The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, by Geremie R. Barmé, London: Profile Books/Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Chapter 4: A Day in the Reign

pages 72-73 The Ministry of Levees and Acts. Qiju, literally 'rising and actions' is most often translated as 'words and actions' or 'words and deeds' of the emperor. [EW]

page 73 The tenth year of Kangxi was, in fact, 1671. [EW]

page 73 The account of Qianlong's activities on this day is based substantially on Wu Shizhou, Qianlong Yiri (One Day in the Life of Qianlong) (Jinan: Shandong Huabao Chubanshe, 2006).

A banquet set up for an emperor at the New Garden of Perfect Brightness, Zhuhai, Guangdong. [Photo: GRB]

page 77 In his Tracks in the Snow (Hong xue yinyuan tuji, literally, 'Wild swan on the snow: an illustrated record of my preordained life') the Bannerman Wanyan Linqing (Wanggiyan Linqing, 1791-1846) describes a domestic sacrifice that adds further detail to the Manchu religious ritual described here. Linqing, a senior official in charge of water control on the Grand Canal, was closely connected to the court during the Daoguang reign (1820-50). In his later years he lived in a famous mansion near the Forbidden City, the Half-acre Garden (Banmu Yuan). Linqing wrote that:

When my health was restored my two sons Chongshi and Chonghou had passed their examinations, the eldest of my grandsons Songzhu had recovered from the smallpox, and finally when in the seventh moon my third grandson, Huazhu, was born, I made a vow to offer a sacrifice to the gods in the Five Happinesses Hall [Wufu Tang] of my house. I call it 'Five Happinesses' because the character fu 'happiness' written by the Emperor himself graces not less than five times the walls of this hall. These characters were received in testimony of His favor during my life as an official. Before the dies faustus I ordered the wife of my eldest son to prepare the sacrificial wine and to knead the dry cakes. On the chosen day, I offered some cakes and some wine in front of the Ancestors' Pole [zugan]. I ordered my eldest son Chongshi to direct the ceremonies. Inside the hall, the western estrade (kang) was hung with a yellow silk curtain with a border of red clouds. Three paper emblems were hung in front of it and on a red table were placed thirteen plates of cakes, thirteen jade tumblers of wine and three incense burners. The ceremony started with my making the deep prostration with uncovered head, and changing the wine three times. I then burned one of the emblems, moved one incense burner to the south (front of the room), and put the third plate of cakes on the shelf. The victim is then introduced (we call it Black Ancestor). One pours wine in its ears and then kills it (the word sha is tabu, we use sheng). I then take some amusun (that is the liao, part of the fat round the intestines). Standing north of the table of sacrifice, I wait till the meat is ready. Arranging it on a sacrificial dish with its head pointing upward, I take a sacrificial knife and plant it in the victim. I make again the deep prostration with uncovered head, and taking down the curtain, we partake of the meats...

Translated in J.L. Hecken and W.A. Grootaers, 'The Half Acre Garden, Pan-Mou Yüan, a Manchu residence in Peking', Monumenta Serica 18 (1959), pp.360-87, at pp.380-382 (spellings have been change to Hanyu pinyin).

page 78 The use of religious imagery, temple building, worship and pilgrimage had a strong political dimension during Qianlong's rule (although this does not discount the fact that religion and its symbolism had not been crucial in Chinese statecraft for many centuries). The emperor had himself depicted as a cakravartin, or universal lord, as well as the Boddhisattva Manjusri, among others. See, for example, Patricia A. Berger, Empire of Esmptiness: Buddhist art and political authority in Qing China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003).

The Jiaqing Emperor was outraged by Heshen's brazen corruption and presumption. Among other things, the minister was found guilty of having buildings that copied the design and structure of halls in the Forbidden City. In his Beijing mansion, now Prince Gong's Mansion, and near Qian Hai Lake, Heshen had had the temerity to order the construction of exact copies of palace buildings. One of these, the Hall of Delighted Longevity (Leshou Tang) faithfully recreated the elaborate interior appointments of the Hall of Serene Longevity (Ningshou Gong), a place for imperial birthday banquets, and part of the 'mini Forbidden City' built for the Qianlong emperor for use in his later years. During the investigation into Heshen's crimes against the throne, the disgraced minister revealed that he had ordered a trusted eunuch retainer to make detailed sketches of the palace in question, right down to the decorations on the marble pillar bases, which featured carved drums and lotuses, patterns strictly reserved for the embellishment of the emperor's quarters. [Photo: GRB]

page 78 The records of the imperial diet are contained in the Ledger of Periodic Intake (Jieci zhaochang shan didang) and the Ledger of the Imperial Kitchens (Yu chashan fang dang'an).

