Recently, Beijing, with a population of nearly 12 million people, has a new obsession. Every time you turn on the television, listen to the radio, or strike up a conversation, the topic is the same: the Palace Museum has a new exhibition of Chinese paintings! (Pictured above: A detail of a painting attributed to Xiang Shengmo.)
No, that’s not a mistake, I said Chinese paintings. People are standing in line for eight hours, elbowing and jostling, with passions running high and heated arguments breaking out every few minutes, to see the exhibition Shiqu baoji, which is the name of the imperial painting catalogue from which the show is drawn. The paintings in the show aren’t just any Chinese paintings—they were collected and treasured by the emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), especially the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796), whose reign started just 20 years after the death of the “Sun King” Louis XIV in France, and who can be compared in some ways to this other most powerful and glorious of monarchs.
This frenzy for Chinese paintings is not entirely unexpected. The two most attended exhibitions in the world in 2014 were both on traditional Chinese painting, and both organized by the National Palace Museum in Taipei, with a third painting exhibition organized by the NPM coming eighth on the list that year. Number one was an exhibition on, of all things, the Ming dynasty artist Tang Yin (1470–1524). The show attracted almost 13,000 visitors per day, with a total attendance of more than one million people over three months. At the same time, the Shiqu baoji shows all signs of breaking even this remarkable record.
What might come as a surprise is the fact that the Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection also has three paintings that were owned by the Qianlong Emperor. All three of them bear impressions of the finely carved seals that he stamped on everything in his collection; in fact, Qianlong had somewhat of a notorious compulsion to stamp the paintings he owned, sometimes so many times, or with seals so large, that they obscured the painting itself. One of them, a handscroll, has a beautiful jade clasp—used to hold the painting closed when it was rolled—that has an inscription written by the emperor (and then carved into jade by one of the remarkably talented craftsmen in the imperial workshops), while a third has an even more precious poem in the top center of the painting written in the emperor’s own hand.
For this reason, I was invited to present a paper at the International Symposium on the Shiqu baoji, which was organized by the Palace Museum in conjunction with the exhibition (other symposium participants included representatives from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum). This was a good chance to think more about the factors that brought about our Chinese painting collection here in Honolulu.
While the tastes of the Qing emperors left behind a powerful legacy that still shapes views on traditional Chinese paintings inside China today, in fact imperial taste had little influence in shaping our collection. Of the more than 1,500 Chinese paintings in our museum, only these three, or 0.002 percent, came from the imperial collection. Ironically, even the three paintings owned by Qianlong in Honolulu were by artists who probably would have been uncomfortable with the idea that there was anything “imperial” about their work. The first, attributed to the early Ming dynasty artist Xia Chang (1388–1470), was done at a time when tensions between the government and literati or scholar-amateur artists were especially high, and literati had been persecuted or even executed within living memory. The second, attributed to Xiang Shengmo (1597–1658), was done at a time when the government was in virtual collapse, and late in his life Xiang suffered through the foreign invasion by the Manchus that brought about the new Qing dynasty, whose emperors eventually so avidly collected his work. The third was done by Lu Zhi (1496–1576), son of a humble schoolteacher who lived a poor life of quiet reclusion far from the court.
At the time they were made, it would have been unimaginable that any of these three paintings would later become treasured possessions of an emperor, let alone one descended from foreign invaders, or that the very same emperor would himself bring about a great cultural efflorescence that would be looked back upon as a golden age for the arts. Not to mention the idea that hundreds of thousands of people would vie for a chance to see his collection, or that another even more exotic foreigner from Honolulu would give a talk on Chinese painting as part of the event. History takes strange turns, indeed!
Shiqu baoji is on view at the Palace Museum in Beijing through Nov. 8.