Palace in Your Pocket

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Wang Yun­cong Pho­to­graphs by Guo Shasha

Many peo­ple get the chance to ad­mire the Palace Mu­seum (For­bid­den City) in per­son, but no one gets to build their own man­sion there, re­design the royal gar­den and re­vive the brush used by Em­peror Qian­long of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911). To­day, how­ever, a mo­bile app named the “Palace Mu­seum Com­mu­nity” can make each of th­ese dreams come true af­ter a vir­tual city based on the ar­chi­tec­tural style of the Palace Mu­seum went on­line in May 2017.

The For­bid­den City served as the royal palace for em­per­ors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dy­nas­ties. It was ren­o­vated into the Palace Mu­seum and opened to the public in 1925. Af­ter cen­turies of rises and falls, the royal build­ing com­plex has been in­jected with new vi­tal­ity via the in­ter­net. It is now rein­vig­o­rated and closer to or­di­nary peo­ple. What in­flu­enced this devel­op­ment?

“Part of Our Lives”

The of­fice of the new me­dia team of the Palace Mu­seum is lo­cated in the for­mer “kitchen” of Shoukang­gong, or the Hall of Longevity and Good Health, in the mu­seum. Like other of­fices, it is filled with com­put­ers and loads of files and books, but the orig­i­nal struc­ture is all pro­tected with boards.

The Palace Mu­seum’s of­fi­cial Weibo (Chi­nese ver­sion of Twit­ter) ac­count has at­tracted mil­lions of ne­ti­zens. The ac­count is even more pop­u­lar than one might ex­pect, which is ex­actly what Guo Ting and his team­mates hoped.

“We have been tweet­ing about the Palace Mu­seum since Weibo first ar­rived on the scene,” as­serted team leader Guo Ting. “When mi­croblog­ging first be­came pop­u­lar in 2010, we were right there. The clas­sic Palace Mu­seum has been able to con­tinue of­fer­ing fresh looks.”

Its of­fi­cial Weibo ac­count was launched as a win­dow for any­one who wanted to learn more about China’s Palace Mu­seum and to show­case the ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of the royal fam­i­lies. The new me­dia era has cre­ated many more ways to touch the public than dry text­book read­ings.

The team’s painstak­ing ef­forts have pro­duced vivid, po­etic pictures fea­tur­ing a strong aura of the Palace Mu­seum. They di­vided posts into top­ics such as “Bright and Beau­ti­ful Spring,” “Cool Sum­mer,” “Bril­liant Au­tumn,” and “Warm Win­ter.” Mas­sive amounts of pho­tos of the For­bid­den City from new an­gles are also posted on­line reg­u­larly.

“We want to make the Palace Mu­seum a life­style,” ex­plains Guo. “We hoped to make our dig­i­tal work and so­cial plat­form part of peo­ple’s lives, so that the royal life be­comes ‘com­mon’. That’s what we’ve been striv­ing for.”

A Small In­ci­sion

The team mapped out new plans for its own mo­bile app in the sec­ond half of 2012 as apps be­came all the rage. The ar­rival of Zhuang Ying, who has worked for the Palace Mu­seum since 2008 as an edi­tor of its English web­site, was a game changer.

“Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, I thought I’d take a shot at the job of English edi­tor here and ap­plied,” re­calls Zhuang, who ma­jored in Amer­i­can cul­ture in col­lege. “Like many peo­ple, I had no idea what it would be to work with the Palace Mu­seum. Some of my rel­a­tives as­sumed I had been hired as a tour guide. I got in­spired to show ev­ery­one the most hid­den cor­ners of the Palace Mu­seum and the most stun­ning pieces in its col­lec­tion. I could feel that mo­bile dig­i­tal me­dia was the best way to make it hap­pen.”

As mo­bile me­dia be­came more pop­u­lar, many mu­se­ums in­tro­duced apps to guide vis­i­tors, but not the Palace Mu­seum. “We did a lot of re­search and de­cided that a guide app would be a daunt­ing task with so many vari­ables,” ex­plains Zhuang. “De­spite the fact that ev­ery­one else was do­ing it, we opted to first make an app that rec­om­mended pieces in our col­lec­tions and then go deeper from there.”

It didn’t take long. In May 2013, the Palace Mu­seum de­buted “Yinzhen’s Beau­ties,” an app fo­cused on 12 fine brush­work lady paint­ings from the Qing Dy­nasty. The app il­lu­mi­nated royal Qing life through presentations on tea-tast­ing, read­ing, med­i­ta­tion and but­ter­fly ad­mi­ra­tion as well as in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion and ta­ble set­ting.

Dur­ing re­search and devel­op­ment, Zhuang Ying hunted for so many ma­te­ri­als that books were usu­ally piled a me­ter high on her desk. She dug through de­tails on names, times and con­text that the app needed, each of which was cross­checked by ex­perts of rel­e­vant sec­tors, in­clud­ing makeup, jew­elry, ceram­ics and clocks.

