Treasures of the Forbidden City

China kept its most enlightened era behind palace walls. Now that legacy comes to the West.

By Jocelyn Selim
Apr 21, 2004 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:21 AM


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When the emperor Qianlong took the throne of China in 1736, his approach to international trade negotiations consisted largely of lavishly entertaining foreign dignitaries while denying all their requests. He saw no need to indulge the incessantly warring monarchs of Europe when he already had more wealth than they had combined and absolute power over an unprecedented 300 million people.

Qianlong ruled for 63 years from what is still the largest palace complex ever built: a 178-acre city-within-a-city surrounded by 30-foot walls at the center of Beijing. Only the emperor could wander at will through all of its 9,999 rooms. The imperial family and some 2,000 eunuch guards, officials, and servants were allowed limited access to the inner court. All others, even cooks, had to leave by nightfall. By comparison, Versailles could seem provincial.

Most of the riches within the Forbidden City have never traveled beyond the palace walls—and many have never been shown publicly. But after two years of quiet negotiations, Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson, curators at the Field Museum in Chicago, persuaded Chinese authorities to display more than 400 artifacts, including paintings, sculpture, furniture, and pieces of jade in an exhibition opening this spring.

This is an unusual show. Typically, Western exhibits of Chinese culture present a sweeping panoramic view of the world’s longest continuing civilization. Few focus on one man and one period in history. Qianlong wasn’t the last emperor of China, but he was the last great one, and he presided over an astonishing flourishing of the arts. Furthermore, he didn’t just happen to be on the throne while an age of great art blossomed. His imprint profoundly influenced everything from the literature of the day to chair styles. And while at times he may have gone too far, such as inscribing his commentary directly into the glaze of already ancient ceramics, the exhibit reveals a legacy unrivaled by any Western king. “He makes George III look almost thuggish and the Louis of France colorless, passive, and rather dumb,” Bronson says.

Copyright © Palace Museum, Beijing. Courtesy of the Field Museum, Chicago

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest building in the Forbidden City, contains an enormous throne room, where Qianlong was crowned emperor in 1736. During his 63-year reign, the longest in Chinese history, he cut taxes, reduced rents, encouraged new agricultural techniques, instituted flood-control measures on rivers, solidified power over border areas, maintained peace, and traveled more than any other emperor. He also promoted cultural development by organizing scholars to collect and catalog books, paintings, calligraphy, and other treasures. But he simultaneously ordered the destruction of any literature that he felt could be a threat to his power. He died in 1799 at the age of 88, the longest-lived emperor China ever knew.

Copyright © Palace Museum, Beijing. Courtesy of the Field Museum, Chicago

Packing more than 400 items for the Chicago exhibit took curators more than a month. A museum employee examines of a copy of the much-venerated Vajracchedika-Prajnaparamita Sutra, or “Diamond Sutra,” one of the basic sacred texts of Buddhism. Copying Buddhist sutras was seen as a way to gain honor or esteem. This one was written out by Qianlong’s grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, to honor his wife. Years later, Qianlong imitated his grandfather and made his own.

Imperial physicians used a bronze dummy as a three-dimensional chart of 360 acupuncture points, which are still considered accurate. The statue was used as a model when physicians treated imperial family members.

Like his grandfather, Qianlong had a strong interest in developing the use of glass, as shown by the hanging lamp with an enamel top. Glass as architectural material was so novel that lamps became something of a fad throughout the upper strata of society. Both glass and enamel technology improved dramatically during his rule. Indeed, he replaced paper-covered windows with sheet glass from Canton furnaces.

Qianlong’s former possessions undergo a rigorous inspection by the museum staff before being placed in traditional silk-lined boxes and packed into specially constructed wooden crates. They were flown directly to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in five shipments on Boeing 747s outfitted for cargo, then taken by truck to the Field Museum. For the sake of security, officials kept the entire process secret.

Millions of ceramic pieces like the one at right were made on the emperor’s orders at his internationally renowned ceramics factory in the central city of Jingdezhen, still known for its kiln work. On the main body of the vase, one of Qianlong’s poems appears, flanked by panels depicting flowers. The neck and panels typify the polychrome glazing process perfected during his reign.

A Western-style clock of gilded copper alloy and wood was one of thousands collected by the emperor. Timepieces were one of the few European technologies that provoked his interest. Inscribed with longevity characters, the clock conveys wishes for a long and healthy life.

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