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Chinese history

Concubine-loving emperor was an art vandal with dubious taste

China TV drama The Story of Yanxi Palace is just the latest example of Emperor Qianlong’s approach to art being called into question. He couldn’t resist writing in the margins of paintings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 8:30pm

Period drama The Story of Yanxi Palace has taken China by storm, attracting millions of viewers. The show focuses on the emperor Qianlong and his harem of scheming concubines.

He is mostly portrayed as a cultured ruler, well versed in literature and the arts – except for his tendency to leave marks all over masterpieces in his collection.

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“Look at this Autumn colours on the Qiao and Hua mountains, one, two, three … over 40 stamps! These are all printed by your highness,” one of the concubines and the heroine of the show, Yingluo Wei, says in one scene, mocking the emperor.

The 13th century painting mentioned in the drama is housed in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. To this day, it still bears the ruler’s stamp marks and writings on the blank space of the canvas.

Qianlong was China’s longest reigning sovereign, ruling over six decades in the 18th century, and his exploits made good fodder for historical novels and period series. During his reign the country was prosperous and the arts flourished under his patronage. His collection of artefacts has been called the “culmination of five thousand years of Chinese civilisation” by the National Palace Museum.

The scriptwriters of The Story of Yanxi Palace are not the only ones who have questioned the emperor’s behaviour.

In 2016, Chinese art blog Flying Bird published a post called Yongzheng: I don’t have such a village idiot son like you, which compared Qianlong’s tastes in art to that of his father, Yongzheng.

“Yongzheng’s taste is well admired, following a less-is-more principle. But Qing dynasty style changed suddenly when Qianlong’s time came,” the post explains, lining up the vases commissioned by father and son side by side. Yongzheng’s were simple and elegant. Qianlong’s were busy and colourful.

“It is like someone wearing all the luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Gucci at once. Heaps of money spent, but still tasteless,” the blog adds.

The post went viral, and people discovered another side to the legendary ruler.

Even CCTV, the national television broadcaster, took a dig. In a 2017 history programme called The Nation’s Greatest Treasures, a spoof involving Qianlong and the artists whose works he had graffitied was featured.

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In a dream sequence from The Nation’s Greatest Treasures, 4th century calligrapher Wang Xizhi appeared to rebuke Qianlong. Wang’s craft is considered among China’s best. The emperor had left dozens of red stamps on Wang’s masterpiece Letter on a snowy day and wrote on it in more than 70 places.

The show also came to Qianlong’s defence. The emperor, portrayed by actor Kai Wang, said in the programme he wrote notes and poetry on the paintings to help others in future understand the works he so admired.

Qianlong’s eclectic taste is also thought to have elevated porcelain craftsmanship.

A vase made during his rule is nicknamed The Mother of all China, as it is a mishmash of at least 15 different Western and Eastern glazes and enamels. The piece is now housed in Beijing’s Palace Museum.

The 86cm tall vase was produced in Jingde, a city in Jiangxi province, in eastern China, that had been making porcelain for hundreds of years. Pieces like this commissioned by Qianlong pushed artisans’ skills to the limit.

“The vase is a tour-de-force of ceramic techniques. This important vase was likely made for the emperor so he could appreciate the technical achievements illustrated in the vase,” Judith Dowling, from Skinner Auctions, said in promotional materials for a sister vase to The Mother of All China.

In 2014 the sister vase fetched a record US$24.7 million at a Skinner Auctions sale in Boston, a price indicative of the value of Qianlong’s legacy.

“I am a show-off. I am showing off the skills of the Jingde artisans. I am showing off the Qing dynasty’s power,” Kai Wang says, portraying the emperor in The Nation’s Greatest Treasures.