Constructed with panels made entirely from zitan wood, this large cabinet (measuring 242 by 208 by 53cm), has four front doors separated by horizontal and vertical panels. The two outer doors are narrower and appear detachable. Each pair of doors on either side is installed with gilt-bronze plates which are decorated with dragons amongst clouds and waves. The doorpulls, on the other hand, are decorated in low relief with bats and chimes. Beneath the four doors is a horizontal border, and beneath the latter a traverse brace carved with auspicious cloud motifs in shallow relief. The four doors are thoroughly carved in relief with dragons writhing among scrolling clouds, all above various treasures further surrounded by waves and rugged rocks. Each door features an elder dragon above a young dragon, picturing canglong jiaozi or 'weathered dragon instructing its child' (to soar through the clouds to the heavens). The entire composition symbolises the emperor’s rule of the lands and oceans. Such imagery was historically popular among, and exclusive to, members of the imperial family, thus placing the present cabinet in the highest class of Chinese furniture.
Such decorative carvings usually feature large five-clawed dragons on top and small four-clawed dragons at the bottom. This cabinet, however, features top and bottom five-clawed dragons. The style of the dragon and cloud carvings as well as the dragons’ postures are characteristic of the Qianlong period.
The dragon emerged in early China as a totem for ancestral worship. In the Shang Dynasty, the dragon’s totemic significance gradually faded away, but it would remain a divine symbol for millennia to come. Foremost among reptilian lifeforms, the dragon was believed to control rain and clouds and to have the power to ensure prosperity and material abundance. Moreover, the dragon also symbolised virtue and good fortune. According to Xiaojing Shoushenqi, “Where virtue dwells and water pools, the Yellow Dragon manifests itself – a sign of the ruler.” After the Qin and Han dynasties, the dragon gradually became a symbol of the ruler and was increasingly venerated. As decorative motifs, some forms of dragons became exclusive to emperors from the Song dynasty onwards and especially strictly during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Dragon motifs evolved continuously in history, but its basic form was established during the Han dynasty: an enormous head with large eyes and a large mouth, sharp fangs, a serpentine body, and claws. The typical Qing-dynasty dragon is distinguished by its wide head with multiple protrusions and weathered appearance. It has paired horns, thick and dense hair over the back of its head, a large jaw with a short curled beard underneath it, a nose shaped like the head of a ruyi sceptre or a lion’s nose, a serpentine body with scales, and four large and fierce-seeming claws (or five, in the case of dragons associated with the Qianlong court).
Dragon motifs on furniture can be divided into the following types:
Front-facing with a coiled body, known as zhenglong ('front dragon'); In profile with head on top, known as shenglong ('rising dragon'), or with head at the bottom, known as jianglong ('falling dragon'); With a ‘flaming pearl’ around its head, with a trailing body and claws suggesting movement, known as ganzhulong ('pearl-chasing dragon') or xinglong ('moving dragon'); With an irregularly coiled body, in a marine setting, known as xishuilong ('playing-with-water dragon'); Accompanied with cloud motifs, known as chuanyunlong ('cloud-penetrating dragon'); A group of densely coiled dragons, with an elder one on top and one or two younger ones at the bottom, known as jiaozi shengtian ('instructing a child how to soar') or canglong jiaozi('weathered dragon instructing its child'); Two confronting dragons playfully flanking a ‘flaming pearl’, surrounded by clouds, known as er long xi zhu ('two dragons playing with a pearl'); Motifs evolving from primitive depictions of dragons as mythical beasts.
Zitan is one of the rarest and most precious woods in the world. It is an evergreen tree that grows to about eight metres. The leaves are alternate and trifoliate with three leaflets. The fruit is a seeded pod. Zitan wood is red and hard and sinks in water. According to Zhongguo shumu fenlei xue [Classification of Chinese trees], zitan belongs to the Fabaceae plant family. There are 15 species known by the name of zitan, but scholarly consensus recognises only one species as zitan proper, known as tanxiang zitan or “red sandalwood.” Its native habitat is Andhra Pradesh, India. Aside from red sandalwood, plants known by the name of zitan are grouped under hualimu. Zitan wood is distinguished by its rhinoceros-horn-like colour, and turns purplish-black after prolonged exposure to air. The wood is hard with a fine and subtly variegated grain. It has a dark and deep tone and is solemn and aesthetically pleasing.
