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Splendors of China's Forbidden City:
The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong

(book review)

by Chuimei Ho and Bennett Bronson
288 pages with 356 color illustrations
© 2004 Merrell Publishers
ISBN: 1-85894-203-9
Hardcover, $49.95

The man sits at ease on horseback. His reins are caught up in the left hand, hidden in its brown Manchu 'horse-hoof' sleeve. A quiver of arrows forms a thicket of feathers at his back, and his bow hangs easily to one side. He passes with his retinue, six craggy huntsmen and two extra ponies; but it is he who looks out of the painting, directly at the viewer, his face relaxed, and with a certain pleased pride; and though his robe of muted brown is a simple garment, his bow-case of crimson and black, caparisoned in gold dragons, and the gold on his horse's bridle and the cross-ties of the crupper bespeak an undercurrent of Oriental luxury.

The portrait, Calling Deer (Color on silk and paper: 105 x 125-1/2 in.: 1741), is of Qianlong, the Emperor of China from 1736-1796. The resulting effect, with its informal, human appeal and hints of privileged splendor, its blend of clean Western-style portraiture and stylized, traditional brush-blots of hummocks and foliage, embodies the essence of Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong: an intimate look into the inner workings of this remarkable 18th-century ruler. Companion to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History exhibition of the same name, Splendors of China's Forbidden City is an excellent stand-alone volume in its own right, detailing the nearly 400 artifacts of Qianlong's life and times with text that provides historic context of the items displayed. This is a rewarding book, the first comprehensive overview of the art and artifacts of this important period in China's history, and featuring photographs of innumerable national treasures from the Palace Museum in Beijing, many of which have never been in print before.

Authors Chuimei Ho and Bennett Bronson present the fruits of their scholarship in straightforward, accessible text; both curated the actual exhibition and hold positions in the Asian Archaeology department of the Field Museum. They open with a brief history of the unique social and ethnic conditions in place during the time of Qianlong's rule. The Manchu had conquered the Han Chinese in the 17th century: a martial, horse-loving minority elite, ruling an aesthetically cultivated, scholarly majority. Qianlong himself, a Manchu, was twenty-six when he assumed the throne of the Qing dynasty in 1736 -- an eager young regent taking up the reins of government from two capable forebears, his grandfather Kangxi and his father Yongzheng, both emperor before him. His rule encompassed one of the largest and most diverse empires ever governed by a single man. Ethnically, geographically, and religiously diverse, China's population expanded to an unprecedented 350 million during his fruitful reign, with imperial borders that stretched north and east to what are now present-day Russia and Tibet; south, to what is now India. The last example of full-scale feudal rule in China, Qianlong's reign was a period of unprecedented cultural flowering, supported by the economic stability of his government and with much of it being the direct result of his personal interest in the arts.

Cleanly photographed, in stunning color, the artifacts and art objects reveal themselves in all their richness. They include objects of imperial authority, such as throne fittings and ceremonial robes; items of daily use, including table place-settings and desk outfittings; paintings, jade carvings, ceramics, and other objects of the emperor's aesthetic pleasure; and sculpture and paintings representative of Tibetan Buddhism, Shamanism, Daoism, and other of the religions supported by the Qing court. In addition to historic context the text details decorative elements, subtle hints of rank, and provenance of the items. Each is an object of Qianlong's reign; many are his actual personal possessions, or those of his consorts. All are from the Forbidden City itself, the very heart of imperial China -- that part of the imperial palace compound which was off limits to all but the emperor, his forty consorts, and the bevy of eunuchs who surrounded and served them.

Among the intriguing views into the realities of life in the imperial Forbidden City are the candid, contemporary comments of the Manchus, who loved mounted archery, horses and the hunt, and commented unfavorably on the ancient palace's low ceilings, dark halls and narrow rooms. Other sections discuss art, artifacts, and details of the daily life of women in the Forbidden City, confined to their own protected enclave in which the emperor was the only adult male permitted; the religions supported by the emperor, in personal faith and as part of ruling; descriptions of the daily and yearly routines of his tireless administration of the empire; as well as his main pleasures, artistic endeavors and hunting.