page 83 The Palace of Double Brilliance, or Palace of Repeated Brilliance (Chonghua Gong). During the Kangxi and Yongzheng reigns, the Palace for Celebrating Cultivation (Yuqing Gong) on the east side of the Inner Court (later Puyi's school rooms, see page 126 of The Forbidden City) was used as the residence for young princes in their minority. Princes born of the reigning emperor would be 'given a mansion' (fenfu, or fengwang fenfu, 'having a princely title and a mansion bestowed') upon reaching their majority at the age of fifteen. As the Qing historian Evelyn Rawski has pointed out, however, fenfu had a much wider significance than that related to the allocation of a mansion, for it 'refers to the transfer of men, land, and goods that took place when an emperor decided to separate a son or brother from the palace family by providing him with a separate establishment.' (See Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p.105.) For more details on princely mansions, see China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 12 (December 2007).

Inside the Pavilion to Enjoy the Pure Water Ceremony (Xishang Ting) in Qianlong's Garden of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. [Photo: GRB]

In the case of Yongzheng's heir apparent, Prince Bao (Hongli, later the Qianlong Emperor), he was not given a mansion outside the Forbidden City, but continued to reside at the Qianxi Ersuo in the northwest corner of the palace (see page 68 of The Forbidden City). The place would be renamed the Palace of Double Brilliance referring to the manner in which the ancient sage emperor Shun had 'doubled the brilliance of the literary virtue' (chong qi wende zhi guanghua) of his predecessor, Yao.

This area was converted into a non-residential palace in the Qianlong era in keeping with dynastic practice whereby the home of prince who subsequently ascended the throne, qianlong di, was to be converted into a temple or a palace. It was used for annual poetry gatherings and 'tea parties' (chayan) by Qianlong, something which became a 'family tradition' under Qianlong's son, the Jiaqing Emperor. The gatherings continued up to the time of the Xianfeng Emperor in the mid-nineteenth century. Although this area, including Qianlong's princely residence, the Hall of Delight in Goodness (Leshan Tang), is generally closed to the public, Jane Macartney of The Times reported in late 2007 that individual tours of the Palace of Double Brilliance, its theatre and former imperial living quarters could be arrange for £600. See:

page 86 '...reading memorials and government documents...' As Enymion Wilkinson points out, 'Qianlong and most of the other Qing emperors (with the possible exception of Yongzheng) had their staffs prepare summaries of incoming memorials and also draft imperial responses. The emperor read these and based many (but not all) of his rescripts on them.'

page 88 For the quotation from H.C. Chang, see H.C. Chang, Chinese Literature 2: Nature Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977), p.6.

page 88 For the quotation from Wang Xizhi, see 'Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems', translated by H.C. Chang and collected in John Minford and Joseph S.M. Lau, eds, Classical Chinese Literature, An Anthology of Translations, Volume 1: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty (New York: Columbia University Press/Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2000), p.482.


Hal Kahn is noted for his major contribution to the understanding of Qianlong in his 1971 Monarchy in the Emperor's Eyes: Image and Reality in the Ch'ien-lung Reign (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press) and other works. An excerpted version of a shorter study by Hal, 'A Matter of Taste', originally published in The Elegant Brush, Chinese Painting Under the Qianlong Emperor, 1735-1795, ed. and compiled by Ju-hsi Chou and Claudia Brown (Phoenix Art Museum, 1985) is appended here as an extension to this chapter. This essay is reproduced with the author's kind permission:

A Matter of Taste: The Monumental and Exotic in the Qianlong Reign

Harold L. Kahn

Between the middle of the 17th century and the end of the 18th century—a period of 150 years—three great rulers dominated most of the known political world. They were not Louis XIV, Catherine the Great, or George III. Rather, they were the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1723), his son, the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723-1736), and his grandson, the subject of this essay, the Qianlong emperor (1736-1796). They were members of an ethnic minority, the Manchus, from the forests and plains of northeast Asia, who had conquered China in 1644 and created the last dynasty to rule the Chinese people. These three men stood astride the Chinese world order, governed more people than anyone had before in history, created the second greatest land empire of all time—a realm that eventually reached the Pamirs on the west, Vietnam in the south, Mongolia, Korea, and the Russian frontier in the north, and in total area was more than 600,000 square miles larger than the People's Republic of China today. They taxed the most voluminous cotton industry in the world, the most fecund rice crop, the richest silk, tea, and porcelain industries. They administered the world's largest bureaucracy (roughly 20,000 civil appointees in the last decades of the Qianlong reign) dwarfing in size Louis' little court at Versailles; they marched their armies into the great northern deserts and at one point (1792-93) across the Himalayas (a feat not duplicated until 1963); and at home they wrote and painted and collected on a scale not equalled before or since.

