“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 4)

These three sections are the final quarter of the catalogue for the Royal Academy’s exhibition about the art of the early Qing Dynasty era. The first essay is the last of a set of three about the various emperors – in this case the Qianlong Emperor. The next is about the painting & calligraphy of the Chinese elite, which was often subversive in nature. And finally the meaning behind the floral & natural themes of the art of this period.

“The Qianlong Emperor: Virtue and the Possession of Antiquity” Jessica Rawson

Collection and appreciation of art and artefacts from China’s past were an essential part of the legitimacy of a ruler. As the Qing Dynasty were Manchu and not Chinese this was even more important for them than their Chinese predecessors. The Qianlong Emperor had a personal interest in art as well, but this was much less important than its role in symbolising the virtuous & righteous nature of his rule. He didn’t just collect art, he also annotated it – often directly on the object itself. Despite modern complaints about this as spoiling the works of art it was another way in which the Qianlong Emperor demonstrated his place in the long line of Chinese rulers. The bronzes of the Shang & Zhou Dynasties (c.1500BC to 221BC, post) were often inscribed with descriptions of the events that caused the bronze to be made, or something else intended to extol the virtues of the owner. The Qianlong Emperor saw his own inscriptions as being a part of this long tradition. As well as collecting ancient artefacts the Qianlong Emperor commissioned catalogues of those that he & his predecessors had collected. Again this has a long heritage, in this case dating back at least to the Song Dynasty (960AD to 1279AD, post). And finally he practiced the appropriate arts for an Emperor – he was a calligrapher (and published collections of his calligraphy so that people would know this).

The items in this section include ancient bronzes, and Qianlong period items inspired by them (I was particularly struck by an enamelled flask made to look like a Warring States period bronze flask). There were also paintings of the Qianlong Emperor, and some by him too. As well as some of his seals as used on paintings from his collection.

“Silent Satisfactions: Painting and Calligraphy of the Chinese Elite” Alfreda Murck

This section was about the paintings and calligraphy that was made & displayed outside the official court. Some was made by people who also participated in court art, some was entirely separate. In general the painting style is different to that of court paintings, it is more like calligraphy and was regarded by the elite as a natural extension of writing poetry (and like poetry if you were a part of the intellectual elite then this was part of your skillset). Because of the shared culture and education of the people who would see these artworks it was possible for the scholars to use them to criticise the regime in a subtle & subversive fashion. One of the examples Murck gives is the painter Gong Xian who painted landscapes focused on mountains & rivers that pointedly omitted the sky – i.e. no heaven, no symbol of imperial authority. Other people chose their calligraphy styles to reflect a political opinion, for instance picking the style of a Tang Dynasty loyalist & martyr to emphasise loyalty to the Ming Dynasty.

This section of the catalogue was, obviously, the paintings and calligraphy of these elite scholars. It was organised in chronological order to show the connections between the people, in effect the conversations they were having via their art. Unfortunately lacking the necessary in depth knowledge of the art of the period or of the previous art and symbolism they were referring to meant that I could just look at them as pieces of art rather than messages. I was particularly taken with Luo Ping’s Insects, Birds and Beasts – a set of 10 album leaves with pictures & poems.

“The Auspicious Universe” Jessica Rawson

This essay was about the symbolism behind the natural motifs used to decorate the palaces of the three Emperors. Rawson says this forms a pair with her earlier essay about the Qianlong Emperor – the two themes used to decorate the palaces were antiquity (discussed earlier) and auspiciousness (discussed here). The flowers, fruits, animals & birds found in paintings and other artworks are generally part of a complex scheme of allegorical symbolism. It grew out of poems starting from c.600BC, and gradually transferred to painting and other visual arts. Some symbolism depended on what things looked like, some on homophones. For instance the word for bat (fu) is a homophone for the word for happiness & good fortune (also fu, but a different Chinese character) – so an object decorated with bats is a wish for good fortune & happiness. All of the natural motifs of the art of this period could be read as auspicious messages.

The objects in this section are paintings, sculptures & ceramics decorated with natural motifs. I particularly liked a painting by Shen Quan called “Pine, Plum and Cranes”. There were also several ruyi sceptres which had belonged to the Qianlong Emperor – they are talismans of good fortune and were presented to him by courtiers on his birthday.

So that’s the end of the book. Well, there’s also a section of notes about each object in the catalogue, but I’m not going to try & summarise that. Anyway I’ve only looked up the ones I was particularly interested in. A good book 🙂 Some of the essays were better than others, but all of them were interesting. I should add symbolism in Chinese art to the list of things I’d like to know more about.

Next non-fiction book will be a change of scene, it’s about the Plantagent rulers of England. I might write up some more general thoughts about what I’ve learnt from these last two books before I get to it though.