art. The treasures that are stored there help explain the history of the royal family and their time at the palace to later generations.
The From Shengjing: Household Items of the Qing Royal Court Exhibition began at Beijing's Capital Museum on September 28 and will continue until December 2. Over 130 pieces or sets of imperial Qing household items on loan from the Shenyang Palace Museum are on display. Categories such as clothing, accessories, table utensils, calligraphy and paintings, and palace furnishings are represented. The exquisite royal treasures are both practical and artistic, revealing the brilliant wisdom and craftsmanship that was achieved in the middle of the Qing Dynasty.
Birthplace of the Qing Dynasty
The Shenyang Imperial Palace was the residence of Abahai and Emperor Shunzhi (reign: 1644–1661) before Qing troops passed over the Shanhai Pass. It also served as an important temporary palace for emperors when making eastern tours to worship ancestors after the Qing Dynasty moved the capital to Beijing and united the Central Plains area.
From 1671, when Emperor Kangxi embarked on an eastern tour, to 1829, when Emperor Daoguang made his last eastern tour, Qing emperors (Kangxi, Qianlong, Jiaqing and Daoguang) came to Shengjing ten times to make formal visits to ancestral mausoleums and hold ceremonial activities like banquets and sacrifices.
Several portrait scrolls of Qing emperors are exhibited at the exhibition,
including a full-length portrait of a sitting Abahai, a full-length portrait of a sitting Emperor Shunzhi, a half-length portrait of Emperor Kangxi, a half-length portrait of Emperor Qianlong riding a horse, a full-length portrait of a sitting Emperor Jiaqing and a full-length portrait of Emperor Daoguang riding a horse. The clear rendering of these figures vividly conjures the past.
Abahai acceded to the throne at the Shengjing Imperial Palace's Chongzheng Hall in 1636, changed the national name from “Jin” to “Qing” and his title to “Chongde,” denoting the start of a new dynasty.
Fulin succeeded to the throne at the Shengjing Imperial Palace's Dazheng Hall when he was six years old in 1643 and changed his title to “Shunzhi.” The Qing Dynasty again made great strides after getting through a political crisis. In 1671, Emperor Kangxi headed for Shengjing to offer sacrifices to the mausoleums of Emperor Taizu (Nurhachi) and Emperor Taizong (Abahai) in the name of “Territorial Unification and Success.”
Emperor Qianlong toured Shengjing four times to worship the ancestral tombs. He ordered that the imperial palace undergo a large-scale renovation after his first eastern tour and housed a large number of cultural treasures, books, classics, archives and other imperial collections there.
Emperor Jiaqing ordered the construction of a theatre stage so that traditional operas could be enjoyed while holding banquets. He admired the Si Ku Quan Shu, known as the Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature in English, and ritual activities that were established by his father.
In 1829, Emperor Daoguang paid homage to ancestral tombs under the order of Empress Dowager. Although the usual ritual activities were conducted, he only stayed in Shengjing for seven days and then left, which was a much smaller period than normal. This was a manifestation of the decline that the Qing Dynasty was experiencing at the time.
Nevertheless, this secondary capital improved its historical status in various aspects, such as political status, cultural achievements and scale of its buildings.
The Shenyang Palace Museum includes a fine collection of imperial garb.
The garments feature fine materials, consummate craftsmanship and elaborate designs. They were made by the Imperial Household Department and the three Jiangnan textile mills during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The clothes preserved some of the characteristics of Manchu ethnic group clothing and display a sense of the ornate beauty of the Qing Dynasty imperial family.
Manchu style was prevalent as a result of a decree issued by Emperor Taizong (Aisin-gioro Huang Taiji) during the Chongde period (1636–1643). The Manchu people hunted while riding horses. It was declared that that style of dress should not be altered. Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736–1795) also regarded “seizing the country on horseback” as a positive, and the use of traditional dress was part of this idea. Tribal dress was maintained for a while, but the development of the economy and the continuous fusion of ethnic culture resulted in some elements of traditional Han culture inevitably being added to imperial garments. Techniques for making Qing costumes were also improved. The clothing and accessories that emperors and imperial concubines wore became increasingly exquisite. Qing court attire ultimately united aspects of Manchu and Han clothing.
The lavish costumes worn by emperors and their consorts were the embodiment of imperial authority, their high-ranking positions and hierarchy.
Qing imperial clothing involved ceremonial garments, festive garments, a regular robe, clothing used for travel and clothing for inclement weather. Various types of garments existed within each category. A jacket with decorative pearls on its collar would usually go with a robe. The exhibition provides a good showcase of the imperial clothing system.