It was an age of superlatives—the last brilliant epoch of the old Chinese imperial order. It began with the young Kangxi emperor re-imposing order on a nation still riven by doubts and factions and the bitter aftertaste of wars of conquest and dynastic succession. As the chorus in the most famous play of the day, Taohua Shan (The Peach Blossom Fan), ruefully sang, 'Alas, 'tis never easy to decide/Which be the winning, which the losing side.'[1] The age ended in the last decade of the 18th century with the Qianlong emperor, supremely confident and too old, proclaiming to George III in an edict, that 'The productions of our Empire are manifold, and in great Abundance; nor do we stand in the least Need of the Produce of other Countries.'[2]

This was true; the empire was still politically and economically self-sufficient. But now it was wracked internally by widespread rebellion and corruption and beset by a population so great (ca. 300 million) that long familiar social relations and institutions could no longer bear the strain. China was about to come apart at the seams. Lord Macartney, the leader of a British embassy to the court of Qianlong in 1793-94, and much given to nautical metaphor, noted as much: 'The Empire of China is an old, crazy, First rate man-of-war, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat for these one hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbors merely by her bulk and appearance, but whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command upon deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may perhaps not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.'[3]

But in between Kangxi's youthful, iron-fisted reunification of the realm and Qianlong's octogenarian complacency about it, there grew in size, uneven wealth and complexity as diverse a society as China had ever known. It became more monetized than ever before, and the cities, commerce, and literacy grew; it became more minutely divided in the countryside, with landless peasants, household slaves, tenant and sub-tenant farmers, private smallholders, entreprenurial landlords and absentee landlords, peddlers, bandits, demobilized soldiers, tax farmers, and pawnshop owners and usurers all competing with each other for increasingly scarce resources. The ruling classes constructed networks of patronage, literary style, and philosophical outlook in their country houses and metropolitan offices. Professional artists and writers produced family portraits and funeral orations, pinups[4] and hackneyed verse, and a lot of local history for their patrons; other artists, amateurs (by profession), dabbled in the market but made their name by painting and writing for each other—landscapes of the mind, vernacular novels to be read in the privacy of their homes while they read the Confucian classics and commentaries and imperial decrees in their public hours. Buddhist bonzes and Taoist charlatans, storytellers and music masters, courtesans and female impersonators, jugglers at country fairs and schemers at court made life rich and perplexing and the question of taste daunting.

Stratigraphies of Taste

...The imperial palaces were filled with curios, the highest examples of specialist craft traditions, but beyond and beneath that, the gulf between 'fine' and 'folk' art was vast. Ordinary people could not afford to see, let alone buy, Art, but in their crafts they left a stratigraphy of taste—shards of functional necessity and private delight, liturgical affirmations and mechanical skills. Their religious talismans and kitchen gods, demon-defying amulets, infants' booties and adults' sandals, acupuncture charts, funerary paraphernalia, pillows, and tools constitute a rich source for an archaeology of popular aesthetics.[5] And when social historians get round to these matters they are certain to show us a world of taste as much bounded by canonical prescription as the sphere of high art; an aesthetic defined in the first instance by use-value but no less decoratively and regionally distinctive for that. The domestic imagination awaits discovery.

Moving up the social ladder, into the academies, country mansions, urban villas and imperial court, individuals and households needed literacy, leisure, land, and money to maintain themselves at the top. These conferred on those who had them membership in High Culture, an accumulation of values and sentiments that permitted gentlemen and some gentlewomen, courtiers, princes, monarchs—even some merchants—to share an aesthetic that they believed was universal, true, and beautiful. Not all of those commercial people, for example, were boors, and among the Yangzhou rich were merchants who were more at home with scholars than with bankers—men of impeccable taste who were cultured gentlefolk in their own right: amateur historians, textual critics, builders of some of the great private libraries in a country with no public ones, Ma Yueguan's, for example, containing perhaps the preeminent collection of rare Song and Yuan books in the eighteenth century.[6] They were patrons of the leading artists and writers in the realm, versifiers, famous hosts. One imagines that Wallace Stevens would have felt at home among them.

