Austere emperor reveals an aesthetic side

Yao Minji
A newly published art album reveals a surprising aesthetic side to Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng, who presided over an era of peace and prosperity.
Yao Minji

Like father like son? 

Not when it came to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong.

Yongzheng (1678-1735) was known for his prudence, austerity and hard work. His son Qianlong (1711-1799) was profligate, known for his extravagant art collection, legendary concubines and his habit of stamping every master artwork he possessed. His colorful and long reign has filled TV screens and dinner table conversations for generations.

A newly published art album entitled “Great Cultural Relics from the Times of Emperor Yongzheng” reveals a surprising aesthetic side to the man who presided over an era of peace and prosperity, and reveals the distinct differences between father and son.

The album is divided into four parts. The Royal Court section displays objects such as the emperor’s personal seal, his royal robe, armor and some Western curiosities, including a musket, a telescope and a pair of glasses.

Western artifacts were not rare in Yongzheng’s reign. Some of the imported items were so popular that local workshops were set up to reproduce them.

Eyeglasses, for example, were popular among scholars and courtiers. The royal court had its own workshop to make glasses.

The pair shown in the album is typical of its time — round, frameless foldable glasses made of horn and stored in a shark-skin case.

Austere emperor reveals an aesthetic side
Ti Gong

The pair of eyeglasses shown in the album is typical of its time.

The early Qing emperors had mixed feelings toward Westerners. They were intrigued by exotic imports and kept quite a few Jesuit painters in their courts, but they were rather dismissive about Western religion and the formation of diplomatic ties.

The Painting and Calligraphy section of the album starts with an official portrait of the emperor and includes some of his own calligraphy alongside works by artists of his time. 

A series of paintings showing Yongzheng dressed as a farmer, a Taoist monk and in a Western-style suit and wig were turned into short animated pictures and swept the Internet.

Netizens were surprised by this side of the famously workaholic emperor, calling the paintings “the emperor’s selfie.”

The album also showcases some unexpectedly intriguing works, such a painting of a scholar atop a hill by Gao Qipei (1660-1734). The painting looks traditional at first glance but was actually a finger painting.

Finger painting was rather popular in 17th and 18th century China. Gao’s is considered one of the best. Many also consider him the founder of the genre, which utilizes finger tips to imitate the delicate strokes of a calligraphy brush and other parts of the hand for large-area shadows.

The third section of the album covers porcelain, with 38 ceramic containers of various shapes and colors. The last section is devoted to artifacts such as glass, enamel and lacquer.

The album, comprising high-resolution photos and notes on more than 120 cultural relics from Yongzheng’s reign of 12 years, is based on the acclaimed three-month exhibition hosted last summer by the newly opened Fengxian Museum in Shanghai.

Austere emperor reveals an aesthetic side
Ti Gong

Co-hosted with Beijing’s Palace Museum, the Fengxian Museum exhibition on Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng added historical sparkle to the launch of the new facility last summer.

Austere emperor reveals an aesthetic side
Ti Gong

The art album is based on the three-month exhibition at Fengxian Museum.

Designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, the museum is the city’s latest cultural landmark. District officials and museum staff wanted to open the museum with a significant exhibition.

Yuan Yuan, deputy director of Fengxian District, had an idea that at first seemed preposterous to many. He wanted to open the district museum by co-hosting a Yongzheng exhibition with the Palace Museum in Beijing.

When Shan Jixiang, then-dean of the Forbidden City museum, was in Shanghai to give a lecture, Yuan proposed his plan. The idea of a mere district museum co-hosting an exhibition with the premier national museum seemed absurd at first, but the idea was accepted. 

Yuan explained that his idea had merit because Fengxian has an historical link to Yongzheng.

The area, south of Shanghai near Hangzhou Bay, was first founded as a county during the emperor’s reign. Yongzheng also approved the construction of the anti-flood seawall in the area to help protect local communities. Part of the ancient wall has been well-preserved.

“Today Fengxian has become a district and its residents no longer suffer from floods,” the book’s preface states. “But the wall is still there, and people today still know about this ancient connection. Yongzheng was one of the most workaholic emperors in Chinese history, and his hard-work is symbolized in the history of Fengxian.”

The Palace Museum in Beijing had previously co-organized only one exhibit from Yongzheng’s reign. Ten years ago, about 30 items were displayed in conjunction with the Palace Museum in Taipei.

For the Fengxian project, Palace Museum experts dug through the archives and found many artifacts to be shown publicly for the first time. The experts themselves expressed surprise by some of their findings.

The subsequent three-month exhibition attracted many visitors, including history buffs from around the country, eager to see the first major exhibition of Yongzheng’s reign. 

For those who missed the summer exhibition, the album is the next best thing.

Austere emperor reveals an aesthetic side
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Fengxian Museum is situated by Jinhai Lake, the second-largest artificial lake in the city. The lake has been dubbed the “Shanghai Fish” due to its shape.


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