Court robes were made from thread, cloth and double-layered cloth made from fur, cotton, wool and other fibres. They could be thick or thin for different times of year. They featured four colours that had to be used according to an etiquette system, regardless of what an individual wearer may prefer. Bright yellow ranked highest and was suitable for New Year's Day, Winter Solstice and sacrificial rites at the Imperial Ancestral Temple during the Wanshou Festival (emperor's birthday). Blue correlated with offering sacrifices to heaven, red to the sun and white to the moon.
An emperor's court robe was a one-piece garment made from yellow thread and featured colourful patterns. They featured round collars, two horsehoof-shaped cuffs and an attached cape. Patterns that were embroidered on the cape and main robe included dragons flying in clouds, coiled dragons, stylised waves and mountain peaks, and the shierzhang wenshi (twelve ornaments or images).
Emperor Jiaqing's (reign: 1795– 1821) bright yellow satin robe was embroidered with nine golden dragons, colourful clouds, bats, rounded Chinese characters for happiness and four other images. Four static dragons are located on the chest, back and each shoulder. Four flying dragons are located on the forepart and the back of the robe. A final flying dragon is located on the front. When viewed from the front or back, only five dragons can be seen, indicating a “Nine-five” pattern. This was said to be the most superior of all numbers and symbolised the position of the emperor. The robe also features stylised waves and mountain peaks, as well as representations of the Eight Treasures and twilled waves on the lower section. The garment looks like a complete painting.
Various necklaces correlated with corresponding necklaces also. Eastern pearl court necklaces were worn during important ceremonies. Lapis lazuli court necklaces were worn during sacrifices to heaven. Beeswax or amber court necklaces corresponded with sacrifices to earth. Coral court necklaces were worn when making sacrifices to the sun. Turquoise court necklaces wear worn for sacrifices to the moon.
Eastern pearl court necklaces were the most important. One of these
necklaces is featured at the exhibition. It is composed of 108 pearls and four lapis lazuli beads and was made according to the specifications of the Qing Dynasty. A dangler hangs under one of the beads with an opal beiyun (a piece of jade) and a large ruby pedant below it. Both sides feature “jinian,” which are three short strings of small coral pearls. The jinian dangle in front of the chest and include a small ruby pendant.
The exquisite and auspicious utensils that were used at the imperial palace made delicacies feel more appetising. They also played an important role in distinguishing statuses, tightening etiquette regulations and enhancing imperial grandeur, especially on special occasions such as Spring Festival, state banquets and sacrificial rituals.
Roughly speaking, there were two main kinds of palace food. These were food used for banquets and food that was eaten by the emperor and his consorts on a more regular basis. The Qing Dynasty inherited the excellent culinary culture of former dynasties as well as some from minority ethnic groups, forming a unique, imperial food culture and creating superb palace cuisine.
In North China, ancients held their dishes with huowan (fire bowls), which were also used to heat food. The silver huowan at the exhibition features many golden “” (longevity) patterns on its body and lid. It also includes a bottom frame and a heater. The top of the lid is decorated with a rare, golden pearl. There is a three-legged frame under the bowl. A tray for alcohol is located at the centre of the frame. The frame can be lit to warm the food. The huowan features delicate workmanship, indicating an auspicious omen. It was a standard imperial bowl at the time and may have been made exclusively for palace banquets.
The Manchu and Mongolian nomadic tribes often used a knife known as a jieshi knife in their daily life to cut the meat of the animals they hunted. The knife appeared among the palace dining utensils, displaying the influence of nomadic lifestyles on the imperial family of the Qing Dynasty. A pale green jieshi knife is on display at the exhibition. The knife is made from iron, bone, shark skin, wood and copper. The overall set consists of a knife, two chopsticks, a chip and a shark skin sheath. Another ingeniouslydesigned, jade-handled jieshi knife with a golden sheath is also on display along with its supporting items. These are a broad silver spoon with a gold-plated wood handle, a silver spoon with a seal indicating auspiciousness and a gilt silver fork with a golden sceptre-head. They are so exquisite that the sense of sharpness of the knife is reduced.
A silver pot with dragon-headed patterns is also on display. Different from those used by the Han people, the pot manifests the distinctive characteristics of minority ethnic groups. It was used for brewing butter tea at palace banquets and features a round stomach, a dragon-shaped handle, a beast-shaped spout, and a lid with a knob decorated with patterns of lotus flowers and miscellaneous objects. A silver-stemmed cup engraved with patterns of dragons and a gilt silver tray with six legs go with it and are wonderfully exquisite.
The imperial dining utensils housed at the Shenyang Palace Museum are from the Qing Dynasty imperial palace. They were made by the Qing Imperial Household Department from gold, silver, jade, porcelain, ivory, lacquer, bamboo and wood. Most of the porcelain was fired in official kilns at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi, according to various specifications as required.
