The Qianlong emperor ruled China from 1736 to 1796, at a time when his “middle kingdom” was the richest and most powerful nation in the world. While countries such as America and France were fighting their revolutions, Qianlong oversaw a rapid expansion of the Chinese empire as well as a great flourishing of the arts that buttressed the belief that China sat at the centre of the universe.
The country’s attitude at the time to non-Chinese “barbarians” is summed up nicely in a letter Qianlong wrote to King George III in response to a trade mission sent by the English monarch to Peking (as Beijing was then known) in 1793.
“As your ambassador can see for himself, the celestial empire abounds in all things and lacks nothing. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious and have no use for your country’s products,” the emperor responded to the English requests for greater access to the Chinese market. Despite King George’s impudence at even suggesting more interaction between Chinese and foreigners, Qianlong forgave him the affront: “I have ever shown the greatest condescension to the tribute missions of all states which sincerely yearn after the blessings of civilisation so as to manifest my kindly indulgence.”
The letter ended with the customary imperial sign-off: “Tremble and Obey.”
The emperor obviously had no premonition of the humiliating British-led opium wars and foreign domination of China that were to unfold over the next century and a half.
Today, China has just overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy and its seemingly inexorable economic and military rise is seen by many as a return to its rightful position in the world. It’s in this context that an extremely rare exhibition of Qianlong’s private artworks is going on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, next week before travelling to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and then the Milwaukee Art Museum early next year.
The exhibition, organised in collaboration with the World Monuments Fund and the Palace Museum in Beijing, boasts 90 exquisite objects of ceremony and leisure, including murals, furniture, paintings, screens and jade artefacts. These objects all come from the secret garden retirement complex that the emperor built for himself more than 230 years ago within the vermilion walls of the Forbidden City in central Beijing.
Incredibly, many of them were discovered by accident when the World Monuments Fund and Palace Museum began restoring the complex a few years ago. Most have never been displayed or even left the Forbidden City since they were first created centuries ago. While nearly 8m people visit the 180-acre Forbidden City each year, this part has been off-limits to the public since it was built in the 18th century.
I was recently granted entry to the two-acre garden retreat and allowed to stroll through the Studio of Exhaustion From Diligent Service in the tranquillity of rockeries, pavilions and gardens where only a handful of eunuchs, concubines and restoration experts had ever set foot. (Visitors to the exhibition will have a chance to take something of the same stroll by virtual means.) The most striking thing about the garden is just how peaceful it is – a world away from the traffic, dust and mayhem of Beijing a few metres beyond the walls.
Under an artfully designed rockpile next to the Supreme Chamber of Cultivating Harmony, a secret underground passageway passes beneath trees and immaculately designed pagodas. In another corner of the complex – next to the Studio of Self-restraint and Terrace for Collecting Morning Dew – is the Pavilion of Purification, where the emperor would sit in the shade with his consorts beside a skinny dragon-shaped trough filled with flowing water and play an ancient Chinese drinking game. Cups of liquor were floated down the miniature stream and whoever the cup stopped in front of had to drain the glass and compose a poem. This was easy for Qianlong, a prolific and passionate scribbler who was credited with more than 1,300 prose texts and over 40,000 poems.
He wasn’t so fond of competition, though, and while he oversaw a 20-year project to catalogue all important works on Chinese culture he also burnt or banned thousands of books and carried out a number of literary inquisitions that often ended with “death by a thousand cuts” for the offending author.
Despite the dismissive attitude towards foreign barbarians Qianlong displayed in his correspondence with King George, the imperial court of the time actually included a number of French and Italian artists and architects. In many of the pieces on display in this exhibition and throughout the secret garden complex, you can see hints of obvious foreign influence, especially in the objects that incorporate glass, which was not widely produced in China at the time.
But perhaps the most interesting piece is composed of 16 delicate lacquer screen panels decorated with jade and gold paint. On one side are grotesque and distorted black and white figures representing enlightened disciples of the Buddha, while on the reverse side each one is covered with beautifully intricate golden plants and flowers in striking contrast to the ugliness on the front.
This blend of fragile beauty with powerfully ugly religious imagery captures something of the essence of the emperor and his celestial empire – the blend of hubris and vulnerability in international affairs, cruelty and aesthetic sensitivity in the artistic realm.
‘The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City’, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, September 14- January 9 2011 www.pem.org