To the Nines
Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Now on view at the Asian Art Museum
Emperors’ Treasures, which opened to the public at the Asian Art Museum yesterday and continues through September 18, is an exhibition of greatest hits from the Chinese imperial collections. Objects on display span nearly a millennium of imperial rule, from the time of the early Song-dynasty ruler the Huizong emperor, who reigned in the early twelfth century, through that of the formidable regent Cixi (pronounced something like “Tsuhshee”), the Qing-dynasty counterpoint to England’s Victoria, who ruled by proxy from 1861 through 1908. Objects are grouped around a set of nine Chinese rulers.
Museum exhibitions might be divided into those that are narrative-driven and those that are great objects driven (the latter might be termed “connoisseur shows”). I confess to a preference for narrative, but the objects on display in Emperors’ Treasures are of such high quality and have so rarely toured that this is a show not to be missed if you have any interest at all in imperial Chinese art. If you’re a selective museum-goer who is likely to attend only a couple of AAM exhibitions this year, this one and the Ramayana show opening in October are the ones to see.
Many of the objects, all of which are drawn from the collections of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, have never traveled to the U.S. before. And those that have visited have been only rarely seen. The only two previous extensive exhibitions of materials from the National Palace Museum occurred in the 1960s and the 1990s. Yet the NPM is one of the world’s greatest repositories of artworks. (The core of its collection was moved from the Forbidden City by Chiang Kai-shek.)
Emperors’ Treasures is very much a director’s show. I should divulge that I once worked at the Asian Art Museum. From working in the museum world I learned that some shows are acquired from elsewhere for interest or convenience, some bubble up from staff, some are hammered out in committee, some are the direct result of curatorial determination, some are marketing driven — but at least a few particularly manifest directorial guidance. Emperors’ Treasures is one of those.
Since taking over directorship of the Asian Art Museum in 2008, Jay Xu has made it a priority to cultivate connections with museums and influencers abroad, particularly in China. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition (Xu is credited as co-editor, along with Associate Curator of Chinese Art He Li), the director of the National Palace Museum, Fung Ming-Chu, writes:
Since 2009, Director Xu visited the NPM every year to express his desire to collaborate on an exhibition and to discuss possible themes. It was not until October 2013, after he visited our exhibition The All Complete Qianlong: A Special Exhibition of the Aesthetic Tastes of the Qin emperor Gaozong, that he decided on the theme of the emperor’s tastes and to hold the exhibition in commemoration of the Asian Art Museum’s fiftieth anniversary in 2016. Director Xu pointed out that this exhibition would be the first major exhibition from the NPM since Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei in 1996, which toured the four largest cities in the United States.
Great as it is to be able to show such a remarkable collection of art, it must have been difficult to find a narrative that could easily encompass several hundred years of the ups and downs of varied Chinese empires. The theme of “emperors’ tastes” is a perfectly serviceable one, since what is shown are top-drawer objects that made the cut into the imperial collections. But that narrative can also be challenging to Americans who tend not to have much of a grasp of Chinese history.
The show presents the objects as reflecting the taste of nine Chinese rulers spanning four dynasties. The conceit is not always perfectly neat. All of the works were once in the imperial collections, but some probably reflect a particular emperor’s tastes more than others do. For example, a ceramic pillow in the shape of a wish-granting mushroom is attributed to an artist of the Jin dynasty. When did this enter the imperial collections? It’s not clear. The date of origin seems to fit the time of emperor Huizong of the Song, but the Jin was a Jurchen (Manchu) dynasty, who drove Huizong’s native Song court to the south, resulting in a divided China. Moreover, the object is inscribed on its base with a poem by the Qianlong emperor, who reigned some six hundred years later. So while the pillow undoubtedly reflects Chinese imperial taste — the Qianlong emperor’s poem compares Confucian virtues with the quality of the object’s glaze — it is difficult to know exactly how to situate it within the exhibition. A celadon vase from Huizong’s time also contains a poem by the Qianlong emperor. A painting called Walking on a Path in Spring contains calligraphy by the Ningzong emperor and is dated to his reign, while paintings called Awakening by a Window Awning and Spring Fragrance, Clearing after Rain contain calligraphy by the Xiaozong emperor and date to his brief reign, but neither of these emperors is among the featured nine. And so on. Similar issues surround several other objects of uncertain date including a number of Qing-dynasty objects from the eighteenth century.
That’s not a huge problem, however, and organizing the show around nine emperors who were some of the world’s greatest patrons of the arts is a reasonable plan that helps to humanize and structure the exhibition. (I’m not sure how successfully the emperor’s personalities are brought to life, but maybe the museum did not want to strain the conceit.) The exhibition design is impressive, with Chinese-style room dividers distinguishing the sections. At times space can be a little tight, especially in Osher gallery, the first in the sequence, and it would be best to visit that gallery when it is not too crowded. Unavoidably, light-sensitive works must be dimly lit, so don’t forget your glasses.
