Published: August 7, 2001
Over 200 exceptional Chinese imperial objects are presented in the exhibition “Secret World of the Forbidden City” currently at the Peabody Essex Museum. “Forbidden City” refers to the Emperor’s compound of 180 acres within the capital city of Beijing.
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, an unauthorized person found within the imperial city could be executed. The Forbidden City was enclosed within its own city wall. At the center of the compound were Halls of Harmony and the Palace of Heavenly Purity. Offices and housing for bureaucrats, security forces, craftsmen, and servants were located within the perimeter of the wall. Initially, the Qing Dynasty was served by 9,000 eunuchs, or castrated male servants.
Visitor experiences of this show vary greatly depending upon one’s knowledge of and interest in Chinese history. Those who ignore history can enjoy a stunning collection of opulent objects. Visitors who read the historical placards will gain considerable insight into Chinese imperial rule, history and culture.
The visual experience of this exhibition is enhanced by the opportunity to view many objects in the round since they are displayed on individual pedestals. Some larger objects such as a pair of armor suits displayed on mannequins were installed in corner windows that afforded 270-degree viewing.
Museums of the Exhibition
After the final emperor abdicated in 1911, the imperial collection remained within the Forbidden City. Today the Palace Museum encompasses the entire Forbidden City, and owns a collection of more than one million imperial objects.
Some buildings are open as exhibition galleries while others serve as museum offices, laboratories, and storage facilities. The Palace Museum director recently commented that, although he has worked all his adult life at the museum, there are still objects that he has never seen.
The Palace Museum is China’s largest museum, and a favorite destination of tourists visiting China. Tour buses typically schedule four-hour visits to the museum. The Palace Museum has lent exhibitions in the past, but the exhibit currently at the Peabody Essex Museum is the largest touring exhibition ever lent by the Palace Museum.
The initial American venue of the exhibition was the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, Calif., where the installation was a joint undertaking of the Palace Museum and the Bowers Museum. The Bowers Museum published an extensive catalog of the exhibition.
The Peabody Essex Museum is the only East Coast installation of the exhibition. Since the Peabody has more gallery space than the Bowers Museum, this installation includes 30 large objects, particularly scrolls, which were not displayed in Santa Ana.
Artifacts Reveal Qing Dynasty
Exhibition co-curator Bruce MacLaren commented, “Chinese history has been marked by alternating periods of domestic and foreign rule. The Forbidden City was built by the Ming emperors who came from the Hun people, China’s largest ethnic population. After ruling for almost 300 years (1368-1644), Ming authority was threatened by rebellion within China. Leaders sought outside military assistance from Manchuria. The Manchurians quelled the unrest, but established one of their youths as the new emperor of China.”
MacLaren continued, “The Manchus were the sort of nomadic people that the Great Wall was supposed to keep out of China. They had a different religion, culture, and lifestyle. Manchus toiled as herdsmen, hunters, and farmers, and were accomplished horsemen and warriors. Their language was totally different than Chinese, and the written form of their language was invented late, about 1550.
“Depending upon the system used for transforming Chinese words to English, one might sometimes see Qing Dynasty and other times Ching Dynasty. They are one and the same. Qing emperors ruled from 1644 to 1911.”
The Forbidden City was a critical asset for maintaining Qing control over China. It resembled a fort or castle in that it had a 32-foot high city wall, but was grander than any caste. For example, it is about 20 times larger than the Vatican and almost 30 times larger than the Kremlin.
The Forbidden City also protected the privacy of the Manchu enclave that practiced a Manchurian shamanistic religion and spoke the Manchurian language beyond the view of the Chinese populace.
When Manchu leaders seized the imperial throne from the Ming emperors, the Forbidden City had a long-established tradition as the seat of power and bureaucratic operation.
There was no need to invent a new governmental organization. Provincial leaders and trading nations had established cycles for paying tribute to the emperor at the imperial palace. The Ming bureaucratic organization worked fine, and Qing emperors adopted it.
Once in power, Qing emperors adopted the trappings of traditional emperors to convince the Chinese people that their rule was justified. New emperors strove to meet established expectations for “the Son of Heaven.” To achieve expectations, the emperor needed to become the greatest scholar in China, a leading worshiper in the Confucian and Buddhist religions, and China’s greatest art patron.
The Emperor Kangxi, who served from 1663 to 1723, met traditional Chinese expectations of an emperor while retaining Manchu traditions. Calligraphy was considered the highest form of Chinese art, and the emperor created poetry that he wrote in stylized calligraphy.
