As indicated by their name,
to-pao-ko or miniature curio cabinets are used to collect and store a great variety of
different miniature treasures and curios. Although there can be no certainty as to the
source or date when these miniature cabinets first originated, in the surviving writings
of prominent figures living in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) it was recorded that
literati-scholars of that period customarily prepared a type of all-purpose convenience
kit for use when traveling or staying out overnight. Inside these kits were arranged small
comb cases, tea containers, censers, incense boxes, bottles for incense accessories, etc.
Also included were small travel cases containing items that might be needed on a journey,
such as a small knife, nail file, fork, tweezers, etc.
Literati-scholars in the Ming
dynasty were for the most part very particular when it came to their writing tools and
other essential literary items, which, they collected together inside stationary cases. In
some stationary cases there were arranged thirty or more different types of small literary
accessories such as brushes, pens, books, ink-slabs, ink, ink cases, paper, brush-racks,
brush-washers, water containers, glue boxes, incense accessories, seals, seal-ink, etc.
Clearly these convenience kits and stationary cases, popular in the Ming dynasty, were the
prototypes of the later Ch'ing dynasty (A.D.1644-1911) miniature curio cases.
Many of the miniature curio
cabinets in this museum's collection originate from the Ming dynasty imperial palace
collection. In this exhibit the miniature lacquer curio chest with carved cloud-and-dragon
decor and inscribed fu-lu-kang-ning (Wealth, Happiness, Health, and Tranquillity) be aring
the Chia-ching seal-mark is an example of a work deriving from this period. Many of the
other works in the Palace Museum collection were tribute-gifts presented to the emperors
by their subjects or from visiting foreign envoys; as represented by the gold-lacquered
boxes displayed in this room. The Museum collection also contains many works produced by
the Ch'ing impenal workshops, as well as many works produced under imperial auspices at
various localities (e.g. Yangchow) emulating court designed blueprints.
The early years of the Ch'ing
dynasty were a period of peace and prosperity for China; her national strength was at a
peak, and scholarship and the arts flourished. The emperors of this period, including the
Ch'ien-lung emperor, were especially devoted patrons of the arts, and avidly collected not
only painting, calligraphy, and ancient bronze vessels, but were also much enamored of
skillful craftsmanship in bamboo, wood, ivory, and bone as well as in gold, silver,
rock-crystal and jade. Natural objects of strange designs and textures also pleased them,
and they amassed collections of extraordinary wealth and variety. Not surprisingly, high
and low court officials vied with one another to find rare and beautiful curios for the
emperors' enjoyment, while foreign envoys outdid each other in bringing small treasures
from their native lands to the court as well, thereby yielding large numbers of
beautifully crafted curiosity-pieces for the palace collections.
The term to-pao-ko includes a
variety of cleverly-constructed small cabinets, cases, chests, and boxes in which the
greatest number of objects were designed to be arranged in the limited space available.
The designers also tried to make them as interesting and esthetically stimulating as
possible, so that within a single to-pao-ko one often finds an intricate array of tiny
compartments, shelves, drawers and boxes, sometimes one inside another or interconnected
in mesmerizing ways. In some cabinets, a whole new area can be discovered behind what
appears to be a blank wall by simply turning a knob. Despite their diminutive overall
size, these cabinets can thus contain dozens or even hundreds of curios, and it is often
difficult to find all of the items secreted within. Such miniature curio cabinets are
therofore masterpieces of skillful craftsmanship in themselves, quite apart from the
delightful miniature objects they contain.
The objects placed in these
to-pao-ko are also rich in variety, and included items of bronze, porcelain, jade, ivory,
enamel, and glass as well as works of painting and calligraphy. Each object had a
compartment specially designed for it; jades and ivory carvings are housed in drawers or
boxes, while small painting-scrolls, books, and fans are placed in internal compartments
and cases. The scrolls of painting and calligraphy were executed by court artists on a
miniature scale, and such items as the little brush-racks, water-droppers, and other
literary paraphernalia were small replicas of their larger counterparts.
Because of the Ch'ing emperors'
great fondness for these works, most of the miniature curio cabinets now in the Museum
collection were originally kept in the Yang-hsin Tien, Ch'u-hsiu Kung, and Ch'ung-hua
Kung, palaces of the imperial complex (the Forbidden City in Peking); these were the
actual resideces of the emperors and empresses, and were where they spent their leisure
time. The thirty-four works selected for display in this exhibition reveal the great
variety in size, design, and material characterizing miniature curio cabinets; standard
square, round and rectangular can be found along with large standing cabinets,
interconnected cases, cabinets shaped to resemble books, etc. They are presented here to
provide our visitors with a glimpse of this uniquely Chinese craft, the product of patient
and skillfull design and labor.