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Qianlong Exhibition: Every artifact tells a story
Maureen Zebian
4/14/2004

The traveling exhibition, Splendors of China’s Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, explores the long and eventful reign of emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) with a collection of more than 400 artifacts from 18th century imperial China. The exhibit is showing at the Field Museum in Chicago until Sept. 12, when it will head to Texas.

The exclusive Forbidden City, known today as Beijing Palace Museum, is in the heart of Beijing. Based on the Chinese cosmic diagram of the universe, the Forbidden City was built during the Ming dynasty on 178 acres and has more than 9,000 rooms in the complex that represent its unique Chinese style of architecture. The Forbidden City was named because entry was restricted to few, and those who entered often never left the secluded, secretive city. Only women and children lived in the residential living spaces with separate living quarters given to males, including the emperor’s sons after they reached puberty.

The exhibit brings together a selection of precious objects, including formal and informal robes, armor, accessories and jewelry, scepters and seals, portraits and paintings that reveal the culture, science, art and opulent luxury of imperial China.

In every artifact lies a story. The turquoise blue Iuduan Monster incense burners perched on three legs with two arms flipped up with a disproportional large ornamental top appears to have a life of its own, and speaks of the superstitious culture as the mystical beast was said to give warnings to the emperor.

An interesting feature of the exhibition is the women in Qianlong’s life. The painting of empresses surrounded by beautiful objects, yet with heads sadly bowed down reveals how empresses often led an isolated, confined life in the palace. While many were lonely, they certainly were not alone as Qianlong married 40 times. A more controversial empress was Rong Fei who many believe is in the painting “Taking a Stag with a Mighty Arrow” and is riding a horse alongside Qianlong. Most empresses never left the palace after marrying so some doubt whether this scene ever took place.

During his peaceful 60-year reign, Qianlong proved to be an excellent military strategist, skilled huntsmen, writer and swordsmen. A prolific essayist, he wrote 44,000 poems in his lifetime. In the painting “Qianlong Hunting Tiger” he show his fearlessness that underscored the daunting character of a Manchu leader, a minority ethnic group in China.

As commander and chief of the army, Qianlong expanded the empire to become the largest in history. While the dirt from the battlefield never touched him, he had an armor suit made of 600,000 pieces of metal that weighed 34 pounds topped with a gold helmet lined with pearls.

Jade became more available during his reign because of his ability to maintain peace in the western territory. Qianlong advocated jade carving sculptures with many impressive pieces displayed throughout the exhibit. The most impressive is “Da Yu -- Controlling the Floods,” the third largest jade object in imperial China representing the meeting of elderly scholars in 845.

A practicing Tibetan Buddhist, not a Shamanist like most of the Manchu, Qianlong took an interest to ensure that many beautifully crafted jade Buddhist artifacts be displayed within the palace’s walls. A man of goodwill toward his people, he allowed other religions to flourish as well.

Behind the priceless objects lies the persona of Qianlong, who chose the path of peace, which resulted in prosperity, allowed religious freedom that led to harmony for the 300 million people he ruled, and challenged the people of China to explore the many aspects of life, resulting in innovative and technological advances during his reign.

Maureen Zebian writes for The Epoch Times.

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