The exhibition includes a painting of the Emperor Kangxi at a writing desk holding a calligraphy brush probably intended to document that he was a great scholar.
Another painting of Kangxi in the exhibition demonstrates the pragmatic approach of the Qing emperors. Curator MacLaren commented, “Qing emperors practiced assimilation, isolation, and importation. Even in the Seventeenth Century they were importing a considerable European influence through Jesuits who worked sometimes as artists within the Forbidden City. This scroll painting shows that Kangxi assimilated Chinese clothing and owned a scholarly library in keeping with expectations for the Son of Heaven. Yet it also shows the European influence in the binding of the books, the painting of the book shelves with one-point perspective, and in the modeling of Kangxi’s face.”
Religious artifacts in the exhibition also demonstrate assimilation, isolation, and importation. Qing emperors practiced their traditional shamanistic Manchu religion in the isolated confines of the Forbidden City where the majority Chinese would not be offended.
Qing emperors also imported some rituals of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism. One related artifact on view is a skull bowl whose bottom half was made from the skull of a deceased priest. The base and lid were fashioned from gilded bronze.
The Qing emperors also assimilated Confucian teachings and mainstream Buddhism and were extremely conspicuous in related spending. For example, the exhibition includes a 20-inch high statue of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. However, in an ostentatious display, the statue was fashioned from over 42 pounds of pure gold rather than in gilded bronze.
Members of the Manchu court sometimes rebuke Chinese traditions. For example, women refused to have their feet bound in the Chinese manner. As a compromise, they adopted platform shoes. Garments concealed the tops of these shoes so unbound feet did not offend the Chinese populace. These shoes also generated the hobbled walking motion that was esteemed in China at that time. A pair of these wooden shoes with beautiful enamel decoration is included in the exhibition.
A major American art challenge of the late Nineteenth Century was the integration of Asian and European approaches to painting. This exhibit offers an interesting early Eighteenth Century solution. The image created with ink and watercolor on a silk scroll depicts the emperor hunting stags. The artist was Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), a Jesuit from Milan, Italy. He reached China in 1715, and, as a court painter he adopted the name Chin Nome Lang Shining.
In this painting, the artist presented the emperor, his horse, and stag in a modeled, realistic European manner. All other aspects were presented in the more poetic Chinese manner. In contemporary China, portraits in this manner were criticized since they did not meet traditional Chinese portraiture standards. There, the measure of a portrait was the extent to which it captured the inner essence of a person, not whether it captured a physical likeness.
An interesting fantasy history painting on exhibit is entitled “10,000 Nations Coming to Pay Tribute.” The painting offers a 1737 bird’s-eye view of the Forbidden City’s central axis. At the edge of the forefront, the Meridian Gate can be seen. The central foreground depicted the Golden River Bridge and then the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Beyond the gate, the major buildings were the Hall of Complete Harmony and Hall of Preserving Harmony.
The fantasy was that all nations were paying tribute at a single time. In practice, ambassadors from a single nation came for an imperial audience and to pay tribute. Among the 10,000 contingents standing in line is a team of American colonists outfitted in tri-cornered hats.
Chinese emperors traditionally were the foremost supporters of the arts in China, and their patronage was channeled through a series of imperial workshops. Some craftsmen had workshops and housing located to the rear right side of Forbidden City. Other imperial workshops were located in distant provinces with traditions for producing certain types of crafts.
For example, the imperial porcelain kilns were in Jingdezhen where there was a natural supply of kaolin clay. Imperial robes were produced at the imperial textile workshop located in southern China.
Ming emperors recruited the finest craftsmen, and supported their practice of using the finest materials. Many of those workshops were in place when the Qing emperors ascended to the throne. Others such as the pottery at Jingdezhen were disrupted by civil unrest associated with the fall of the Ming Dynasty, but the new rulers restored their production.
At the dawn of the Qing Dynasty, the six-year old emperor and his court of herdsmen advisors were probably naïve about the sophisticated arts of China. It is likely that craftsmen and bureaucrats rushed to provide an education about decoration and design. It also appears that the Qing emperors developed their own artistic taste and that sometimes did not include an appreciation for subtle design cherished among the most refined Chinese.
For example, the imperial alms bowl on view was produced from iron and then heavily gilded and decorated with removable dragons and fine tracery. Traditionally, Chinese alms bowls were designed to be consistent with their purpose and were crafted from either wood or undecorated iron. Against that standard, the glittering, reticulated alms bowl of the Qing emperors was garishly nouveau riche. A broader view across the entire Forbidden City exhibition demonstrates the ostentatious quality of nouveau riche taste.
