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Life and Art

The Qianlong emperor’s appreciation of and innovation in the arts was based on his heartfelt love of art and culture, with his devotion to artistic activities and cultural matters being found everywhere in daily life. This section is divided into two facets, "Travel and Experiences" and "Peace and Leisure," representing the trajectories of Qianlong’s sojourn through art and life.


In the six decades the Qianlong emperor spent on the throne, more than half of that time was actually in places other than the Forbidden City, including his eastern tour for conducting sacrifices to ancestors, his stays at the Chengde Summer Mountain Resort, and his six southern inspection tours. Wherever he went and whatever he encountered or saw, all of them touched something in his heart. He recalled, for example, events related to his father and grandfather, associating them with the virtue and wisdom of the ancients. He looked at the works of art around him, ruminating on and reading about their cultural implications. Travel experiences not only expanded the Qianlong emperor’s vision, the places that he visited also left a deep impression on the art around him.

 

As ruler of the country, the Qianlong emperor’s life was to govern, but somewhere deep down in his heart he longed for the idealized realm of a traditional scholar. He yearned for the Serene Lodging Mountain Resort at Mount Pan as a residence for retreat. In the boundless realm of painting, he had figures in ancient works replaced with portraits of himself, transporting him in time, place, and role. Incarnating himself as a scholar in painting, he roamed the landscapes of nature and his ideals. Incarnated as the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, he immersed himself in the infinite spirit of religion. The interpretation of composition and contents together in a painting reveal a deeper and personal side to the Qianlong emperor and the multi-faceted aspects of his thoughts on life.

3-1 Travel and Experiences

"Read ten thousand books, travel ten thousand miles" is a Chinese proverb that for the Qianlong emperor, who bridged Manchu and Chinese cultures, combined the pursuit of knowledge by the traditional Chinese scholar with the traditional customs of Manchu cavalry. His travels and inspection tours, therefore, naturally were an important part of his life. During his six decades on the throne, he left the palace more than 150 times. On average during a single year, he was out of the Forbidden City more than half of his time at temporary palaces, such as the Old Summer Palace. Of the Qianlong emperor’s various travels, perhaps the most conspicuous were his six inspection tours of the south, the texts and illustrations related to them also being the most plentiful. Along the way during a southern inspection tour, obviously there were official matters and visits to conduct. However, in spare moments of leisure, Qianlong would travel lightly and go to serene places to enjoy some tea, do a painting, compose a poem, or see an ancient site, fully appreciating the aesthetic life of a Chinese scholar in the south. Coming upon a worthy site, he would have a painter sketch the scenery so that it could be reproduced at the imperial gardens upon his return to the north. If he came upon a particularly talented person, he might also summon him to serve at court. Xu Yang and Zhang Zongcang, for instance, were skilled painters discovered by the Qianlong emperor on his first southern inspection tour. This section includes a display of objects and materials related to Qianlong’s southern inspection tours to illustrate the aesthetic side of his life during travels.

Mount Qixia

Mount Qixia

Zhang Hong (1577-ca. 1652),
Ming dynasty

Two Letters

Two Letters

Lin Bu (967-1028),
Song dynasty

Venerable Cudapanthaka (Lohan 11 of the ''Sixteen Lohans'')/Venerable Abhida (Lohan 16 of the ''Sixteen Lohans'')

Venerable Cudapanthaka (Lohan 11 of the "Sixteen Lohans") / Venerable Abhida (Lohan 16 of the "Sixteen Lohans")

Ding Guanpeng (fl. 1726-1770),
Qing dynasty

3-2 Peace and Leisure

The leisure seals of the Qianlong emperor include ones for "Momentary Leisure by an Ink Pond," "Teaching Aid for Diligent Governance," "Pleasure in Viewing Life and Vitality," "Ways of the Zither and Calligraphy for Delight in Life," and "Seeking Pleasure in the Words of Heaven," which show that, in addition to the myriad affairs of state to which he attended every day, he also took time to find moments of peace and leisure for an aesthetic appreciation of life. Inspired by the numerous artworks in the court collection, Qianlong often ordered painters to imitate works by the ancients with his own portrait in them, as if becoming part of the scene and experiencing the activities. In leisure time, he left behind many poems of praise on painting and calligraphy, demonstrating his pursuit of art and the ideal of the "Three Perfections" among literati.


Surviving artworks, archival records, and imperial poetry and prose clearly show how much attention the Qianlong emperor devoted to gardens, objects of the scholar’s studio, appreciating tea, and decorative design.

 

Curio boxes even more so reflect the integration of the Qianlong emperor’s taste and aspects of collecting. With an all-out effort in the diverse steps of the collection process, such as searching for, organizing, grading, designing, arranging, imitating, and innovating, the Qianlong emperor was able to go back in time and travel vicariously all over, creating a rich and grand synthesis of culture focused on his taste in life.

Carved sandalwood curio box with dragon design (cabinet 1, 56 items including wood chest)

Carved sandalwood curio box with dragon design (cabinet 1,56 items including wood chest)

Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

''Autumn Boating on a Maple River'' Inscribed by Gaozong

"Autumn Boating on a Maple River" Inscribed by Gaozong

Sheng Mao (fl. mid-14th c.),
Yuan dynasty

''Assorted Calligraphy'' Inscribed by Gaozong

"Assorted Calligraphy" Inscribed by Gaozong

Dong Qichang (1555-1636),
Ming dynasty

Haze and Mists of Mountains and Streams

Haze and Mists of Mountains and Streams

Attributed to Cui Yanfu (fl. 14th c.),
Yuan dynasty

Imperial Copy of Su Shi's Calligraphy

Imperial Copy of Su Shi's Calligraphy

Gaozong (1711-1799),
Qing dynasty

''New Year's Wishes'' from the Brush of and Inscribed by Gaozong

"New Year's Wishes" from the Brush of and Inscribed by Gaozong

Anonymous tapestry,
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

Illustrated Imperial Copy of ''Ode to the Goddess of the Luo River''

Illustrated Imperial Copy of "Ode to the Goddess of the Luo River"

Gaozong (1711-1799),
Qing dynasty