Zitan has a long history in China and appeared already in records in the Jin and Tang dynasties. It was used as a material for household objects and furniture during the Ming and Qing dynasties, but this practice gradually faded by the late-Qing period due to the scarcity of zitan.
Expressions of Imperial Authority:
A Magnificent Imperial ‘Dragon’ Cabinet of the Qianlong Period
The crouching tiger and coiled dragon have so quickly revived.
I merely went to the Ming Tomb to pay respect according to the rites,
But I think of the hardships of founding a dynasty in that time.1
Imperial poem by the Qianlong Emperor (1751)
The present impressive zitan cabinet, with its exceptional carving of the dragon motif, showcases the pinnacle of imperial workmanship and brings to the fore the dragon as the most important symbol of the Emperor. The creation of such an outstanding piece of furnishing, manufactured in the Palace Workshop (Zaobanchu), which operated under the command of the Imperial Household Department (Neiwufu), involved the complex blend of five essential fields: symbolism of the imagery, aesthetic taste, design, material and craftsmanship. This essay examines each of these aspects to explain why this cabinet is special in the history of Qing furniture manufacture.
The Palace Workshop was responsible for the production of all furnishings, artefacts, daily objects and utensils used by the emperor and his family. Plans for each object were submitted, in many cases to the emperor himself, for approval, and when the decoration or shape did not meet imperial expectations, it was swiftly sent back for modification or complete re-design. Due to these rigorous standards and requirements, objects made under the auspices of the Palace Workshop fully reflect the emperor’s artistic taste and demand. As this paper demonstrates, the Qianlong Emperor’s exacting aesthetics dictated every step of the making of such a cabinet, from the birth of its design concept, to the selection of the right material and craftsmen, and finally to the skilful completion of the final product.
Symbolism of the Imagery, Aesthetic Taste and Design
The poem quoted above commemorates the Qianlong Emperor’s (r. 1736-95) visit to the tomb of Emperor Taizu of the Ming dynasty during his first southern tour in 1751.2 The Emperor composed his poem on the occasion of a review of his troops (yuebing) and expressed his preoccupation with governance and stability. He paid respect to the Ming founder according to the rules of ancient Chinese rituals laid down in the the Book of Rites (Liji), thus presenting himself as a Confucian monarch and a Manchu ruler at the same time.3 The imagery of the ‘swift revival of a crouching tiger and coiled dragon' (juhu panlong zhigu xin), an ancient Chinese metaphor for the rise of a hidden talent, reflects how the Emperor wished to present himself - the benevolent ruler and ultimate authority of the empire. The dragon is the primary representation of the Emperor’s supremacy and as such embodies all that was important to him. The mention of dragons in his writing and the frequent display of this ancient mythical creature on works of art and furnishings, such as the present cabinet, is an expression of imperial authority with the five-clawed dragon, the ultimate symbol of the ruler, only ever displayed on Imperial belongings.