Top: Saucer in chrysanthemum
form inscribed with Qianlong poem
1774 or earlier
Porcelain with glaze imitating
cinnabar lacquer
Diameter 6-1/4 in.
Bottom: Teabowl with lid in
chrysanthemum form, inscribed with
Qianlong poem
, 1776
Porcelain with glaze imitating
cinnabar lacquer
Diameter 4-1/4 in.
© 2004 Merrell Publishers

As well as the decorative objects, Splendors of China's Forbidden City includes paintings of the period. Many capture imperial ceremony on a grand scale. The painting Imperial Banquet in Wanshu Garden (Color on silk: width 160 in.: c. 1755) records a banquet held by the emperor, including accurate depictions of the setting, the garments, and individualized portraits of the scores of participants, skillfully done in faces no larger than a thumbprint. Close-up details of this and other large paintings are included throughout the book, a welcome addition for works which include 8'x6' monumental wall screens and long trailing scrolls, both with detail down to the square inch. Other paintings highlight the emperor's use of portraiture as both a personal and a political representation. Although it is difficult to draw a clear dividing line along those he commissioned for personal pleasure, and those he knew would appeal to his Han or Manchu constituents, he did take pains to be portrayed in ways that bolstered his image with the variety of values they upheld: as a skilled hunter in works such as Taking A Stag With A Mighty Arrow (Color on silk: 12 x 46 in.: 1760s); as a poet in Qianlong in his Study (Ink on paper: height 38-1/2 in.: before 1767), and as a Han Chinese family man in Emperor Qianlong's Pleasure during Snowy Weather (Color on silk: 151x63 in.: c. 1738). Many of these images were personal treasures; Taking A Stag With A Mighty Arrow includes a scroll case painted by one of his sons.

Although Qianlong had a definite political advantage in appealing to both his constituencies, in neither of these areas was he merely being 'politically correct': he was a genuinely skilled hunter as befit his Manchu roots, as well as an ardent follower of the scholarly pursuits so valued by the Han Chinese. But it is the scope of his personal connoisseurship and cultural interests that puts the crowning touch on the portrait of this remarkable individual. The closing chapter, "The Emperor as a Private Person," includes details of his artistic patronage. Not only was Qianlong highly educated, he was a vigorous patron of the fine arts, a tireless writer, whose "prodigious literary output... included thousands of prose essays and more than forty thousand printed or otherwise published poems, many of them quite long," and a passable artist and calligrapher himself. He was, as well, an avid collector who amassed a substantial collection of early Chinese calligraphy, literature, antique ceramics, bronzes, and jades. With considerable personal knowledge in these fields, he spoke and wrote with authority on much of his collection. As the authors note, Qianlong's catalogues even today remain definitive references to ancient Chinese graphic art and ceramics.

As collector, his preservation and cataloguing of China's ancient art represent an early example of serious artistic conservation (he even had special buildings constructed to safely house his extensive collections). On a broader level he was a vigorous advocate of the development of new technologies. His Imperial Household Department included the imperial ceramic and textile factories, the decorative art workshops, book publishing, architectural design, and graphic arts, and he continually challenged his artisans with new requests, some based on imported Western models and others according to his own fancy. His patronage was a significant influence on 18th-century technology and design in China's ceramics, glassmaking, and enamel industries, raising many of these areas to world-class levels. The book includes numerous examples of exquisite items from his collections, including two of the largest jade sculptures in existence and a variety of calligraphic renderings and delicate ceramics. An interesting side note is his practice of writing laudatory poems directly on pieces he particularly liked; conservators shrink from such alterations today, but the emperor felt no hesitation in composing appraisals in verse on the blank areas of the ink wash paintings he treasured.

If there is a criticism to make, it is that this chapter, so rich with possibility, does not receive the attention it deserves. A book may be only so long, and one does not envy Ho and Bronson the editorial choices they had to make in what to highlight, what to gloss. But one wishes that many of the thirty-one short sidebar essays by contributing authors -- most of only passable interest, and distracting from the main text -- had been done away with, and the space thus freed used for deeper discussion of the Qianlong's contributions to art and culture, one of his most varied and unique achievements.

There is a further wealth in Splendors of China's Forbidden City, and that is the inclusion of paintings by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit priest of considerable artistic skill who had come to China in 1715 and who was a fixture in the Qing court until his death in 1766. The presence of Castiglione and other talented Jesuit artists resulted in a unique hybrid of Eastern and Western style, evident in many of the paintings illustrated in the book. In particular, Castiglione's accurate, Western-style portraiture represents a departure from the traditional, stylized depictions of Chinese art, and provide the main images by which we know Qianlong visually. Unlike the approximate likenesses of earlier emperors, such as the portrait of Qianlong's grandfather Kangxi by an anonymous court artist several decades earlier (used as a cover image on Jonathan Spence's excellent Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kang-Hsi (Knopf:1974)) Castiglione's realistic style presents the emperor in true likeness, with subtleties of feature and mood. To render it so faithfully was a triumph in the artistically demanding tempera medium the emperor favored, and the resulting portraits with their sensitive likeness, such as Calling Deer (which is attributed to Castiglione), call forth an answering empathy, and bring the reader close to Qianlong as a real person.