Within the mental walls of High Culture was much diversity. Young 17th century gentlemen made something of a cult of individualism. A bare generation removed from the violent world of dynastic war which destroyed so many of their families' fortunes, they lived for the moment while proclaiming that they created for posterity...This was the age of great eccentric painters, men who withdrew into 'a private world of eccentricity, where they were exempted from social and political responsibilities by the traditional Chinese tolerance of erratic behavior.'[7] Chinese history is littered with hermits and angry old men.

By the time of the Qianlong reign, however, the cult of individualism had given way to an orgy of conformity. The state no longer looked the other way at radically idiosyncratic behavior; orthodox taste and conduct were much prized and highly rewarded, and eccentricity, still alive at Yangzhou, was much tamed—a popular posture that could even be indulged in by the emperor dressing up as a Taoist sage... Defiance had been routinized, the venom of the Ming-Qing transition and the following years of consolidation largely drawn. The middle decades of the eighteenth century were marked in social manners, intellectual purpose, and artistic practice by notions of orderliness, by a glittering, complacent, sometimes self-indulgent fascination with 'order, regularity, and refinement of life,' to borrow G.M. Young's apt description of Victorian England.[8]...

The Politics of Monumentalism

The emperor on the throne was both part of the high culture he patronized and above it. He had license to be both greater and different: to flaunt monumentality and indulge, if he chose, in the exotic. It was through precisely these two 'modes,' the universal and the decorative, that the Qianlong emperor created a legacy of taste for unshakeable imperial pomp, massive projects, and occasional displays of what can only be called elephantine delicacy.

It was practically an imperial requirement to awe—to sponsor that which was monumental, solemn, and ceremonial, literally to be bigger than life. The Qianlong emperor was not exceptional in this respect. Universal kingship, after all, embraced the cosmos, and that grandiose posture demanded suprahuman scale in architecture, ritual, and the performance of the manifold roles required of the emperor. Thus the mausolea and palace cities, encyclopaedias and variorum editions, harems and armies of earlier monarchs set the imperial precedent of doing things big. Qianlong, the quintessential inheritor, completed some of these projects, copied others, and started several of his own devising.

The Qianlong emperor understood as well as any who came before him that monumentalism was essentially a political aesthetic. It did not need to please, only to inspire and command—respect, fear, loyalty, belief. It was a public but not popular art, meant to reaffirm hegemonic sovereignty, omnicompetence, imperial legitimacy and the natural, harmonious order of things. These principles were most notably embodied in the architecture that surrounded the Son of Heaven and made him mysterious. The imperial city in Beijing, walls within walls, comprising almost a thousand palaces, pavilions, terraces and courtyards, pleasances and residence halls, recapitulated the spaciousness and symmetry of the cosmos. Within its 723,600 square meters it encompassed all of humankind, both hid and elevated the emperor, and exhausted, sometimes beyond endurance, generations of officials and courtiers who trod the vast spaces between audience halls in service and submission to the state.

Begun in 1406 by the Yongle emperor, third in the Ming line, and continued, expanded and rebuilt (after frequent fires) by many after him, the imperial city was completed by the Qianlong emperor, and much of the palace complex we know today dates from his time. Construction consumed stupendous quantities of treasure and natural resources—fine hardwoods (nanmu, the rarest, grew only in the southwest), marble, ceramic tiles, glazes, clays, gold leaf, mortar, as well as legions of craft specialists and corvée laborers. Thus, for example, the 180-ton slab of seamless marble earmarked for a newly installed dragon way (reserved for the emperor alone) in the Ming, took 20,000 men twenty-eight days to haul from the quarries outside of Beijing to the palace over carefully ice-slickened roads, the only manageable means of transporting such an unwieldy burden.[9] And during his sixty-year reign, the Qianlong emperor spent at a minimum, 76,482,967 taels (ounces) of silver on his reconstructions and additions. The ability of the treasury to meet such expenses represented merely another face of the political economy of monumentalism.

The imperial custodians of this culture of mass and ritual order might be frivolous or profound, intellectually curious or dull-witted, sentimental or ruthless, but they approved the claustrophobia of universal sovereignty, its high solemn walls, and its mythic purpose. When the Kangxi emperor fingered his harpsichord, when the Qianlong emperor sat for his portrait by Jesuit painters, the while engaging the missionary Benoist in talk of the French and Russian royal succession, they were dabbling, condescending to be dilettantes. What counted were home truths. Universalism was incompatible with cosmopolitanism, which implies not just tolerance but acceptance of the validity of competing claims. Neither Kangxi nor Qianlong in this sense were cosmopolitans. In their institutional roles as patrons and collectors, ritualists, patresfamilias to all humankind, as administrators and militarists, they and other emperors preferred or provoked the grand, reiterated gesture. Their eyes and, one suspects, their hearts were firmly fixed in the past...

