Qianlong, in the Manchu language, means “blessed by god” (please refer to attachment no. 1). The Qianlong emperor indeed appeared to have found special favor as the Son of Heaven. Born in 1711 and passing away in 1799, his life spanned much of the eighteenth century, and he ruled for six decades, from 1736 to 1795, leading the Qing dynasty to a pinnacle in both civil and military achievements. With the greatest fortune and longest life span of any emperor in China, he witnessed seven generations and enjoyed a "Hall of Five Blessings and Five Generations." Throughout his life, the Qianlong emperor sought to be "all complete," taking the name "Old Man of All Completion." In 1796, Qianlong at the advanced age of 85 abdicated in favor of his fifteenth son, Yongyan, who became known as the Jiaqing emperor. Qianlong, in his imperial text on that occasion, once again reiterated the ideal of being "all complete" for a multi-talented ruler. Symbolizing a prosperous age of China under Qianlong and his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, this idea also served as an exhortation to following generations to continue paving the way for the future.
The Qianlong emperor was endowed with great intelligence and an acute longing for antiquity, also learning from the diversity of Manchu, Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian cultures since childhood. The rich and vast imperial collections at his disposal further helped cultivate a deep understanding of the heritage he inherited, which likewise strongly influenced his appreciation for the arts. He simultaneously took on multiple roles, not only being a poet and writer, but also as a collector, connoisseur, artist, and garden designer, allowing him to carry out his grand vision. This special exhibition focuses on the taste in art of the Qianlong emperor, with his collection, grading and appreciation, and organization and cataloguing of artworks in his possession, as well as the supervision of court art production, providing a concrete and systematic expression. To fully present these facets, the exhibit not only includes a display of select artifacts from the National Palace Museum collection, but also a loan of 45 works of the Qianlong emperor’s collection and his reign from the Palace Museum in Beijing, marking another fine occasion for cooperation between the two.
This special exhibition is divided into three sections. The first is entitled “Taste and Cultivation,” referring to Qianlong’s inspiration from his grandfather, father, and teachers as well as to the influence of his environment--including a rich collection and literary officials, painters, and skilled craftsmen--on his taste in art. The second part, “Connoisseurship and Production,” mainly presents the Qianlong emperor’s grand and systematic organization of the Qing imperial collections and their compilation into various catalogues. He ranked artifacts in the palace collections as “Supreme” and “Second class” or placed them in categories corresponding to “Divine,” “Marvelous,” “Capable,” and “Untrammeled,” as well as “A (jia),” “B (yi),” and “C (bing),” playing a direct role in the formation of a court style and influencing artistic styles both in and outside of the palace. The third section, “Life and Art,” mostly deals with the Qianlong emperor’s six decades of rule, including his six southern inspection tours and sojourns into Jiangnan; his ten “all complete” military campaigns and the expansion of the Qing empire; and Sino-Western exchange and foreign visitors in China. All of these greatly enriched his experiences in life and broadened his vision, transforming them into a unique and diverse taste in art that found expression in moments of leisure.
The Qianlong emperor, in his examination of objects in the Qing court collections, often left behind impressions of seals and inscriptions of appreciation. He frequently sang the praise and composed poems of admiration for artworks. Citing from authoritative texts, he conducted research and found discrepancies, making corrections of what he saw. Well-read in terms of ancient and modern, he also appreciated foreign elements, leading the Qing court in its production of arts and crafts. Furthermore, he could not help but put himself in various paintings, often project a vicarious trip into the life of a scholar. His broad learning, pluralism, curiosity, period, and likes and dislikes all molded a kaleidoscopic view of art upholding antiquity, admiring scholars, being bold in art, and pursuing the novel and unusual. The Qianlong emperor’s grand vision of past and present, standing far above others, gave rise to the Qianlong style of art, a peak that many even today aspire towards.
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