Why nine emperors? (Rulers, really. Cixi ruled but was not technically an empress but rather a regent.) They serve as an umbrella covering the range of works. Why not eight or ten? A painting from the Qianlong emperor’s reign depicting nine goats signifying peace for the New Year (see above) expresses the importance of the number nine in the Chinese cultural tradition. The word for “nine,” jiu, is pronounced the same as a word meaning “eternity.” (Such homonyms often find artistic expression in rebuses, or visual puns, and that painting is full of them.) Analogy could be made to the English expression “to the nines,” meaning to the height of perfection, as in the Robert Burns lines “Thou paints auld nature to the nines, In thy sweet Caledonian lines.”
So it’s an auspicious number of rulers. But since most U.S. museum-goers will probably not come to the show with much familiarity with them, I have prepared the following handy crib. (The exhibition panels give the emperors’ life dates but not their reign dates, which I have supplied.) I recommend that before visiting, to get the most from the show, you try to have some sense of the sweep of the four dynasties, and at least a nodding acquaintance with some of the emperors. Here are the dynasties and imperial reigns that are the focus of the show:
Song Dynasty (960–1279)
1 The Huizong emperor, 1082–1135 (r. 1100–1126)
2 The Gaozong emperor, 1107–1187 (r. 1127–1162; as “retired emperor” 1162–1187)
Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368)
3 Emperor Kublai Khan, 1215–1294 (r. 1260–1294)
Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
4 The Yongle emperor, 1360–1424 (r. 1403–1424)
5 The Xuande emperor, 1398–1435 (5. 1426–1435)
Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)
6 The Kangxi emperor, 1654–1722 (r. 1662–1722)
7 The Yongzheng emperor, 1678–1735 (r. 1723–1735)
8 The Qianlong emperor, 1711–1799 (r. 1736–1795)
9 Empress Dowager Cixi, 1835–1908 (regent for the Guangxu and Kangxi emperors, 1861–1908)
A word about names. Chinese emperors have birth names that are different from their imperial monikers. Aisin Gioro Honglin was the name of the fourth son of the Yongzheng Emperor. Upon accession to the throne he, like the others, chose a reign, or era, name. “Qianlong” means “Lasting Eminence.” He would thereafter be referred to as “the Qianlong emperor,” and it would have been a grave transgression to address him by his birth name. In the Chinese tradition, therefore, emperors are normally written about and best known by their reign designations. While functioning like names, these are not exactly the same thing, having something of the quality of titles, and therefore best take the form “the Qianlong emperor” rather than “Emperor Qianlong.”
Continuing with the theme of nines, let’s look at one work associated with each of the rulers.
The Huizong emperor, 1082–1135 (r. 1100–1126) ruled during an eventful era in Chinese history. He was the eighth emperor of the Song dynasty, which for later Ming scholars would be viewed as a classical age (Western scholars sometimes call it “Medieval” by analogy to corresponding Western history). Under his rule Song painters created dramatic large-scale landscapes like this one, which would influence countless generations of brush artists. The Huizong emperor was a Taoist, and the landscape paintings created under his patronage reflect Taoist belief in the divine nature of mountains. This winter scene reflects the Song painters’ increased emphasis on seasonality.
Sadly, grand paintings are ineffectual against military invasion, and the Song were forced to flee to southern China in 1127 from Jurchen invaders. One of the Huizong emperor’s sons, the Gaozong emperor, established the Southern Song dynasty. There the new emperor seemed to flourish, together with Empress Wu, shown in this portrait by an anonymous court artist. Educated and courageous, Empress Wu participated in military campaigns and reportedly saved the emperor’s life by killing an assailant with an arrow. In this portrait the pheasants on her robe identify her as an empress. She is literally dressed to the nines, as nine dragons appear on her elaborate headdress.
Kublai Khan, 1215–1294 (r. 1260–1294), a grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered China and overthrew the Song. He established the East Asian Mongol khanate as part of the world’s most extensive contiguous empire, which extended from the Korean peninsula to eastern Europe. In China the dynasty he founded is known as the Yuan. The Mongol invaders were little loved by their East Asian subjects, but Kublai Khan was adept at administration and wisely incorporated many elements of traditional Chinese culture into his court — compare this portrait to that of Empress Wu. (Nonetheless, the Yuan would endure only a century.) This portrait in a fairly traditional style suggests that he retained the Song atelier of court painters.
