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Emperors' Treasures

Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Jun 17 —
Sep 18, 2016

Discovering Dynasties and the Rulers Who Shaped Them
The exhibition Emperors’ Treasures offers insights into Chinese life, culture and history during four imperial dynasties that span more than 800 years. To get you started, here’s a glimpse into each dynasty’s influence on arts and culture, as well as the lives of eight emperors and one empress who individually influenced Chinese artistic tastes. From a Mongol conqueror to a decadent empress dowager, their personalities are as distinct as their times.

Visit Emperors’ Treasures to immerse yourself in this rich history and the singular works of art it produced.

Song dynasty (Northern, 960–1127; Southern, 1127–1279)

Vase carved with Emperor Qianlongs poem on the base
The formulated order, harmonious presentations and exquisitely crafted forms of Song art make it a symbol of China’s renaissance. Song art continued to prove pivotal in later dynasties, inspiring court arts for centuries to come.

Emperor Huizong (1082–1135): Great patron of arts and philosophy
Huizong was raised in the palace with no expectation of ever becoming emperor. After the unexpected death of his older brother, Huizong was elevated to emperor. Leaving much of the job of governing to his councilors, Huizong indulged himself in cultural pursuits with careless extravagance. He was a great painter, calligrapher and patron of Daoism, classical rituals, tea culture, music and ceramics. During his reign, arts and philosophy prospered immensely.

Emperor Gaozong (1127–1162): Master of calligraphy
The ninth son of Emperor Huizong, Gaozong became emperor when his ousted father and older brother were taken captive by the nomadic Jurchen of the northeast. Gaozong settled the new Song capital in Hangzhou. During his rule, he reestablished Huizong’s painting academy, recruited learned scholars to his court and continued to strengthen the imperial collection of painting and calligraphy. A gifted and influential calligrapher, Gaozong mastered multiple script styles.

Above: Vase carved with Emperor Qianlong’s poem on the base. Official Ru kiln, Henan province, Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). High–fired ceramic with celadon glaze. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Guci 017856 Kun-223-5. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)

Calligraphic works
Yuan-dynasty works demonstrate the rich diversity of Mongol-ruled society. A departure from the delicateness of Song art, Yuan art captures the coexistence of ethnicities and religions while reflecting the unrest caused by ethnic conflict. Motivated by the Mongols’ ambition of creating a universal empire, commercial trade with many regions of the world expanded enormously during this period, which infused Chinese culture with new points of view.

Kublai Khan (1215–1294): Mongol conqueror turned ruler
The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan conquered China and founded the Yuan dynasty. Although Kublai Khan himself did not contribute to any great artistic achievements, he unified the opposing Song and Jin (Jurchen-ruled) dynasties, ending over 100 years of internal struggles. The first non-native ruler of all of China, he moved the capital south from the Mongolian steppe to what is now Beijing — which resulted in an uprising he barely contained.

Above: Calligraphic works, by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) and Xianyu Shu (1257–1302). Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). Album leaves, eight pages, ink on paper. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Gushu 000252-0. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

Cats in a flower-and-rock garden
Seeking to regain the esteem of the Han Chinese majority in the heartland, the early Ming rulers restored a bright (ming) culture that deeply integrated Classicism, Confucianism, Daoism and Tibetan Buddhism. This era marked a dramatic rise and flourishing of the arts, and witnessed new developments in the study of painting, porcelain, jade and lacquer. 

Emperor Yongle (1360–1424): Promoter of Islamic culture
Yongle’s unprecedented naval diplomacy sparked an increase in Chinese exploration, which reached as far as the coast of East Africa and enticed Westerners with Chinese wonders. He promoted Islamic culture and art, which inspired innovations in Chinese art.

Emperor Xuande (1398–1435): Renowned artist-emperor
Not only was Xuande a great military leader during his short 10-year reign, he was extraordinarily skilled as a calligrapher and painter, particularly of intimate garden scenes depicting flowers and animals.

Above: Cats in a flower-and-rock garden, 1426, by Zhu Zhanji (Emperor Xuande, 1398–1435). Ming dynasty, reign of Emperor Xuande (1425–1435). Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Guhua 000421. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

Peaks emerging from spring clouds
Under the Manchu emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, China experienced unprecedented prosperity and exuberance in arts, interior design and architecture, before dramatic historical events marked an end to imperial China in 1911.

Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722): Admirer of Western art and technology
Kangxi kept abreast of global technological advancements and encouraged innovation in the fields of science, culture and the arts. His studies of Western thought included such diverse subjects as mathematics, astronomy, geography, cartography, pharmacology, Latin, musical theory, European philosophy, painting and crafts. Developing relationships with foreign missionaries and royal European families, he was the first Chinese emperor to allow Westerners in court.

Emperor Yongzheng (1678–1735): Art connoisseur with sophisticated taste
A calligrapher and a poet, Yongzheng was also deeply interested in antiques and recording works of art for posterity. He collected large numbers of objects produced in earlier periods. His artistic taste was elegant and refined, and he was personally involved in the decorative and functional design of imperial objects, giving frequent (some might say picky) critiques and instructions to artists.

Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799): The “Old Man of Ten Perfections”
Refinement, extravagance and superior technical skills characterized the courtly arts during Qianlong’s period. He was also a prolific poet, completing more than 40,000 poetry inscriptions. He valued harmony between the old and new, and the East and West.

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908): A regent with a lavish lifestyle
Cixi ruled from “behind the screen” during the reigns of her son and nephew, respectively the Tongzhi and Guangxu emperors. Her reign greatly intensified the country’s poverty and weakening military, leading to unrest that culminated in the fall of the Qing empire in 1911. While she lived a lavish lifestyle and surrounded herself with luxurious goods — including porcelains decorated with lush floral motifs — the once-flourishing art of the late Qing empire declined.

Above: Peaks emerging from spring clouds, by Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715). Qing dynasty, reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662–1722). Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Zhonghua 000052. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.