She made spe­cial vis­its to re­tirees like Hu Desh­eng, a spe­cial­ist in an­cient Chi­nese fur­ni­ture, and Wang Lianqi, an ex­pert on an­cient Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy and paint­ing. The for­mer con­trib­uted cap­tions for the fur­ni­ture as well as uten­sils and the lat­ter con­ducted tex­tual re­search for the hang­ing scrolls and po­ems in the back­ground.

Such thor­ough re­search ul­ti­mately re­sulted in just more than 1,000 Chi­nese char­ac­ters that made it to the app.

While the app “Yinzhen’s Beau­ties” was in devel­op­ment, Zhuang in­vited ex­perts to re­view it, who ar­gued fiercely on top­ics such as the ma­te­rial used for the monk-hat pot in a paint­ing. Even de­tails that couldn’t pos­si­bly mat­ter to most peo­ple con­stantly ate at her. Zhuang felt it was her duty to pro­vide ex­pert-con­firmed au­then­tic­ity to do jus­tice to both the mu­seum and users.

“We spent more than a year on the app before it was re­leased,” Zhuang notes. “We couldn’t re­lease shoddy work be­cause we’re rep­re­sent­ing the Palace Mu­seum, which is the essence of tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture and a liv­ing tes­ta­ment to its most supreme aes­thet­ics.”

The app saw 200,000 down­loads two weeks af­ter its re­lease, and was cited as one of China’s Best Apps of 2013 by Ap­ple Store.

“Fall­ing in Love”

Pho­tog­ra­phy is closely in­ter­twined with new me­dia. In 2014, Zhang Lin was hired as a pho­tog­ra­pher by the Palace Mu­seum af­ter he grad­u­ated from the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal De­part­ment of Pek­ing Univer­sity. He over­sees op­er­a­tions of the Mi­cro Palace Mu­seum, and many of his pho­tos touch hearts.

“I stud­ied ar­chae­ol­ogy of the Shang and Zhou dy­nas­ties (1600-221 B.C.) in col­lege,” he ex­plains. “My knowl­edge of the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties was so poor that I could hardly name the Ming em­per­ors. Soon af­ter I started my ca­reer in the Palace Mu­seum, I be­came im­mersed in that pe­riod of his­tory and fas­ci­nated by the many places in the im­pe­rial ar­chi­tec­tural com­plex that re­main un­known to the public.”

“My early work here was bad,” Zhang gri­maces. “I took pho­tos based on my naive un­der­stand­ing of the sub­jects. I thought the 600-year-old royal palace rep­re­sented a sense of loss, so I fo­cused on the dingy cor­ners. Af­ter talk­ing ex­ten­sively with my se­niors, I re­al­ized that his­tory and nos­tal­gia are not all that the Palace Mu­seum has.”

Soon, he started post­ing pho­tos on­line that re­freshed the time-hon­ored glory with mod­ern appeal: the mag­no­lia bloom­ing in spring, the fish and wa­ter lilies in sum­mer, the golden fall­ing leaves in au­tumn, and the sil­very struc­tures in win­ter.

In his three years there, Zhang has shot ev­ery cor­ner of the Palace Mu­seum, but his most pop­u­lar shots are of a snowy scene in 2015. It had just snowed all night. The next day was a bright Mon­day, when the mu­seum was closed to the public. Zhang and an­other pho­tog­ra­pher re­quested to en­ter the mu­seum to take pho­tos of the three great halls. “It was just us two look­ing down from the Gate of Supreme Har­mony,” re­calls Zhang. “It was gor­geous: The square of the Hall of Supreme Har­mony was glim­mered in the sun­light.”

Two of his snowy pho­tos were shared a record 200,000-plus times on­line and be­came de facto ads for the Palace Mu­seum—more than 80,000 peo­ple showed up af­ter a lunchtime snow­fall.

The Palace Mu­seum’s mi­croblog presents a world of blos­som­ing flow­ers ev­ery spring, ac­com­pa­nied by po­etry. “There were far more species than I knew, so I had to work hard to study the flow­er­ing plants in the mu­seum,” grins Zhang, who is a sort of gate­keeper of the royal palace to mod­ern flower fans.

The Palace Mu­seum’s pop­u­lar­ity has grown in re­cent years and the dig­i­tal me­dia crew is strain­ing to keep up with the in­creas­ing de­mand.

“For some, the Palace Mu­seum is just a tourist at­trac­tion,” says Zhang. “But it’s ac­tu­ally much more than just a mu­seum. We want to of­fer a vis­ual feast to our users and pro­vide com­pelling in­for­ma­tion about the Palace Mu­seum so that they may fall in love with it as much as we have.”

Over the last few years, the Palace Mu­seum's cul­tural and cre­ative prod­ucts have proved tremen­dously pop­u­lar. Its of­fi­cial flag­ship store at Taobao.com has been a fa­vorite of ne­ti­zens.

Works of the dig­i­tal me­dia crew of the Palace Mu­seum.

The dig­i­tal team has al­ways been in­spired by the rich col­lec­tion of the Palace Mu­seum.

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