The quantitative grande geste was a signature of the Qianlong reign. The emperor of course was capable of temperance, even of ambivalence. It took him over six years at the beginning of his reign to determine just how he should come down on the matter of important fiscal reforms initiated by his father. He was concerned lest draconian measures against corruption be misinterpreted as the work of a tyrant.[10] He could be cautious to the point of being dilatory, and for one long stretch in the middle years of his reign appears to have refused to name, even secretly, an heir apparent. And as a paragon of filial piety, he was almost insufferably attentive to his aged mother, the dowager. But his taste for grandiosity would out, as his famous, if militarily questionable, 'ten glorious campaigns' attested.

These expeditions, the most spectacular of which was a crossing of the Himalayas into Nepal to chastise recalcitrant Gurka tribesmen, served to show the flag and reassert imperial supremacy on the frontiers. They were expensive: The Taiwan campaign in 1787 alone required the shipment of almost one-and-a-half million piculs of rice to the front; the total cost of all ten campaigns exceeded 151 million silver taels.[11] They were legendary in scale. Above all they were inspirational, or meant to be. The emperor on a memorial stele compared himself to Tang Taizong, consolidator of the second empire in the seventh century, and then sent off to Paris, via French East Indiamen at Canton, to have his exploits graven on copperplate. By 1784 sets of the engravings were widely distributed throughout the realm, hung in imperial villas, palace buildings, garden pavilions and temples.[12] Long after the reasons for the campaigns were forgotten, buried in massive campaign chronicles, the formal pantomimes of victory, frozen in these heroic tableaux, celebrated the emperor's virtue and accomplishments in the field. The accomplishments, thus ritualized, became the triumphs, transcending mere event and historicity.[13] They were his version of the equestrian statue.

It was not as a warrior, however, but as a collector and patron of the arts and letters that the Qianlong emperor excelled as a monumentalist. Himself a writer and painter, he produced more than 42,000 poems, huge volumes of prose writings, massive collections of state papers. He trained from youth as a painter, well-schooled in classical techniques. The results were at best dubious and have been described as 'the sort of picture that Queen Victoria might have painted had she been Chinese,' though in all fairness he acknowledged his limitations, insisting that he was a mere copyist, a laborer in the august halls of the academy.[14]...

The emperor's two most enduring accomplishments in the field of collecting were the compilation of the great Imperial Manuscript Library (Siku Quanshu) and the building of the Imperial Palace art collection. The Library was assembled over twelve years, from 1773 to 1785, employed 15,000 copyists, and in the end numbered 3,462 complete works (out of a total of 10,230 inspected) in 36,000 volumes. It was an act of both purification and glorification, for it consigned to the fire or to Bowdlerizers 2,262 books deemed inimical to the dynasty, while it established variorum editions of the rest as an apotheosis of the classical and literary tradition.[15] Seven complete manuscript sets were made and housed in seven great treasure houses constructed for that purpose around the realm.

The Imperial Palace art collection, today divided between the holdings in Taiwan and Beijing, and equally awesome in its dimensions, was largely the work of the Qianlong emperor. That part of it housed today in Taiwan includes roughly 8,800 paintings and examples of calligraphy, 27,870 pieces of porcelain, 8,369 pieces of jade, numerous ancient bronzes, and countless curios. The Beijing collection, figures for which are unavailable, may be larger. Under Qianlong's auspices the unified collection may have been even greater, for since his time it has been periodically devastated by deliberate destruction (at the hands of the British and French in 1860), rebellion (in 1900 during the Boxer uprising), dispersal (after 1911 when the Manchu rump took part of it off to Manchuria), arson (which destroyed at least 1,157 paintings in 1923), and civil war (1945-49).

The Qianlong emperor, who assembled so much of the palace holdings, was clearly an avid, and some say reasonably discerning, collector. He had a keener eye and certainly a more grandiose vision than his forbears.[16] His collection would be the summa of imperial taste, an act of historical preservation of what was rarest and best; it would also be an affirmation of splendor; most would be best. His chief supplier was a reluctant Korean salt merchant, An Qi, who appears to have been forced to sell his finest scrolls to the court after a humiliating bankruptcy, the result of a promise to fund privately the reconstruction of a city wall.

