Compromising more than 400 objects, many of which have never been seen outside Beijing’s Forbidden City, Splendors of China’s Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong offers a rare opportunity to explore one of the great periods in Chinese history. On view at the Dallas Museum of Art from Nov. 21, 2004 to May 29, 2005, this exceptional exhibition was organized by the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the Field Museum, Chicago. The curators of the exhibition, Bennet Bronson and Chumei Ho have brought 18th-century imperial China to vivid life. Chicago and Dallas are the only venues in the United States to host the exhibition.
Splendors of China’s Forbidden City is devoted to the long reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). The exhibition concentrates on Qianlong’s 18th-century period, the last grand era of the Chinese empire. During his long reign, Emperor Qianlong became the epitome of a great Chinese ruler, at once all-powerful and civilized. The Chinese empire reached its largest geographic spread under his rule, while life in China was both peaceful and prosperous. The exhibition investigates how Qianlong achieved this magnificent level. Politically adept, he recognized and supported all facets of Chinese civilization. Although he was a Manchu and remained proud of his nomad forebears, he cultivated the Han Chinese, who formed the majority of the Chinese people. Like his predecessors, the Kangxi and Yongzheng emperors, Qianlong carried out a balancing act between his Manchu heritage and the culture of Han China, which the Manchu Qing dynasty had conquered.
The level of artistic production and craftsmanship at his court was magnificent, enabling visitors to the exhibition to see a summary of Chinese imperial art production at its peak. Qianlong himself was one of China’s great art collectors and the works from the Palace Museum give a vivid sense of court life in 18th-century China and of Qianlong’s personal tastes, including his religious interests. While personally a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, he was able to keep a balance among the various religions and philosophic traditions of China. Even Christianity and Islam were allowed. By patronizing all these religious interests he was able to symbolize, in himself, the complex history of Chinese civilization. The exhibition celebrates Qianlong as a rich, multi-faceted person, who could save the best of the Chinese past and work creatively with the demands of empire. He was at home on imperial tours of inspection, on the hunting field and in the palace. He was also a poet, a collector and a connoisseur: a man well-fitted to use his role as emperor in the most effective way.
To fully explore the ways in which the emperor’s various roles, interests and his careful balancing of power were expressed in the artworks of his time, the exhibition curators have laid out the exhibition in five themes that unfold as the visitor moves from room to room. The grouped works display the immense range of cultural activities over which Qianlong presided. Since it is based on the vast collections of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, there is a very rich selection of imperial objects. The Dallas Museum of Art has chosen to display this exhibition as a series of fine art works. Although the layout generally follows the themes of the exhibition as planned by the Palace Museum and the Field Museum, the flow of works in the sections has been slightly changed to highlight significant works for individual contemplation and appreciation. The rooms devoted to the exhibition are large and space is given to major works, and a palette of light, bright colors is used in the exhibition rooms, to echo the light, color and grandeur of the Forbidden City.
Opening the first section on symbols of imperial power is “Ten Thousand Envoys Come to Pay Tribute,” a 126 3/4-inch-by-43 3/8-inch painting by an anonymous artist. The work offers a bird’s eye view of the southern gate of the Forbidden City and the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The panoramic sweep of the painting dwarfs the human figures of tribute-bringers, palace eunuchs and officials. The palace, which appears in detailed grandeur in the foreground, but dims in the misty distance, is presented as both the symbol and the setting of power. The tribute-bringers include Europeans and different types of Asians, including a group of Thai emissaries on elephants, to emphasize the universal rule of the Chinese monarch. The combination of realistic narrative of a politically significant event combined with more traditional Chinese ways of depicting the imperial palace reflects the way monumental painting developed in the Qianlong period.
This theme of symbols of imperial power continues with a recreation of the imperial throne room from which Qianlong reigned. Large and awe-inspiring, the center of the room is the emperor’s red and gold throne. Adjacent to this are two portraits, attributed to Italian painter Guiseppe Castiglione, of the emperor and his first empress Xiaoxian. The Jesuit court-artist produced these formal court images of the emperor and empress sitting on thrones, clothed in gorgeous robes. During the Qing period, dragon robes had strong hierarchic symbolism, with the emperor’s robes at the top of the ranking system. The dragon on the front of his robe indicates that the ruler is the center of the universe. Here is Qianlong in full, solemn glory. Qianlong remained devoted to his wife Xiaoxian, even after her untimely death; the way he valued her can be seen in the unusual way the empress raises her hand in a gesture of power, rather than folding it, and in the fact that she sits on a dragon throne, rather than the female phoenix throne.
