Magazine article The Spectator

Politics of Patronage

Magazine article The Spectator

Politics of Patronage

Article excerpt

China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795 Royal Academy, London, until 17 April 2006

'The state is ruined, but mountains and rivers remain, ' wrote the Chinese poet Du Fu in the 8th century AD during a rebellion that temporarily overthrew the Tang Emperor. Four centuries later, 'Give us back our mountains and rivers!' was the slogan of Chinese nationalists after the conquest of northern China by the Jürchens from Manchuria; and the same slogan reappeared during the rebellions that swept away the next wave of conquerors -- Kublai Khan's Mongols -- in the 14th century. The Chinese are nothing if not consistent. Theirs is the only ancient civilisation that survived into the modern world and part of the reason is no doubt that whoever ruled, whether foreign or native, relied on a highly educated native bureaucracy with a long tradition. The official examinations that selected its civil servants were first held in 165 BC.

In the tenth and penultimate room of this huge and overwhelming exhibition you will find the mountains-and-rivers men, those scholar-artists who, when China was conquered once more (in 1644) by foreigners from the north -- the Jürchens again, now called the Manchus -- withdrew so far as they could into the landscape. Their ancestors had regularly done the same, whether because they had failed the civilservice exams or had lost their jobs or didn't care to serve the current rulers. But in this case many of their peaceful paintings of mountains and rivers -- loaded with that perennial political message as well as references to a scholar-artist tradition stretching back at least a thousand years -- ended up anyway in the foreign Emperors' collections. Nearly all the 400 items in the exhibition come from the Palace Museum in Beijing and almost all belonged to the three great Manchu Emperors of the early Qing Dynasty: the Kangxi Emperor (reigned 1662-1772), the Yongzheng (reigned 1723-35) and the Qianlong (reigned 1736-95).

All three were devoted admirers of Chinese arts and crafts. That was part of their success as rulers of the largest empire in Chinese history. In addition to being ruthless autocrats with a highly efficient military organisation, they studied and adopted the languages, culture and religions of all their main subject peoples, Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans and above all Chinese. They were even nice to the Jesuit missionaries who had arrived in the dying phase of the previous dynasty, valuing especially their mathematics, astronomy, cartography and curious European mode of painting, with single-point perspective and shadows. Those fathers with artistic talent (notably Giuseppe Castiglione, Jean-Denis Attiret and Ignaz Sichelbarth), instead of running up altarpieces for Christian churches, were kept busy by the emperors as architects, portraitists and, together with Chinese court-painters, in recording the emperors' leisure activities, celebrations and processions. Several long handscrolls showing in minute detail such scenes as the Kangxi Emperor's southern inspection tour (ships along the Yangzi River) and the Qianlong Emperor's 60th birthday celebrations (lines of troops, horseback bodyguards, kneeling courtiers, teeming citizens) are displayed in the Royal Academy's central gallery; preceded by an antechamber featuring the three emperors' portraits in their yellow silk dragon robes and red hats, together with cases containing two of the actual robes and one of the hats, all looking as if they were made yesterday. …

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