This tension between throne and merchant over the disposition and ownership of works of art was not exceptional. The eighteenth century was a collector's century and art changed hands often as merchant princes, art dealers and intermediaries, private individuals, artists and statesmen used paintings and curios as media of exchange, payment for debts, collateral for loans, marks of invidious social or intellectual accomplishment, gifts, bribes, and hoarded wealth.[17] It is tempting, in this respect, to seek a pattern of competition between private (largely merchant) capital and public (bureaucratic) capital—between a commercial bourgeoisie and the imperial court—for the scarce resources of the art market. It might help explain the remarkable drive by the court under Qianlong to collect art quantitatively as well as qualitatively; it might also explain the art dealers' holding back of authentic works in expectation of better prices from the great private collectors.

Commercial capital was accumulated in vast amounts in the eighteenth century but it was never permitted to create an independent bourgeoisie, a middle class with different, independent, more influential tastes than the gentry-imperial culture of court and bureaucracy. Merchant wealth was legally unprotected and always vulnerable to predation by the state. Its sumptuary pretensions were no match for the immense fiscal wealth and cultural hegemony of the throne. Competition was uneven; the market was skewed. And if the art dealers now and then made a killing, their profits, like their paintings, remained subject to expropriation by the state. The emperor's claim to the lion's share of the market was primary and assured. An enthusiast, he could indulge his whims and buy up paintings in job lots; a critic, he could force an owner to present a desired piece to the throne as a gift; an autocrat, he could break a merchant to get what he wanted.

Evidence of the emperor's zeal as a collector can be seen on the paintings he examined. He spent much of his energy as an aesthete writing inscriptions and implanting his more than one hundred state and personal seals all over the masterworks in the collection. This has dismayed art historians and critics ever since, yet there is an explanation for his fervor that transcends bad taste. I have argued elsewhere that there were 'extra-aesthetic functions of such exercises. It was not so much the royal prerogative as the royal duty to remain at the head of the arts even if, in the process the art was destroyed. The paintings, after all, were the private possessions of the throne; the imperial script and seals were the possessions of the realm. Their appearance was an assertion not only of artistic sensibility (however warped) but of dynastic grandeur... It could only be hoped that the prince and emperor had taste; it had, however, to be expected that they would leave their marks—preferably, as in earlier ages, with discretion—on the treasures that defined the glory of their reign.'[18]

Perhaps the most egocentric aspect of the emperor's lust for collection was the collecting of himself. He had a passion for his own portrait and loved to pose in the roles permitted him as patron and exemplar of the arts and taste—as aesthete, scholar, connoisseur, calligrapher and poet... The iconographic extreme, however, was surely achieved in the portrait of the emperor as the Buddha. ...It is outrageous, no doubt, but curiously empty of sacrilege. It is, really, little more than a cardboard carnival pose, beyond innocence and incapable of solemnity. In fact there is a kind of ponderous, studied humor to many of these little portraits, as if the Jesuit masters who painted them and the emperor who permitted them were determined to share a private, permissible joke while engaged in the too-serious work of imperial aggrandizement.[19]

A final aspect of the Qianlong emperor's penchant for the monumental was the periodic mobilization known as the imperial southern tour of inspection. Ostensibly organized for reasons of state—to show the crown and inspect water works—it was largely an exercise in self-importance and flattery. The mobilization of resources for such a trip was massive, the logistics complex. A flotilla of barges and boats had to be requisitioned to carry all the palace ladies and attendants who insisted on following in the emperor's train. One such expedition also required 900 camels and 6,000 horses.[20] The emperor might inveigh against extravagance: All those lanterns and awnings and flower boats were vulgar, the fireworks unnecessary, the woodwind and string ensembles impermissible.[21] But no provincial governor or retired grandee would have dared take the Son of Heaven at his word, and the southern tours remained lavish displays of local wealth and over-preparation. The dignity of the throne would be preserved.

Much else was also preserved on these tours. A fortuitous side effect of the emperor's travels was the renovation of a great deal of important architecture, which had to be repaired and refurbished before the imperial eyes could be set upon it, the preservation of much art, and the removal back to the court of local artistic tribute, landscape and garden styles, and whole colonies of artists, scholars and writers who impressed the monarch en route with their works.[22] In fact the tours may be considered to have redressed the aesthetic imbalance between the Yangtze delta culture and the north: They removed the product from the buyers, the market, as it were, from the merchants. What was not acquired as gifts was purchased by the throne. The currency used was silk and the idiom that of rewards conferred: so many bolts of satin for so many scrolls or annotated collections of verse or antique curios.[23] There was much decorum in the transfer of this cultural treasure and much prestige conferred upon the donors, but in the end the throne was enriched because it could not be ignored.