The Yongle emperor (Yongle is pronounced like “young love” without the vee sound at the end), 1360–1424 (r. 1403–1424), of the Ming dynasty presided over a great era in Chinese history, when it dominated East Asia, and even dispatched a giant ocean-going vessel under the command of the Muslim eunuch Zheng He on expeditions that explored as far as East Africa. The emperor returned the capital to Beijing in the north, where he developed the “Forbidden City” as the grandest royal complex in the world. This extraordinary red lacquer vase may take its shape from West Asian glassware. It is intricately carved with flower patterns. The flowers, identified by the exhibition curators as peony, thistle, cape jasmine, and chrysanthemum, are arranged in a pattern that seems effortlessly fluid yet also superbly balanced.
The Xuande emperor, 1398–1435 (r. 1426–1435), himself an accomplished artist, oversaw the development of polychrome porcelain. The technique of its manufacture would remain a much coveted Chinese secret for centuries. A chicken cup similar to this one recently sold for $36 million. But Jay Xu has observed that “the motif here is from daily life: it’s not epic, it’s not overtly grand, but is quite ordinary and a gentle, almost warm image of family life. It’s a farmyard scene familiar to any Chinese peasant, but it’s one commissioned by the emperor. It’s a wonderful mystery why the most powerful man in the world would want something so mundane and domestic on a piece of extremely fine porcelain, at a point when porcelain-making had achieved its highest level of refinement.”
Shortly after the fall of the Ming, the Kangxi emperor, 1654–1722 (r. 1662–1722), took steps to encourage toleration of diversity in the Qing empire, and he pursued new achievements in science and the arts. He adopted the Western calendar; studied Western languages, science, and philosophy; and appointed Jesuit missionaries to his court. During his reign he established glasswork factories that produced objects such as this one, painted with bright-colored enamel. It is a superb technical and artistic achievement, without equal elsewhere in the world of the late seventeenth century.
The Yongzheng emperor, 1678–1735 (r. 1723–1735), a devotee of Taoist ritual, took an interest in alchemical studies and the arcane practices of the ancients. This vessel imitates the shape of ritual objects from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771–221 BCE), the age of such figures as Confucius and the historical Buddha. The emperor was something of a micromanager, taking close interest in and direction of artistic production — to the neglect, it was said, of his governing responsibilities. He directed his artisans to produce objects similar to Western cloisonné (decorated metalwork). Here the copper alloy vessel is gilded, painted with green enamel, decorated with beads of white enamel, and inlaid with a delicate pattern of wires.
The Qianlong emperor (pronounced “chee-in-loung”), 1711–1799 (r. 1736–1795), was among the most accomplished poets and artists of the Chinese emperors. His reign was one of the most prolific periods of Chinese artistic production. Most people love it or hate it, as the emperor was not much given to restraint, and some of the creations of his period tend to the baroque and eccentric. I’m among those who love the period. Take this vase, for example. It is composed of four pieces: an inner vase, neck, and upper and lower outer sections. When the parts are assembled, as shown here, the inner vase rotates as the neck is turned. There are eight cutouts in the shape of the divinatory trigrams of the Yi jing. The pattern between the upper and lower cutouts represents a wish-granting mushroom. The glaze, appliqué, and polychrome decoration are exquisite.
Empress Dowager Cixi, 1835–1908 (regent for the Guangxu and Kangxi emperors, 1861–1908), must have been just as frightening to the members of her royal court as Victoria (1819–1901) was to hers in England. The exhibition contains elaborate gilt silver, enamel, and pearl fingernail covers, nearly half a foot long, which you might be able to make out that she is wearing in this historical photo.
This meat-shaped stone is dated only to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), so it might not have been created during Cixi’s rule. But it seems of a piece with other objects from her period. This thing is “just” a little rock on a golden stand. But the rock has been sculpted and dyed to resemble a piece of pork belly. In fact, tiny holes were even drilled and injected with dye, so that, through a microscope, the surface appears to contain skin pores. The reddish brown top of the stone has been colored to look like meat that has been marinated in soy sauce (it resembles a fatty braised pork dish called dongpo rou). One can only speculate what inspired such an odd creation, but it has proven extremely popular. When it was exhibited in Japan nearly 84,000 people flocked to view it. No doubt the Asian hopes for a similar response. They have recruited twelve San Francisco chefs to create tribute dishes in honor of the meat-shaped stone.
Museums hope for high attendance for summer exhibitions, when tourists are in town. It’s a competitive time, and not all shows succeed in capturing the public’s imagination. I think that it is easier for most Americans today to appreciate the Japanese aesthetic than that of traditional elite Chinese art. But Emperors’ Treasures is a rare opportunity to view centuries of some of the finest work from China. It deserves to be seen. Nine times, maybe.