Emperors’ Treasures

Kublai Khan as the first Yuan emperor.

Kublai Khan as the first Yuan emperor.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art From the National Palace Museum, Taipei, recently on exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, featured over 150 pieces in various media selected from one of the world’s great collections of Chinese art. Asian Art Museum Director and CEO Jay Xiu, a co-curator of the exhibition, enthused in the Museum’s member magazine: “This is the absolute ‘best of the best’ of Chinese imperial art. Jade, paintings, ceramics, calligraphy … This will be a rare opportunity to experience these priceless treasures.” Most of these works had not been seen in the United States before.

The exhibition was presented within the frame of the stories of nine of China’s rulers. Eight emperors and one empress, spanning 800 years of art and history, were represented: Han Chinese emperors Huizong and Gaozong of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE); Kublai Khan, Mongol founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); Yongle and Xuande of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); and Manchu monarchs Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong and Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). These dynasties, explained the exhibition panels, tended to have their own artistic tastes – the “dignified” Song, “bold yet subtle” Yuan, “brilliant” Ming, and “dazzling” Qing.

Collecting art treasures wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics for these emperors – it was political. Emperors were seen as custodians of the culture, and this gave them power. In most cases, the works featured here would only have been seen within the emperor’s court, and were inaccessible to the common folk. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we can still enjoy these works today. They are very well-preserved because, for the most part, they weren’t hung up or on display for extended periods. They spent most of their time carefully stored away, and were only taken out occasionally at the request of the emperor.

Grotesque Stones by Emperor Huizong. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Grotesque Stones, by Emperor Huizong. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Emperors not only collected great works of the past and present, but were in many cases creators themselves. For instance, Huizong (1082-1135) – the name means “Glorious Emperor” – was an excellent calligrapher, inventor of the “slender-gold” style of calligraphy, as well as a fine painter and a patron of the arts. An example of his calligraphy in the exhibition, Grotesque Stones, praises an unusually shaped rock (looking like “a beast about to pounce”) in writing that is strong, elegant, disciplined, and very distinctive. Huizong’s court aspired to the past glories of the Bronze Age through excellence in interpreting Confucian teachings, creating new music, and reviving ancient rituals. The Song Dynasty, in fact, was one of the great creative periods in Chinese history.

Huizong, however, eventually had to go into exile when the Song lost much of its territory to an invasion by the Jin. The court relocated further south, and his Northern Song gave way to the Southern Song. Huizong’s son Gaozong (1107-87) became the first emperor of the Southern Song. Author of a book called The History of Brush and Ink, he was known for his skill in calligraphy, painting, and poetry. Paintings of this time tended toward the intimate, as opposed to the more monumental works of the Northern Song. One such Southern Song painting, Walking on a path in spring by Ma Yuan, was recently discussed here.

The Yuan Dynasty (the word Yuan means “great primordial”) was established by the Mongols, who came in from the north. Its art was more rustic and vigorous than the refined Southern Song. One of its best-known emperors, Kublai Khan (1215-94), wasn’t himself an artist. But he recognized its importance, and created institutions for the preservation of artistic styles, ritual objects, and items for court. He embraced Chinese culture, somewhat to the consternation of his fellow Mongols.

Vase with West Asian Entertainers

Vase with West Asian Entertainers

Han Chinese rule and culture was restored with the emergence of the Ming Dynasty (Ming means “bright”). After the overthrow of the Mongols, Ming rulers wanted to return to the old ways of the Song and of Confucian philosophy. It was Emperor Yongle (1360-1424), whose name means “Perpetual Happiness,” that sent the famous explorer Zheng He on his seven voyages. Trade flourished in far-flung regions during this period, and Chinese silk and porcelain became known all over the world. Symbolic of these interactions with the wider world is the Vase with West Asian Entertainers, one of only two like it still surviving. Created for export, the work’s shape and handles evoke West Asian and Near Eastern models. Yongle was also responsible for creating the Forbidden City in his capital Beijing.

Naval exploration was scaled back during the rule of Xuande (1398-1435), the fifth emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Focus returned to the homeland, and the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of great material prosperity, and growth in China’s cities. A painting by one of Xuande’s court artists, Li Zai (d. 1431), Mountain villa and lofty retreat, is a grand composition, over six feet tall, filled with detail, with an active, lively zigzagging motion through the different vignettes of the scroll.

Mountain Villa and Lofty Retreat by Li Zai.

Mountain Villa and Lofty Retreat by Li Zai.