The Limits of Exoticism

Monumentality, then, served as a magnet. It overwhelmed, as it was supposed to and created in the process the very public it was meant to impress. The court's taste for the exotic, on the other hand, seems to have been limited in influence—a private affair between the emperors and the Western world. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the great age of the Jesuits in China, men such as Ricci and Schall and later the remarkable painter Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688-1766). They were admired by the emperors and used by them, as interpreters and diplomats, engineers, armorers, astronomers, architects, landscape gardeners. They were appendages of a world-embracing court (the Heaven-embracing expectations of the Vatican sadly beside the point) and sources of incidental knowledge and pleasure. Beijing in the eighteenth century did not ape or adapt their manners or dress as eighth century Changan did the styles and wares of the Turks and Persians at the outer limits of the Tang empire. Europe in the age of Qianlong was still beyond the horizon to all but a few traders, Catholic converts, and courtiers. Many officials attuned themselves to court tastes without assimilating them. They bought the singsongs (clockwork automata) which the Qianlong emperor prized so much and sent them along to Beijing. They earned points, the emperor wound his clocks, and James H. Cox, the purveyor in London and Canton, and his Swiss counterparts in Geneva, made money.[24] The appropriation of Europe in this fashion was almost an exact stylistic equivalent of the decorative fantasies of Chinoiserie which swept Europe in the same century.

The Yongzheng emperor posed for Castiglione in the manner of Versailles..., but knew nothing of it. The Qianlong emperor, much taken with the great houses of Europe as he saw them in his Jesuits' books and his mind's eye, built in a corner of his magnificent summer palace, the Yuan Ming Yuan, an entire Italianate chateau complex. It began as a whim; the emperor wished to have a fountain and he commanded his foreigners to build one. Father Castiglione went to Father Benoist, and Father Benoist, something of a hydraulic engineer, made a working model that delighted his patron. As a result the emperor decided to have himself a villa with all the fixings—palace buildings, formal gardens, an aviary, a maze, reflecting pools and, of course, fountains, lots of them. The style was florid rococo, containing 'numerous false windows and doors, excessive ornamentation in carved stone, glazed tiles in startling color combinations, imitation shells and rock-work, ...pyramids, scrolls and foliage, and conspicuous outside staircases...,'[25] To relieve the geometric formalisms, the good brothers, having learned something about Chinese landscaping, added native rockeries and vistas, so that the whole must have seemed a perfectly unreal and hence perfect dream world. Virtually everything was destroyed by British and French soldiers and their officers in 1860 at the end of another of those unequal nineteenth century wars.

The whole was an exchange in superficialities. European monarchs constructed Chinese pagodas and pavilions; Chinese rulers built European mansions. European painters imagined fabulous creatures or simply quaint ones and called them Chinese; Chinese artisans, working from European models and designs sent out in the porcelain trade, rendered Europeans fabulous and funny. If few on either side understood the other, a lot of people profited from the trade in China ware, silks, and tea, and a lot of others derived harmless pleasure from their fanciful borrowings. There was room for the frivolous and self-indulgent in the great years of the high Qing. After that, pleasure parks and spinnets would not do. Beleagured nineteenth century court officials looked back nostalgically on the Qianlong reign: Power had been sublime, and if taste had sometimes been ridiculous, it didn't really matter. It was after all the expression of a people still in command of native values. Never again in Chinese history would those values and the taste they generated go unchallenged from without.

The Qianlong emperor, like Kangxi and Victoria, lived too long. His improbable durability—he ruled for the equivalent of two biological generations—became, like theirs, his greatest monument. His longevity was much celebrated, for it reaffirmed the gerontological basis of wisdom (though not necessarily of knowledge) in a culture which prized precedent and regularity as the sources of order and refinement. His life became an Age, to which were attached styles, predilections, norms of behavior, schools of thought, prescribed expectations. It became a cultural as well as political reference point, the last time that a unified and universal Chinese world view would make sense and seem to work. Qianlong was the last of the giants.


1. K'ung Shang-jen, Peach Blossom Fan (Berkeley, 1976), p.30. I am grateful to Dorothy Ko for help in the preparation of this article.

2. Hosea Ballou Morse, The Chronicles of the East India Company Trading to China, 1635-1834, vol. II (Oxford, 1927), p. 248; original in Da Qing Lichao Shilu, vol.1435, p.15b.

