Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Redefining an Imperial Collection: Problems of Modern Impositions and Interpretations

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Redefining an Imperial Collection: Problems of Modern Impositions and Interpretations

Article excerpt


In 1924, when Aisin Gioro Puyi, the last emperor of China, was driven out of the imperial palaces, the Republican government formed the Committee for the Disposition of the Qing Imperial Possessions and took a comprehensive inventory of the objects in the Forbidden City.1 According to the committee's twenty-eight volumes of reports, which were first published in 1925, the Qing court had left more than one million objects including bronzes, jades, ceramics paintings, calligraphy, enamel wares, lacquer wares and many other miscellaneous articles.2 Although many objects were accumulated by successive Qing rulers, it was the Qianlong emperor who was most responsible for the formation of the former palace riches.

The Qianlong emperor came to the throne in 1736 at the age of twenty-five as the sixth emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and abdicated voluntarily sixty years later as a filial act in order not to reign longer than his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722). His reign witnessed the most prosperous time of the Qing dynasty as the economy flourished, the population grew and the territory expanded. In the heyday of the dynasty, his court amassed numerous cultural riches from all over China and beyond.

The huge span of objects gathered together during the reign of the Qianlong emperor has deeply influenced the present understanding of the history of Chinese art. It has been pointed out that 'surviving into museum collections to this day, the enormous store of cultural riches amassed by the Qianlong emperor has sometimes come to seem as if it is Chinese culture, and the material excluded by him has been correspondingly marginalised, or has not been preserved.'3 The extant objects from the Qianlong court have had a long-standing impact on the formation of knowledge and connoisseurship of Chinese art as a scholarly discipline.

Present scholarship is built on the presumption that there was a single, readily definable imperial collection which contained a monumental amalgamation of objects of art assembled by the Qianlong emperor, whose ambition was to possess all categories of objects and declare his legitimacy as the supreme ruler by establishing his image as the owner of the greatest collection in Chinese history.4 This presumption has been taken for granted and has never been questioned before. However, the present view of the collection does not take into account that the phrase 'imperial art collection' contains many notions that are of European origin and may not be a very precise description for the objects actually collected at the Qing imperial court in eighteenth-century China.

This paper will challenge the assumed popular identity of the so-called Qianlong imperial art collection, which will be argued, has been constructed largely with modern Eurocentric views. By applying philological and historiographical analysis, the paper intends to re-establish the definition and description of the actual collection in its original context. It will be demonstrated that the collection was not necessarily an assemblage of works of art and that it was not as monumental as previously assumed. In addition, the paper includes a discussion of how the perception of objects accumulated by the Qing imperial court as one entity was formed in the early twentieth century. It will be argued that it was the financial pressure faced by the Qing imperial household and the rise of nationalism that contributed to the disappearance of the boundary between collectibles and non-collectibles. Overall, this paper will challenge the 'canon' that has been constituted around the collection after the twentieth century and provide an alternative view towards imperial collecting and objects assembled in the eighteenth-century Chinese imperial court.

Reinstating the meaning of 'art'

What defines a work of art has been an ongoing debate in the modern Western world. It has been suggested that a work of art is an aesthetic object that possesses distinctive expressive and symbolic properties which can stimulate viewers and be perceived by spectators. …

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