These representations of imperial grandeur and power lead into a section devoted to Qianlong’s work as emperor. It shows the emperor in action, his armor, his writing materials and books, paintings of his visits to parts of the empire and receiving suppliants at a court banquet. His office is recreated to give a fine sense that he was, indeed, a working ruler. The key image here, also by Castiglione, is quite different from the imperial portrait in the previous room. Qianlong sits at his desk writing a poem in a costume of the Han dynasty. The epitome of the gentleman scholar, calm, intelligent, sophisticated, Qianlong appeals to his Han constituency by highlighting his genuine passion for art and aspects of their culture. His artistic tastes are indicated by the brush he holds, as well as the vessels of flowering branches and the precious objects on the desk. Behind him are traditional Chinese plum and bamboo.
In the next area, devoted to works relating to imperial family life in the Forbidden City and to the life of the women of Qianlong’s court, there are a large number of lavish works. Since over his lifetime Qianlong had 26 children and 40 wives or consorts, his family life was quite different from modern experience. A wall of objets d’arts, many of them antiques, shows the kind of beautiful items that the palace women lived with and enjoyed. Paintings depict the interaction between court and family life during Qianlong’s reign. Feelings of warmth and devotion to his family are expressed in a painting of the emperor at the Chinese New Year Festival, holding his son on his lap. In contrast a nearby scene by Castiglione, “Taking a Stag with a Mighty Arrow,” the emperor is shown shooting a deer with his bow, while a female rides behind him holding out another arrow to him. This has been thought to be Qianlong’s Uighur Muslim wife, Rong Fei, though she could be another woman. The emperor’s dining table set with gorgeous porcelain dishes and a golden stupa that Qianlong commissioned to hold his mother’s hair after her death complete this room.
Qianlong was a Renaissance ruler with a variety of skills and interests, and the next section illustrates his personal taste. As a man who produced anthologies of classic Chinese writings and catalogues of the history of Chinese art works, as well as writing 40,000 poems himself, Qianlong took personal pride in amassing one of the great Chinese art collections, represented here by a rich array of art works, including porcelains, jades, lacquer works, wood and bamboo. Two impressive inlaid elephant censers frame the entry into the room. The elephants are cloisonné and champleve enamel. Qianlong’s taste for sumptuous works of great technical brilliance led him to patronize enamel as a favored material, especially for decorative arts and architectural details.
The center of this area is a very large jade boulder carved with scenes of The Nine Elders Of Huichang. The work commemorates an historical symposium and demonstrates Qianlong’s devotion to the Confucian ideal of respect for the elderly. A striking technical tour de force, the carving depicts a party held by the T’ang poet Bai Juyi with his scholarly friends. As in a landscape painting, the elders wander across the mountains with wine and music. It is a series of Arcadian scenes, where man and nature are in harmony. Grandeur is replaced by the civilized pleasures of creation and intellect. The carving includes a poem by the emperor, commenting on the way jade would outlast ink painting.
The last section explores how Qianlong supported the various religions of his empire. This is a rich and fascinating section, ranging from an image of Sakyamuni Buddha to shamanic figures relating to native Manchu religion. Taoism, as one of the most popular religions in China, is represented by figures like the Thunder deity Zhang Jie and the Immortal Marshall Wang Lingguam.
While all these diverse religious traditions are represented here, the Tibetan Buddhism that Qianlong favored is the most prominent. There is a large cloisonné enamel stupa and a rare set of Tibetan Buddhist Buddha figures with Qianlong’s mark, exemplifying esoteric Buddhism. The prominence of this kind of Buddhism at court is indicated by the presence of several buildings devoted to Tantric Buddhism in the Forbidden City, as well as by the painting in the exhibition of Qianlong as the Bodhisattva Manjusri.
The exhibition, following the arc of Qianlong’s life and one of the longest reigns in Chinese history, ends with his memorial tablet and funeral throne for quiet contemplation. Never before displayed, the funeral objects invite meditation on how even one of China’s most powerful and creative rulers comes to death, as all men do.
The catalogue for Splendors of China’s
Forbidden City was written by Chumei Ho and Bennet Bronson; I am
greatly indebted to them for the material described here.