3. J.L. Cranmer-Byng, ed., An Embassy to China, Being the Journal Kept by Lord Macartney During His Embassy to the Emperor Ch'ien-lung, 1793-1794 (London, 1962), pp.212-213.

4. Professor James Cahill's term for 17th and 18th century 'generalized, semi-erotic portraits of beautiful women.' Personal communication, Berkeley, Ca., April 1985.

5. See Tseng Yu-ho Ecke, Chinese Folk Art (Honolulu, 1977). For an absorbing discussion of 'folk aesthetic' as a problem in popular consciousness, see Ann S. Anagnost, 'The Beginning and End of an Emperor: A Counterrepresentation of the State', Modern China, vol.11, no.2 (April 1985), pp.149-150.

6. Ho Ping-ti, 'The Salt Merchants of Yang-Chou: A Study of Commercial Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century China', Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol.17, no.1/2 (Jun., 1954), p.157.

7. James Cahill, Chinese Painting (Skira, 1960), p.169, referring to the brilliant individualists of the Ming-Qing transition, Kun Can, Hongren, Gong Xian, Zhu Da and Daoji.

8. G.M. Young, Portrait of an Age (London, 1957), pp.5, 7.

9. For these details, see the exquisite and exhaustive new study by Yu Zhuoyun, chief comp., Palaces of the Forbidden City (New York, London, 1984), pp.20-22, 32; for the Qianlong-era expenses, pp.326-327.

10. Madeleine Zelin, The Magistrate's Tael: Rationalizing Fiscal Reform in Eighteenth-Century China (Berkeley, 1987), pp.266-277.

11. Zhuang Jifa, Qing Gaozong Shiquan Wugong Yanjiu (Taipei, 1982), p.494.

12. Nie Chongzheng, 'Qianlong Pingding Junbu, Huibu Zhantu he Qingdai di tongbanhua', Wenwu, 1980:4, pp.63-64.

13. This theme is suggestively developed in Sabine MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 1981), p.271.

14. The quote is from Michael Sullivan, 'The Ch'ing Scholar-Painters and their World', in The Arts of the Ch'ing Dynasty (London, 1965), p.10; the self-appraisal in Sugimura Yuzo, Ken-ryu Kotei (Tokyo, 1961), p.27.

15. The major work on the intellectual politics of the Imperial Manuscript Library project is R. Kent Guy, 'The Scholar and the State in Late Imperial China' (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 1980).

16. The Kangxi emperor, by comparison, was an indifferent collector, prey to unscrupulous dealers who appear to have pawned off second-rate scrolls on the court. Thus Gao Shiqi, one of the preeminent late seventeenth century dealers, devised a category in his catalogue, 'For presentation to the Emperor,' comprised almost exclusively of inexpensive forgeries. See James Cahill, 'Collecting Painting in China', Arts Magazine (April 1963), p.70, for this and the following on An Qi.

17. See James Cahill, 'Types of Artist-Patron Transactions in Chinese Painting' (Unpublished ms, 1983; cited with permission); also the same author's 'Collectine', pp.66-72.

18. Harold L. Kahn, Monarchy in the Emperor's Eyes (Cambridge, 1971), p.136.

19. The unsigned portraits outnumber the signed ones, by Castiglione, but conform in style and content with them.

20. Gao Jin, comp., Nanxun Shengdian (Preface, 1771), 114:7b.

21. Nanxun Shengdian, 2:2b,3a; 3:4b; 4: la, 85:2a.

22. On the transfer of architectural and interior decoration styles, see Chen Congzhou, Yangzhou Yuanlin (Shanghai, 1983), p.4; on the borrowing of garden styles, Wu Sheng, Yuan Ming Yuan (Beijing, 1957), p.4.

23. Nanxun Shengdian, 68:3b, 4a, 6a; 69:2b; 70:2b; 71:4b.

24. David S. Landes, in his magnificent Revolution in Time (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 48- 52, 268, may exaggerate somewhat the mandarinate's (as distinct from the court's) fascination with clocks, but his discussion is nevertheless the most critically acute—and most charming—that I have seen.

25. Carroll Brown Malone, History of the Peking Summer Palaces Under the Ch'ing Dynasty (Urbana, 1934), p. 141. Cf. also Wang, Yuan Ming Yuan, and 'Yuan Ming Yuan di guoqu, xianzai he weilai,' in Qinghua Daxue Jiangu Gongcheng Xi (1979) for details on size and staff of the entire summer palace complex. Source: Carol Gold Calo, ed., Writing About Art (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1994).