The cabinet epitomises the exacting taste of the Qianlong Emperor, who created a legacy of immense imperial splendour. It was his penchant for monumentalism and display that guided every aspect of his life; be it in politics, military affairs, culture or the arts, we see a person with a vast enthusiasm and energy for grand projects and authoritative undertakings. For example, his inspection tours and military campaigns, massive constructions projects and his monumental literary initiatives all represented his desire to inspire awe, respect and obedience. He expressed imperial benevolence throughout his written works, the poem quoted above being one of the 42,000 he wrote while on the throne. He was a prodigious compiler of written works and the sponsor of the largest compendium of writings from China’s earlier dynasties, known as the Complete Library in Four Branches of Literature (Siku Quanshu). He was also to become the most important collector of the arts in China’s imperial history. As noted by Elliott and Shambaugh in The Odyssey of China’s Imperial Art Treasures, Seattle, 2005, p. 53, "In terms of sheer numbers of artwork, Qianlong collected more than any previous ruler. An analysis of a major 1816 inventory reveals some fifteen thousand paintings and calligraphies that had graced the various imperial palaces in Beijing and the summer palace."4 The Qianlong Emperor himself produced 2,516 of the works, as recorded in the inventory, over a quarter of the signed works found in the entire Imperial collection.5 Michael Sullivan in Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China, Stanford, 1978, p. 140, quotes a contemporaneous scholar-official who described the Qianlong Emperor as, "a man of tireless energy, a voracious art collector, a niggardly and opinionated connoisseur, an unstoppable writer of inscriptions and inscriber of seals [on paintings] who was determined to leave his indelible mark on China’s artistic legacy."6
The Emperor surrounded himself with furnishings, object and artefacts that represented his passion for monumental display and authority. For its sheer size the present cabinet achieves this objective. The large dimensions of the four panels make them into sizeable canvases for the court artisans and craftsmen to work on and to create an impressive masterpiece. The cabinet is remarkable for the exceptional quality of the carving, which is especially deep and detailed. The three-dimensional carving employed for the creation of the eight dragons makes them seem high spirited, as if the creatures are ready to leap out from the composition. A sense of movement is further achieved by the inclusion of tumultuous waves and densely floating clouds, all of which convey an impression of authority. The workmanship reflects the carvers’ total command of their material and complete mastery of the design. It is worth noting that each dragon is depicted in a different twisted and coiled pose, thus creating a sense of playfulness. While the dragons reflect strength and represent the yang or masculine energy, a subtle softness and beauty, yin aspect, is achieved with the inclusion of flowers, such as the iris and peony sprays and the lotus blossom, and elements from the Eight Auspicious Symbols (bajixiang), assuring a harmonious balance in the composition. The symbols have propitious connotations closely linked to Buddhism, for example, the umbrella signifying the victory of Buddha’s teachings, and the endless knot representing Buddha’s infinite wisdom and compassion; overall, the bajixiang were believed to bring peace and blessings and were not used only as a Buddhist reference.7 The combination of dragons and auspicious symbols is well known from imperial robes and textiles,8 but here display the artisans’ skill in transferring such a design on to a different material, wood.
The panels of the cabinet are made out of the rare and prized zitan wood available, by imperial decree, only to the master craftsmen employed by the Woodworks (Muzuo) in the Palace Workshop. Historically, zitan was primarily grown in southern India and southeast Asia, with a very small quantity known from the southern provinces of present-day Guangxi, Guangdong and Jiangxi in China. Zhou Mo, in his research on the variety of zitan employed for Chinese furniture suggests that two types were used at the Qing court, one known as the ‘small leaf zitan’ (pterocarpus santalinus) which has a light floral fragrance and ages to a deep reddish-purple or purple-black tone and grows to a smaller size, and its relative, the ‘large leaf zitan’ (dalbergia luovelii), which is a larger tree with lesser fragrance, but ages to a similar purple-black tone.9 Both types were appreciated for their jade-like silky texture, fine and dense grain, and their deep lustre, making them the favoured timber of both the Ming and Qing courts.
Zitan became the Qianlong Emperor’s most favoured wood type and he spared no expense in acquiring it. The wood’s long growth period, limited availability and high demand primarily from the imperial court, led to its excessive felling and eventual disappearance in China by the early 18th century. At court, zitan was predominantly used for the decoration and furnishing of the many halls and palaces of the Forbidden City. Its use was scrupulously monitored and the emperor gave special instructions to ensure the most economical and responsible use of the palace's zitan supply to avoid any waste. Tian Jiaqing in his article titled ‘Zitan and Zitan Furniture,’ in Chinese Furniture. Selected Articles from Orientations 1984-1999, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 194, mentions how on one occasion the emperor lost his temper because his wishes had been misunderstood and zitan rather than a less expensive material was used in a project.10
Furniture production in the Palace Workshop strictly adhered to the emperor’s taste, with a preference for large and weighty pieces, all of which conveyed authority while, at the same time, being a showcase for the high standards of workmanship achieved at court. By and large, Qing imperial furniture became increasingly grander than its predecessors, with more complex and detailed decoration. It is worth noting that different wood types were rarely mixed and there was a tendency to leave it unpainted to enhance the natural beauty of the material. As mentioned before, decoration was carefully considered, and as noted by Xiaoming Zhang, in his authoritative work titled Chinese Furniture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 24, imperial works used various carving techniques, with often more than four-fifths of the surface of each piece carved with exquisite detail.11 Pieces were primarily made with the use of the mortise-and-tenon technique, which joins various components together without any fasteners or glue. Different pieces were cut out and made to interlock with a perfect fit, and allowed to naturally expand and contract in reaction to humidity in the air. This technique, already in use as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 AD) in building construction, was perfected and reached its peak during the early Qing period when it was implemented on both furnishings and buildings.