Qing emperors also supported innovation in the arts. As noted with the Kangxi portrait, they supported the incorporation of European one-point perspective and modeling of figures by the use of highlights and shadows.
Another craft innovation supported by the Qing rulers was the use of a new deep rose color in porcelain. Pottery decorators painted porcelain bodies with the new glaze containing a colloidal suspension of gold. When kilns were fired, the glaze turned rosy red. Chemically, the new glaze was related to the colloidal suspension used to produce ruby red glass. The glaze was created in Europe, and Jesuits working in the Forbidden City sometimes assisted with the importation of the glaze.
In the exhibition, the deep rose glaze can be seen on a double vase with refined decoration. This vase is also more refined than most pottery in the exhibition in that the overall decoration is less busy, the primary motifs have a lyrical calligraphic flow, and yet within small elements there is precise detail.
Qing emperors also supported the creation of great narrative scrolls. For example, a series of 12 scrolls was created to document one visit by Emperor Qianlong to southern China. During his 60-year reign, the emperor journeyed only three times through the southern provinces, but these historic trips demonstrated his interest in the area and also provided an opportunity to peacefully parade military might. The series of scrolls became a visual history of one sojourn as well as an art project.
The exhibit presents one 30-foot scroll from the series that depicts emperor’s visit to the town of Shaoxing. The beautiful scroll reads from right to left with a single, continuous landscape. The landscape has alternating sections of populated scenes and unpopulated scenes. Unpopulated scenes serve as interludes, and the populated scenes show a sequence of imperial touring.
Within any particular scene, the emperor is easily located since he is twice as large as all other humans, and he is depicted with more vivid pigments. Usually he is toward the center of the scene and the crowd is set back a bit away from him. Details of the scene are so specifically rendered that the viewer can recognize products sold in each pictured shop, such as pottery or fish.
This permanent scroll was produced after the imperial entourage returned to the Forbidden City. The extraordinary detail and individually rendering of streets, walls, and other landscape elements suggests that a huge number of field sketches were produced, and one wonders if those are still extant.
Objects From Abroad
The imperial collection includes a wealth of objects produced outside China that were presented as gifts to emperors. These span the spectrum of crafted and manufactured objects, but there are a disproportionate number of elaborately engineered mechanisms and scientific instruments. Antiques and The Arts Weekly had the opportunity to informally discuss this concentration with some members of the Palace Museum staff. They indicated that all the emperors had deep interests in science and technology, and emperors were particularly pleased to receive gifts in those areas.
Scientific instruments on exhibit include an array of astronomical and navigational devices. These appear to be top grade manufactured examples. While one telescope was encrusted with jewels, most instruments were engraved in the manner acceptable to scientists of their time. They had some small areas of decorative scrolling, but most engraving marked functional lines and numbers. This was the one group of objects in the exhibition that did not have the ostentatious decoration usually associated with Qing emperors.
In contrast, gifts with elaborate mechanisms were decorated in every conceivable manner and on all possible surfaces. These were literally objects with all the bells and whistles. For example, a gilded English clock had a dial with five hands and a case with three different mechanisms. One mechanism presented a series of scenes on the front façade of the cabinet. Above the cabinet, a complex carousel of figures rotated. Projecting tall above each corner was a flower that rotated while opening and closing.
One curiosity among the mechanized objects was the inclusion of one clock in the French style that was actually produced in China. It even featured a dial with a 12-hour European dial with Roman numerals.
Objects of Manchu inspiration were some of the most fascinating works in the exhibition. As hunters and warriors, the Qing emperors were outstanding archers. One display includes a bow, arrows, quiver and bow holder. Earlier Manchu forms of the bow and bow holder were probably robustly sculpted and durable, but from course materials embellished with restrained decoration.
After the Manchu ascended to the throne, money was lavished on decorating the emperor’s hunting equipment. His bow holder has a needlepoint body that appears as dense as an Oriental rug. The outer gray background field was created with silver thread, and the inner field was orange. The floral design was worked in green, red, and pink threads. The strap of the bow holder was decorated with gold mounts studded with jewels.
The bow set, swords, and knives exhibited robust energy that worked well with highly crafted surfaces. Traditional folk forms were effectively integrated with strong decoration. Such striking combinations punctuated the exhibition with unanticipated delights.
“Secret World of the Forbidden City” is on view until September 23. The Peabody Essex Museum is at East India Square. Hours are Monday to Saturday 9 am to 5 pm, and Sunday noon to 5 pm. For information, 800-745-4054.
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