Calling Deer (detail), 1741
Color on silk and paper
105 x 125-1/2 in.
Artist: attributed to Giuseppe Castiglione
© 2004 Merrell Publishers

Castiglione was the emperor's main portrait painter, and the works illustrated in Splendors of China's Forbidden City include the splendid inaugural portrait Portrait of the Qianlong emperor at the age of twenty-five (Color on silk: 95-3/8 x 70-1/2 in.: c. 1736) (a detail of which serves as the cover image of the book), Calling Deer, and other portraits mentioned above of Qianlong as hunter, poet, and family man. Not only do Castiglione's paintings provide direct detail of the people and events of the Qing court, they are works of significant aesthetic pleasure. As a further note, two of the Castiglione paintings included here are unique in the history of Chinese art: the remarkable Taking A Stag With A Mighty Arrow, in which Qianlong's hunting partner is, unprecedentedly in Chinese painting, a woman; and the enigmatic Spring's Peaceful Message (Color on silk: length 27 in.: 1723-35), painted during the artist's tenure in the Yongzheng court and the only known portrait of an imperial father and son in Chinese history. Although Ho and Bronson discuss Castiglione only briefly (once in a sidebar, and twice in the text), these detailed, beautifully reproduced illustrations represent the most comprehensive collection of Castiglione's works in a single volume since Cécile and Michel Buerdeley's monograph, Giuseppe Castiglione: A Jesuit Painter in the Court of the Chinese Emperors (C.E. Tuttle & Co., 1971).

Splendors of China's Forbidden City closes with a more personal focus, an empathetic look at the aging emperor. The authors bring a touching sense of humanity to the emperor's growing age by quoting from a few of his own letters and poems in his later years. Moved by a visit to the tomb of his beloved first empress, Xiaoxian, fifty years after her death, he noted:

I wanted to drive past without stopping
But pretending is no good either
The three cups did not stop short of offering
The four seasons announce the coldness
The planted pine trees are now tall and scaly
The green sky opens wide above the buildings
Holding hands we returned home together
What joy is longevity for me [alone]?

As a young prince, he had come to the throne with an eagerness to rule. He had proven himself capably for over sixty years. He was now faced, not only with diminishing physical capabilities due to his age -- eighty -- but also the problem of a worthy successor. He did not feel his surviving sons capable of ruling, and finally settled on his fifteenth son, Jiaqing. But Jiaqing was not the ruler his father had been; and Qianlong's further misplaced trust in a favored court official, Heshen, during his last years of life were to critically undermine the imperial legacy mere decades after his death. Forgivingly, Ho and Bronson touch only briefly on the following years of decline of the Qing court, and close on the triumphant note of Jiaqing's memorial edict to his father:

Working hard, handling thousands of items of business day after day,
     going over paperwork, meeting officials;
Caring for the people, benefiting everyone -- cutting all taxes five times
     and spending millions on emergency relief;
Demonstrating leadership in sustaining the court,
     in improving and managing the administration,
     in setting and sharing standards with officials and clans,      
and in promoting capable people;
Pacifying the unsettled boundaries, expanding the empire's territory to
     more than 20,000 li, and succeeding in ten military campaigns;
Being very intelligent and well-informed, having read all the classics;
Starting a new trend with his poetry and writing great essays
     that surpassed those of many great writers before him;
Traveling without forgetting his work, his principles, and his people; and
Assembling and publishing great literature of the past.

Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong covers a great deal of ground in 287 pages; several of its chapters could easily be expanded into volumes of their own, and particularly in the chapter "The Emperor as a Private Person" the authors end up leaping from highlight to highlight in their efforts to give a full picture of Qianlong's artistic patronage within the available space. Still, these are minor considerations for a book that will appeal to art lovers and historians alike. Few emperors can have equalled the amazing mastery of Qianlong: capable diplomat, military leader, skilled hunter; as well as connoisseur, writer, artist, and art collector. If this is a sympathetic portrait -- more so than, say, Yale University Chinese scholar Jonathan Spence's notations on Qianlong in his book The Search for Modern China (W.W. Norton and Company:1999) -- it is an engaging one, of a period noteworthy for its artistic development, and for its uniquely situated, imperially wealthy patron of the arts. In highlighting the significance of these artistic objects both fine and decorative, Ho and Bronson provide as well the necessary overview, a speculative look at the history of the time; and particularly, a personal look into the life of a remarkable ruler, an individual who was an imperial presence, a true connoisseur of art, and a human and accessible man. This detailed study is well worth one's attention.

ArtScope.net also reviewed the Field Museum of Natural History exhibition of Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong. Click here to visit the exhibition review.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.

Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link.

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