Calligraphy and Stationery
Writings on elegant stationery and treasured calligraphy scrolls by emperors constitute a small part of the exhibition. A scroll-shaped writing case is also on display. It is one of the four writing cases shaped like a zither, chessboard, book and scroll painting housed at the Shenyang Palace Museum. The scrollshaped writing case is made of rosewood and features carved patterns of three hand scrolls piled on top of each other. One can store stationery inside. When it is closed, it is ornamental. Its surface is embossed with brocade-like patterns and flowers of water caltrop. The ends of each scroll are embellished with white jade, imitating the style of hand scrolls.
A penholder with cloisonné enamel over a copper body is also on display at the exhibition. It is a piece of stationery that was made during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. It includes a Qianlong seal and is decorated with a
pattern of two dragons. The penholder is shaped like five steep hills. The areas that correspond with valleys can hold brushes. The hills feature gradual changes in colour. Dark blue, light blue, dark green and light green are used as the height changes. A golden pattern of two dragons is located under the hills with a golden “” design sandwiched between the dragon heads. Green sea water is depicted below the dragons. The lower part of the penholder consists of a round, gold-plated base embossed with a ring of pearls, under which are designs of twisted grass. The lowest part of the base is decorated with patterns of cloud scrolls. A depiction of a seal reading “Made in the Qianlong Period” is located at the centre of the base, engraved in regular script.
A black-lacquered, drum-like brush with golden patterns of the “” character on the shaft was invented in the middle of the Qing Dynasty. It was made of bamboo, lacquer and goat hair. The end of its shaft is decorated with golden fretwork and flower patterns. A gilded metal band displaying exquisite craftsmanship links the shaft and the goat hair. The brush is a particularly nice implement out of those used at the imperial palace during the Qing Dynasty.
The Old Palace in Mukden (today's Shenyang) preserves some calligraphic works by Qing emperors.
The exhibition includes “The Scroll of Emperor Qianlong Writing Characters.” Emperor Qianlong was a monarch who witnessed the prosperity of the Qing Dynasty, studied Han culture extensively in his spare and was actively engaged in literary writing. Tablet inscriptions that he made are scattered widely in China. Few former emperors match him in quantity. His calligraphic works were done in various style, demonstrating his ability.
The imperial palace was a sacred place for emperors to exercise their authority and rule the country. It was also a paradise for his consorts. They could enjoy a rich and comfortable lifestyle there. All of the buildings and ornaments fit into a rigid hierarchy. They were awe-inspiring and exuberant in beauty and auspiciousness.
The collected articles and ornaments from the Qing palace that are part of the exhibition were mostly made by the imperial workshop and also some workshops in Suzhou and Nanjing. Some items were tributes paid by officials, gentry or missionaries. They are typical items from their time and place.
An ornamental sceptre known as a Ruyi-sceptre is on display. It features a rosewood handle and three whitejade dragon inlays. The white-jade inlays feature relief carvings. The headpiece features a dragon design, the middle part a chi (hornless dragon) and the end-piece a phoenix. All of the figures appear to be flying through intertwining branches. The three jade ornaments are incredibly exquisite and regarded as part of typical ruyi style in the Qing palace.
A square case on display features a relief carved out of white jade. The lid is embossed with designs of a landscape and Chinese characters. It is influenced by traditional Chinese paintings. Rolling hills and a broad river are depicted in the background. A babbling brook is featured in the foreground. Under a tree, there is a carving of a man sitting cross-legged and a qin (seven-stringed, plucked musical instrument) being carried by a boy. Boats travel down the river. A man can be seen rowing, and another man sits erect. The designs make substantial contributions to the elegance of the case.
As a stopover location for emperors on inspection tours to the east and their entourages, the Mukden imperial palace performed the function of an imperial palace in the capital and was splendidly embellished. A three-legged cloisonné enamel charcoal brazier featuring a phoenix-shaped pattern, a cloisonné enamel hanging panel depicting flowers and its rosewood frame that features patterns shaped like the “” character on its gold-plated edge, a jadeite comb, a pink double-eared glass powder box decorated with grape flower patterns, a rosewood cosmetic box decorated with stained ivory flower patterns, a round fan with a black-lacquered handle and a colourful butterfly pattern over a white background, a needle case carved out of bamboo featuring a pattern depicting hunting, a cloisonné enamel hand warmer with patterns of bats and lotuses… These objects related to imperial life embody imperial authority, faith and well-being.
A silver pot with a dragon motif
A huowan (fire bowl) consisting of a lid, bowl, frame and heater.
An elephant-shaped cloisonné-enamel bottle