Chinese Palace treasures in Melbourne

The life of a Chinese Emperor was that of extreme wealth and power, his role was to govern and unite the country. He was known as the ‘Son of Heaven’ and expected to have spiritual influence over the elements. Confucius ideology influenced the aristocratic place of the ruler; historically the roles had been degraded by a series of abusive and debauch rulers. Confucius believed in the feudal system however he intended that the leader would be honourable and exemplify the finer qualities of leadership. Parental care of the autocrat would aim to establish order amongst the obedient subjects.

Qianlong, fourth Emperor of the Quing dynasty (1644-1911), was one of Chinas most successful leaders and ruled for over 60 years (1736–1795). He brought prosperity and peace to the region, although he came from a military background. He was a descendant of the Manchu, which was a small ethnic group. Qianlong adopted Chinese manners and followed the guidelines of Confucius ethics, to influence the 150 million Han Chinese that he ruled. The treasures of this royal court are currently on display at the National Gallery of Victoria.

“The Victorian Government is grateful to the Palace Museum for entrusting the NGV with its treasures as part of a ground-breaking partnership between the two institutions.” Mr. Foley said.

Dr Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator of Asian Art, NGV and Curator of A Golden Age of China very generously gave time to the Melbourne Press and revealed details that are hidden within the beautiful objects, of the Forbidden City. She explained the Emperors interest in art. He employed artists to depict royal life, he collected art from around the world and he also practiced drawing and calligraphy.

There were two types of artwork in Imperial China, one that was to be shown and the other for private meditation. Some of Dr. Pang’s favorite pieces in the exhibition are Qianlong’s private drawings and his poetry. Private drawings were to aid inner contemplation, not to impress the viewer. She remarked that the exhibit is less grand than the surrounding works and could be overlooked, however the drawings give us insight into the state and mind of the Emperor.

The Emperors landscape scrolls are encased in a glass cabinet, they depict nature and the favorite places that he had visited. Dr. Pang explained that he was a determined traveler at a time when the task was a difficult one. When he was fascinated by a place he would attempt to recreate an aspect of it in his drawing or have its feature installed, in the palace gardens.

The visually beautiful characters of the Chinese language are an esteemed part of its literature. Although the language develops and changes, its intrinsic core meaning can still be understood in modern China. The Emperor was a prolific poet and wrote over 40,000 poems and 1300 pieces of prose. Dr Pang read the calligraphy of a large poem Poem about East Mountain Brush-rest peak that was written by Qianlong and is framed on the gallery wall. The poem elevates people that seek inner spiritual development over those that adorn themselves in jade and corals, who care only for outer appearances. Within the poem, he creates clever puns and plays on words to give them multiple meanings. This duality is represented in many of the works on display.


“Everything is not as it seems” Dr Pang explains.

Symbols and color are used to portray status, longevity and luck. The yellow silk costumes that are used for ceremonies are rich in such detail. Yellow was the distinctive colour of the ruler; it was exclusive to the royal court. A death penalty would be the punishment of anyone who breached this code and incorporated the color in his or her garment.

Leadership entitled the Emperor to a vast array of wives and concubines for his pleasure and procreation, however it also required eunuchs to service them. To ensure a faithful court, many men forfeited their patriarchal rights. They were often sons of the poor who had been sold to the Palace. They were donned with red hats to distinguish their rank, as depicted in the composition, Imperial Banquet in the Garden of Ten Thousand Trees by Giuseppe Castiglione.

“One of his 41 wives was Moslem” Dr Pang adds

Dr. Pang discussed the details of a large work of coloured inks on silk, titled Envoys from vassal states and foreign countries presenting tribute to the Emperor


The composition has a warped aerial perspective to show the viewer multiple angles. Walls, to ensure royal privacy, separate the private and public areas. At the entrance of the Palace, visitors are assembled from around the world. The flags depict the country that the ambassador is from and it includes European nations. Due to the successful leadership of Qianlong, China had become a great empire and was held in worldly renown.

Most of the items within the collection are adorned with symbols and references to good fortune. The Melbourne Press asked the Palace Museums Vice Director Song Jirong what the Chinese would regard as the most important ‘type of luck’.

“A long life” she replied.

Many symbols of the artwork promote longevity. The court women adorned themselves with hairpieces that have knots embellished within the design, to represent an extended life. They also wore extremely long nail protectors and the pair that is currently on display is made of fine gilt silver wires formed into symbols of happiness and a long life. Some of the items on display incorporate storks, dragons and the number 9; these are keystone symbols that perpetuate the life-force. Many of the symbols used are unique to eastern culture and can be overlooked by western visitors. At the hem of a semi formal robe for the Empress are waves of colour that represent the sky. Chinese artists represent the sky as having many colours, not just solo blue.

The final room of the exhibition is a slide show of the Forbidden City so the visitor gets an idea of the expanse of the Palace. It’s the size of a suburb, with magnificent engineering feats. It was built between 1406 and 1421 and involved a workforce of 10,000 craftsmen and 1,000,000 labourers. The Palace has 9000 rooms and the Forbidden City occupies a vast expanse of more than 72 hectares. The two dynasties of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) households and their 24 Emperors enjoyed this exclusive luxury. In 1925, the Palace Museum opened the heavy gates of the Forbidden City to the public.

One cannot underestimate the level of negotiations and the transport considerations of the exhibit. Valuable Chinese antique treasures are currently on loan at the NGV. Air China was given the task of the safe haul. Melbourne is in the entitled position of host to this important collection. It is an opportunity to view a cultural legacy in its prime.

Modern Art broke its ties to its European Masters and drew inspiration from the East. It is important to understand the influence that Chinese art has had on the West. It was exposure to these types of works that influenced artists such as Henri Matisse. Matisse worked extensively in the breaking down of image to essential form. Strong lines, negative spaces and flat dimensions became the new vision that the Modern Master employed.

Dr Pang remarked that the NGV and Melbourne reminded her of the Palace and prime places in China. She noted that both are very orderly and have garden areas that are reminiscent of Chinese aesthetics.

Rio Tinto is a major sponsor of The Golden Age of China; they have arranged free entry for all school children, to the exhibits. The Exhibition will be open to the public until June 21st. There will also be a series of talks and films for those that desire a deeper understanding of Chinese culture.


QIANLONG EMPEROR Chinese 1711–99

Poem about East Mountain Brush-rest peak, calligraphy 弘历咏东山笔架峰贴落Qing dynasty, Qianlong period 1768

signed by Qianlong Emperor in the autumn of 1768 and with 2 seals of Qianlong Emperor

ink on paper 157.5 x 216.0 cm (image and sheet)The Palace Museum, Beijing

Envoys from vassal states and foreign countries presenting tribute to the Emperor 清人万国来朝图轴Qing dynasty, Qianlong period 1736–95

coloured inks on silk 365.0 x 219.5 cm The Palace Museum, Beijing


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