Good things come in proud pairs
Two Palace Museum themed exhibitions tell a story
Culture and history lovers will have no difficulty finding their must-see events this summer: two major exhibitions revealing the inner workings of the Qing court.
The longevity of an emperor was believed to be a testimony of his great virtue and effective rule over the nation. The exhibition Longevity and Virtues: Birthday Celebrations of the Qing Emperors and Empress Dowagers brings some of the majestic celebrations into the public light for the first time in Hong Kong.
The grandest birthday bash
Speaking ahead of the exhibition’s opening, Research Fellow of The Palace Museum Wang Zilin said: “During the Qing dynasty, the emperor’s birthday was treated as one of the three most important celebrations in a year in the palace, together with the new year day and winter solstice.”
The grand celebration of Emperor Kangxi’s 60th birthday (he reigned from 1662-1722) set the precedent and benchmark for all the other splendid imperial birthday parties that followed.
But longevity has always been a traditional blessing even before Kangxi’s landmark birthday celebration. “When the grandmother of Kangxi was sick, the young emperor wrote a large calligraphy [萬壽無疆] wishing her “Boundless Longevity.” The young emperor then ordered it to be embroidered into a plaque to send to her — expressing his deep respect for his beloved grandmother,” explained Wang.
Wang also noted that the plaque was framed by 12 dragons on top and at the bottom, plus four dragons on the left and right, meaning good health in all 12 months and for all four seasons of a year.
This historic plaque, along with more than 200 other precious artefacts, is on display at the Hong Kong Museum of History until October 9.
The exhibition features paintings, calligraphy and musical instruments from the collection of The Palace Museum in Beijing.
In the Qing court, birthday celebrations, like many other official ceremonies, began with music. The set of deep green jade chimes and the set of bronze bells would lead the official birthday tunes with other instruments when the imperial consorts, princes and princesses, peers, ministers and foreign envoys were greeting the emperor. Displayed at the entrance of the exhibition, both instruments are over 300 years old.
Gifts are inseparable to imperial birthday celebrations and this exhibition actually displays “an unsent gift”. The “Dhāraṇī Sūtra” in regular script copied by then future Emperor Qianlong as a prince, was intended to be presented to his father, Emperor Yongzheng for his 60th birthday. It is one of Wang’s favourite exhibits. He explained: “Due to the sudden death of Emperor Yongzheng, this neatly written sūtra was never sent and had to be presented as an offering at the ritual marking the hundredth day of his father’s departure.”
An Emperor’s birthday meant not only celebrations within the palace, the special event was shared with the whole nation. Elders would be awarded with special honours. Other policies benefiting the people would include tax exemption, amnesty and grace examinations. The joy of sharing would perhaps reach every corner of the nation.
Home office at the imperial residence
Birthday celebrations during the Qing dynasty were often exceptional, but there was always the life of ordinary days, even for emperors.
The Hall of Mental Cultivation of The Palace Museum – Imperial Residence of Eight Emperors exhibition being held at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum offers visitors a look into the everyday life of emperors.
It is interesting to note that the distance between the ticketing booths to the Central Hall measures about 50 metres. This is the result of a careful arrangement.
In fact, this was the same distance between the Central Hall of the Hall of Mental Cultivation, also known as Yangxin Dian — and the Office of the Grand Council of State during the time when eight emperors of the Qing dynasty from Yongzheng (reigned 1723-1735) onwards made the building their imperial residence, according to Szeto Yuen-kit, Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art.
“The emperor would summon key ministers and governors at the Grand Council of State to Yangxin Dian, and the top government officials would hasten to the Hall, covering roughly the same distance, to discuss state affairs with the emperor,” said Szeto.
It is significant that Yangxin Dian is located slightly to the west of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, one of the great halls and palaces set on the meridian line central to the Forbidden City, and by extension the city of Beijing and the empire. Yet, this relatively small hall was the beating heart of the empire.
“Not only did Emperor Yongzheng move into Yangxin Dian, he also made the place technically what we would today call a ‘home office’,” explained the experienced curator. “It was there that emperors of the Qing dynasty, beginning with Yongzheng, issued countless imperial decrees.”
Based on the original setting of the Hall and divided into seven sections, the exhibition has been arranged to allow visitors to experience the various scenes for real, and close-up.
In the West Warmth Chamber, for example, hang various plaques with calligraphic inscriptions by Yongzheng, as well as poems of Qianlong, which served to remind themselves, as emperors, of the importance of being diligent and virtuous. And, also to pursue the goal of being a sage, an ideal aim in Confucius teaching.
Next to the West Warmth Chamber is the Room of Three Rarities, a cosy 4.8 sq.m private study of Qianlong, a champion of literature and art who often referenced the master works. Visitors will be awed by the fine reproductions of the three masterpieces complete with the emperor’s endorsements outside the room.
Of course, this exhibition wouldn’t be complete without mentioning of the scene of “empress dowagers ruling behind the curtain” during the reign of Emperors Tongzhi and Guangxu, the various status and offerings favoured by devout Tibetan Buddhist Qianlong. There is also a wealth of tableware used when serving imperial dishes. All in all, there are 236 artworks on display.
The selection of relics marks the first time the exhibits have left the Forbidden City and is the result of multi-partite efforts.
“It is an opportune happening that the treasures of the Hall of Mental Cultivation are available for exhibition here in Hong Kong,” said Dr Shan Jixiang, Director of The Palace Museum. “The Hall of Mental Cultivation is undergoing a major renovation, the first in hundreds of years.”
The renovation is expected to take five years. Instead of hiding all these amazing artefacts (some 1,900 art pieces in total), in air-conditioned chambers away from public eyes, The Palace Museum has seen the opportunity to collaborate with the HKSAR Government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department for this unique exhibition.
Details of these two major exhibitions are as follows:
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Series: Longevity and Virtues: Birthday Celebrations of the Qing Emperors and Empress Dowagers
Hong Kong Museum of History
July 2 to October 9
Closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays)
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Series: Hall of Mental Cultivation of The Palace Museum – Imperial Residence of Eight Emperors
Hong Kong Heritage Museum
June 29 to October 15
Closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays)