China the Three Emperors

Imperial Grandeur: a review of the Three Emperors by Sylvia Vetta

Published in the Oxford Times  in November 2005

 I would recommend this exhibition to everyone and particularly to readers under 40. In the not too distant future China will emerge as a super power and understanding something of its history and culture will be essential in navigating the world of the twenty first century.

The Three Emperors’ covers the period 1662-1795 when China was ruled by the Manchu Dynasty of the Qing. It was a time of immense power generated from the centre and great prosperity. From the stunning art, the incomparable textiles and perfect porcelain on display it is easy to understand the lure of China. When George 111 tried to open trade relations with the Quanlung Emperor in 1793, he replied, “Our celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and within our own borders lacks no product.” To a great extent that was true but the Chinese view of the world beyond the Great Wall was of ‘barbarian’ peoples. There is one room in the exhibition concerning foreign trade. The Qing were interested in clocks and scientific instruments from the West but the Emperor then encouraged workshops to make them in China. Sadly, our reaction to the Emperor’s refusal to trade must have confirmed the prejudices about the barbarian outsider. It also demonstrated our superiority in one field, weapons.

The East India Company started to trade opium in the port cities. It enabled them to buy the Chinese goods they so wanted but it destabilised Chinese society. When their government tried to end the drug trade, we sent our gunboats, in 1840, and started what are called the Opium Wars. The Chinese had invented gunpowder but not used it to this effect. The result was that the Qing Emperors who followed, Kangxi, Yongzheng and Quanlong, the three emperors featured in this exhibition, ruled over a declining and divided country. This exhibition looks at China before these traumatic events. It is a splendid vision.

There are Oxford influences. The exhibition is sensitively and brilliantly curated by Professor Dame Jessica Rawson, Warden of Merton College and the independent art historian is Hiromi Kinoshita of Somerville College. I asked Dame Jessica how these priceless objects survived the Cultural Revolution, the orgy of destruction unleashed by the last  ‘emperor’, Mao Tse -tung. It appears that the world owes a debt to Chou En- Lai who locked them away in the Forbidden City. The exquisite textiles, especially the moon white court robe, appealed to me. I enjoyed the less formal paintings of court life.  We see the emperor eating moon cakes on the eighth lunar month and in others he watches his children light fireworks and views the dragon boat race. There are some sophisticated portraits of doll-like perfection of court beauties. One suspects that for them the palace was a gilded cage.

Some of the paintings were by Jesuit artist, Giuseppe Castiglione, who was resident in the court and whose Chinese name was Lang Shining. Others are by anonymous but skilled artists who lived in court and enjoyed great prestige. They adopted western techniques of perspective and to a certain extent light and shade. Emperor Yongzheng had an album made of himself in various guises from, fisherman to hermit. In one he is depicted as a Daoist priest conjuring a dragon from the deep and amusingly, in another, he is in western dress and wig hunting a tiger.

The Quanlong Emperor was a particularly devoted Buddhist and had himself painted as the Bodhisattva Manjusri. There is an impressive Stuppa from India, from whence Buddhism spread across Asia. Professor Rawson said that the Manchu dynasty was founded by armed force but Chinese culture did not respect military power. The language was at the heart of Chinese civilisation. The pen is mightier than the sword and calligraphy is much admired as an art form. The Quanlong Emperor was a prolific collector and believed in the importance of history and of art. During his sixty year reign he wrote over 30,00 0 poems and put his seal and comments to paintings he valued. He presided over one of the greatest periods of Chinese history. In India, Ashoka, who became a Buddhist pacifist, presided over the time of India’s greatest influence in Asia, when those ideas spread without violence. The only picture in this exhibition of an emperor in military mode was by the European artist, Giuseppe Castiglione.

The universe was viewed as a system in which all parts were ordered and connected. Harmony in that universe was read through auspicious phenomena including the moon, dragons, the colour red, and cranes. The final gallery, ‘The Auspicious Universe’, has a selection of sceptres called ruyi, which represent fungi. Beautiful landscape and flowers form the background to that well ordered life and the emperor holds not a sword or jewelled sceptre but a ruyi. Warlike they may not have been but to speak against the dynasty would have been very dangerous. This must have echoes in modern day China.

There are many interesting lectures to accompany this exhibition; you may wish to include one on your visit. I wonder if Dame Jessica, Hiromi Kinoshita and Shelagh Vainker could be persuaded to repeat theirs at the Ashmolean? This really is a blockbuster. You have until 17th April to see it.


China The Three Emperors

The Royal Academy

020 7300 8000