The Qing Dynasty was the last imperial Chinese dynasty, ruled by the Manchu in the northeast. The three eighteenth century emperors highlighted in Emperors’ Treasures – Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong – built temples, palaces, and gardens throughout the country. Trade had become even more instrumental, in part due to the activities of the Dutch East India Company. Porcelain became a major export, and Chinese workshops created items like clocks and scientific instruments for Western markets. Jesuit missionaries were also welcomed into imperial courts, leading to an increased Western influence in religion, technology, and the arts.

Painting from album Court Ladies by Jiao Bingzhen

Painting from album Court Ladies by Jiao Bingzhen

Kangxi (1654-1722), the fourth Qing emperor, was especially open to influence from other cultures – he himself had blood ties to the Manchu, Mongols, and Han Chinese. He had a fascination with the details of the daily activities of his subjects and in Han Chinese ways of life, depicted in the album of 46 paintings Illustrations of farming and weaving by Leng Mei. Another album of paintings, Court Ladies by Jiao Bingzhen, shows court women engaged in leisurely pursuits, like reading and looking at gardens. Jiao was among the first Chinese painters to incorporate Western techniques in his work, particularly in perspective and colors. That strong Western influence continued under Kangxi’s successor Yongzheng (1678-1735), who was well-educated about art and wanted to live an aesthetic life, devoted to reading poetry and playing music.

Perhaps even more dedicated to the artistic life was Qianlong (1711-99). A poet, calligrapher, tea master, and all-around connoisseur, the self-titled “Old Man of the Perfections” wrote many thousands of poems and other works. He was a great and discerning collector of antiquities – in fact, he was responsible for assembling the heart of the collection featured in Emperors’ Treasures. Widely educated in literature and history, he also established painting and calligraphy schools.

His Palace Painting Academy produced artists like Ding Guanpeng, who spent around fifty years at the Academy. His specialty was depictions of Buddhist arhats (saints) and realms. One of the most ambitious and beautiful works in the Emperors’ Treasures exhibition is Ding’s Paradise Scene (1759), a vast, detailed painting derived from The Sutra on Contemplation of Buddha Amitayus. The temple towards the top evokes the Forbidden City. Buddha himself is enthroned in the center, in the form of Amitabha meditating. Next to him are the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin in Chinese) and Mahasthamaprapta (Dashizhi). Below, listening, are all sorts of other Bodhisattvas and arhats. At the bottom, souls reborn in paradise emerge from lotuses in a pond.

Paradise Scene by Ding Guanpeng

Paradise Scene by Ding Guanpeng


White Falcon by Giuseppe Castiglione

White Falcon by Giuseppe Castiglione

By this time, some Westerners had become part of the court, like Ding Guanpeng’s teacher, painter Giuseppe Castiglioni (1688-1766), known in China as Lang Shining. His painting White Falcon actually depicts a Siberian goshawk rather than a falcon, a gift from a Mongol prince to Qianlong. Eagles and falcons were considered symbolic of the nomadic spirit of the Mongols – strong in nature, yet able to be tamed and used in hunting.

Pottery of this era is very colorful, beautiful, and technically interesting, like the Vase with revolving core and eight-trigram design (1744), with one piece revolving within the other, and an intricate design derived from Daoist symbolism, including the yin-and-yang.

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) lived a luxurious life, but wasn’t extensively educated in the arts or literature, although she did receive some instruction in painting and calligraphy at the “Wish-Granting School” art workshop. A work that likely dates from her reign, perhaps the most famous work in the exhibition, is the popular Meat-shaped stone that I’ve also featured recently in this blog.

Vase with revolving core and eight trigram design

Vase with revolving core and eight trigram design

The National Palace Museum, Taipei has a permanent collection of nearly 700,000 pieces, making it perhaps the largest collection of ancient Chinese art in the world. In a sense, the Museum was born out of strife. The original Palace Museum opened in Beijing in 1925. After Japan invaded China, its works were sent to Shanghai and Nanjing, then to safer places inland in southwest China in the 1930s. In 1948 and 1949, in the middle of the Nationalist-Communist civil war, many valuable works were relocated to Taiwan. Their new home, the National Palace Museum, opened in 1965 and has expanded considerably over the years. To get the National Palace Museum’s works to the Asian Art Museum was the result of a multi-year negotiation. This exhibition serves as a very fitting part of the celebration of the Asian Art Museum’s fiftieth year.

Visit the Emperors’ Treasures page at the Asian Art Museum website for more information.

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