Imagine a painting titled: Tony Abbott admiring lotus while playing a zither, and you have glimpsed the cultural chasm that separates our world from that of the Qianlong Emperor. While the rulers of the Qing Dynasty (1644 -1911) were careful to surround themselves with symbols of conquest and martial prowess, they were equally assiduous in cultivating an image as scholars and art lovers.
In the catalogue for A Golden Age of China: Qianlong Emperor, 1736-1795, at the National Gallery of Victoria, we discover a strategy called “governing through culture.” By preserving and celebrating China’s literary and artistic heritage, the Qing Emperors impressed their own legitimacy upon Han Chinese subjects who preferred to see their Manchu conquerors as barbarians from the north.
When they had secured the Mandate of Heaven it’s significant that the Manchu became the Qing, a word meaning “pure” or “clear”. It was a statement of high principles and a determination to prove themselves worthy rulers of a vast, heterogeneous empire.
The long-term success and stability of the Qing Dynasty testifies to the invaders’ success at assimilating the culture of the vanquished. The Qing even showed their disapproval of a few barbarous Han customs, including the foot-binding that turned women into crippled dolls.
The Qing practiced religious tolerance while following strict dress codes intended to enforce demarcations between different strata of society. They also worked to retain their northern language and customs, believing that a complete surrender to Han culture would lead to their downfall.
Even allowing for the Qing’s preservation of an ethnic distinctness, we cannot doubt the sincerity of their admiration for traditional Chinese culture. The reign of the Qianlong Emperor represents a high point in China’s history. Never had the country been so prosperous and unified; never had the arts flourished so magnificently. Qianlong’s father, the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722-35), had made sure the Prince received the finest education from a team of renowned scholars. The boy was a prodigy who had learned his Chinese characters by the age of six, and went on to cultivate talents in many fields.
Qianlong is reputed to have written 1,300 prose pieces and 40,000 poems – all in his spare time after the daily responsibilities of office had been met. This show contains many examples of the Emperor’s calligraphy, including one exceptionally clear and beautiful piece, Poem about East Mountain Brush-rest peak (1768).
There are also paintings by Qianlong, mostly careful copies after works by Chinese Masters; and pictures by other artists that he has festooned with seals, poems and comments. This was part of a longstanding practice, whereby the connoisseur might add his seal or a line of appreciation to a favourite work. It’s not like writing “What a corker!” on a Fred Williams.
Nevertheless there were times when Qianlong’s enthusiasms ran away with him. A Ming dynasty landscape attributed to Ni Zan, The Lion Forest Garden (1373), features 10 lengthy inscriptions by the Emperor, plus six of his seals, along with the seals of earlier collectors. It makes the work look like a letter that has been sent to many different addresses without being opened.
One of Qianlong’s own paintings, Mountain Villa of Peaceful Lodging in Mount Pan, Hebei Province, built in 1745, holds no fewer than 34 of the Emperor’s poems, added over a period of 50 years, whenever he visited the villa where it was kept.
These pieces, and the rest of this compact but dazzling exhibition, have been drawn from the holdings of the Palace Museum, in the Forbidden City, Beijing. If you’ve been to the Forbidden City and felt you didn’t see the best of it that may be because there are reputedly 1.8 million artefacts in the collection. The palace complex itself consists of 900 rooms, spread across an area of 720,000 square metres.
Even though Chiang Kai-Chek carted off trainloads of imperial treasures to Taiwan in 1949, when he fled from the Communist advance, he left enough to fill numerous museums. Chiang’s looting at least had the benefit of preserving the items that have ended up in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. A more alarming form of pillage took place during the Maoist years, as valuable works were sold off, either by crooked profiteers or by the government as a means of raising revenue.
A Golden Age for China suggests the cupboards of the Palace Museum are not exactly bare. In fact they are being replenished, as the cashed-up Chinese are buying back the heritage items once sold for a pittance to western collectors.
One of the most touching aspects of this exhibition has been the Palace Museum’s willingness to lend top quality pieces. The story goes that when Mae Anna Pang, the NGV’s Senior Curator of Asian Art, turned up in Beijing with a wish list, she was given everything she wanted and more. The Chinese curators apparently felt that if one were showing a painting of Qianlong or the Empress, Xiao Yichun, in their imperial robes, then it would be best to show the robes as well.
As a result of this munificence, viewers can examine a pristine portrait of the young Qianlong as he ascended the throne in 1736, and then look at the elaborate costume and crown that appear in the picture. The same process is repeated several times in this show, giving an air of veracity to paintings that are otherwise stiff and formal.
The formality is inevitable, but the style itself is captivating, being largely the work of the Italian Jesuit, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who served as court painter for Qianlong, his father and grandfather.
Castiglione was enormously influential, introducing western devices such as Renaissance-style perspective into Chinese art. On the other hand, Castiglione’s own work was influenced by traditional Chinese painting. Many of his pieces are east-west collaborations, with realistic figures set against the fairy tale mountains of Chinese scroll painting. There is even a snowy landscape painted by Qianlong in 1763 that features a small ‘self-portrait’ of the Emperor added by the Jesuit.
Castiglione’s paintings are signs of the cosmopolitan outlook of Qianlong and his immediate forebears, but the show contains even more striking examples such as an ornate English clock, or a French barometer in the form of a locomotive. The show-stopping hybrid is a porcelain plate with three-dimensional sculptures of a crab, fruit, nuts and seeds. The inspiration is European (look no further than Bernard Palissy), but the craftsmanship and layers of symbolic meaning are completely Chinese.
Qianlong’s taste for “exotic” novelties never diminished his love for more traditional art forms. He acquired 10,000 pieces of jade, plus large quantities of paintings, pieces of calligraphy and porcelain. When he wasn’t seeking out precious antiques the Emperor would be commissioning works from master craftsmen.
Qianlong’s cosmopolitanism extended to his religious beliefs. He assiduously observed the age-old rituals of the court and the shamanistic beliefs of his northern ancestors, but his true source of devotion was Tibetan Buddhism. Here he established much better connections than the Beijing potentates of the Communist era. The show contains several paintings in which Qianlong is portrayed as an incarnation of a Bodhisattva – a being who has already attained Enlightenment but decided to keep Nirvana on hold while assisting others. The Dalai Lama was a friend and admirer.
It’s no secret that many – if not all – of the images of Qianlong were forms of propaganda. Nothing was beyond the Son of Heaven. He could kill a deer with a single arrow while riding at full tilt; he had mastered the Confucian Classics and the Buddhist sutras; he could paint a landscape or write a poem. He was, to be blunt, too good to be true.
It’s a testimony to the success of Qianlong’s imperial propaganda machine that he still looks so impressive today. There is no contemporary political leader who might not envy the breadth of the Emperor’s accomplishments or the success of his rule. Qianlong was a philosopher and an artist, while today it is hard to find a leader anywhere who is anything more than an opportunist.
Every Golden Age stands as a rebuke to our own decadence, and every successful leader takes on a mythical glamour. Whatever the political realities of Qianlong’s reign, he emerges from this exhibition as a figure from which we might learn a few lessons.
A Golden Age of China:
Qianlong Emperor 1736-1795
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Until 21 June.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 30th May, 2015