Sunday, August 29, 2004

Field Museum - Secrets of the Forbidden City

So, Isaac, Gretchen and I went to the Field Museum to see this exhibit. Honestly, I wish I'd gone sooner and more often. There's a lot of amazing stuff to see. There are displays of the emperor's daily robes, ceremonial armor and weapons, the various swords and knives having overly-poetic names. This was pretty typical for weapons of the time. You can definitely tell which sword was for actual defense and which were for ceremonial duties only. A lot of the blades had jade hilts, which I'd think would crack easily if the weapons were used in a real fight. There were also lots of plates and dinnerware, each set denoting who was allowed to eat from it.

The impressive parts of the exhibit included Qianlong's throne room. Yes, you read that right. They brought the imperial throne to the Field Museum along with the items that would have been in the throne room as well. What I noticed was the emperor's nod to tradition, with many of the numerous censers, sacrificial wine cups and daily-use goblets having three legs on the bottom of each vessel. This is something that can be traced back to early Chinese history, including the semi-mythical Shang dynasty.

The scrolls and paintings by various artists from China showed the power that the Emperor wielded, as well as his place in nature: he ruled mankind, but had no significance compared to the mountains, streams and sky. There were also paintings by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit priest who traveled to China to spread the word of God. His paintings were extremely realistic compared to the ink-brush paintings of China. Those paintings were on display, large silk scrolls with the pictures of Qianlong, his first wife (out of 26 I think), and scenes of the Emperor at home with his children. The last one is probably idealized, since the emperor of China would have almost no time to devote to his family due to the business of runing the country. The paintings are beautiful. What is quite amusing is the Buddhist mandala that the emperor commissioned from Catiglione.

The books that were on display were beautiful, though I wish I could have read more of them than what I did. My knowledge of Mandarin is fading and I need to brush up on it so I don't forget anything. The emperor was a skilled poet in the traditional Chinese styles, and some of his poems were on display.

The exhibit also shows Qianlong's reverence to the various religions of the country. There were various stupa used for meditation among the Tibetan sects of Buddhism, numerous idols of Chinese and Tibetan gods, even the Manchu gods of Qianlong's heritage. In addition, the Chinese government allowed the museum to show Qianlong's memorial tablet made after he died. The throne and tablet matched beautifully. Also of note was the Buddhist stupa commissioned by Qianlong's son Hongzheng. Hongzheng loved his mother so much that declared his mother an Empress after her death. This was more a gesture of grief than anything else, as the emperor would hold all of the power. Hongzheng's mother was merely the first wife, nothing else. She could wield no political power. So, the term Empress is used in some amount of error in the exhibit.

What I really wanted to see, though was the lute used by Qianlong when he was at court. I'd heard it was made in the Ming dynasty, and saw that it was described as having been made during the early Qing dynasty instead. You can see the Ming stylings in the carving of the wood, and its simple lacquering contrasts with the beautiful cloissone ceremonial lutes used in worship of the Manchu deities. I still think the emperor's lute may be a Ming-era instrument, though. It looks very simple compared to the other items found throughout the exhibit.

This exhibit is worth the admission price. It will close on the 16th of September. Go see this exhibit.

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