In summary, Qianlong period furniture may be characterised as dignified in form, magnificent in decoration and exceptional in technical skill. George Kates, a pioneer in the study of Chinese furniture in the West notes how, "the Chinese handle inflexible wood in such masterly fashion that, almost unaware, one receives the impression of design in a living medium."12 Another expert in the field, Xiaoming Zhang concludes how Qing furniture in "its size and proportions are intended to display power and wealth, rather than comfort. Some pieces are not for daily use but were designed purely to meet the needs of strict court etiquette."13 He further suggests that by the latter half of the Qing dynasty, this elegance and luxurious style is replaced by rough, stiff and unimaginative pieces that incorporate crude decorative techniques that reflect a definitive shift from the golden age of furniture production in the Palace Workshop.14
The present cabinet is a tour de force of early 18th century court furnishing and reflects the Qianlong Emperor’s unrelenting occupation with the notion of imperial benevolence and authority. It is a one-off piece with no other similar example recorded. However, in its carving technique and decoration it is related to a large zitan cabinet of different structure but similarly decorated with the dragon and cloud design, pictured in situ in the bedroom behind the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxindian) illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 249; and the ‘Dragon’ zitan throne sold in these rooms, 8th October 2009, lot 1645 (fig. 1). See also a cabinet of related four panel structure but of much smaller dimensions and made of huanghuali wood decorated with an inlay design of figures amongst the ‘hundred treasures’, from the Qing court collection, published in The Complete Collection of Ming and Qing Furniture in the Palace Museum, vol. 16, Beijing, 2015, pl. 84.
1 Translated by Wooldrich, 2015, p. 43. Originally in Nanxun shengdian, compiled by Gao Jin. Beijing, 1772, reprint Taipei, 1991, juan 11.
2 The Qianlong Emperor conducted six southern tours in total, which occurred in the spring of 1751, 1757, 1762, 1765, 1780 and 1784.
3 Chang, 2015, pp. 13-4.
4 Elliott and Shambaugh, 2005, p. 53.
6 Sullivan, 1978, pp. 140-2.
7 Bartholomew, 2006, p. 185.
8 See details of an imperial robe illustrated in Mailey, 1980, p. 25.
9 Zhou Mo, 2004, part 2, p. 53-4.
10 Tian, 1999, p. 194.
11 Zhang, 2009, p. 24.
12 Kates, 1962, p. 32.
13 Zhang, 2009, p. 25.
Bartholomew, Theresa Tse, 2006, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
Chang, Michael, 2015. ‘The Emperor Qianlong's Tours of Southern China: Painting, Poetry and the Politics of Spectacle,’ The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 13, issue 8, no. 2, 13th February, pp. 1-18.
Elliott, Jeannette and David Shambaugh, 2005, The Odyssey of China’s Imperial Art Treasures, Seattle and London.
Kates, George, 1962, Chinese Household Furniture, New York.
Mailey, Jean, 1980, The Manchu Dragon, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Mazurkewich, Karen, 2006, Chinese Furniture, Tokyo, Rutland and Singapore.
Rawson, Jessica, 1984, Chinese Ornament. The Lotus and the Dragon, London.
Sullivan, Michael, 1978. Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China, Stanford.
Tian, Jiaqing, 1999, ‘Zitan and Zitan Furniture,’ Chinese Furniture. Selected Articles from Orientations 1984-1999, Hong Kong.
Wooldrich, Chuck, City of Virtues. Nanjing in the Age of Utopian Visions, Seattle.
Zhang, Xiaoming, 2009, Chinese Furniture, Cambridge.
Zhou, Mo, 2004, ‘Ming Qing jiaju de caizhi yanjiu yu jianding – zitan [Research and authentication of materials of Ming and Qing furniture – zitan],’ Shoucangjia [Collectors], nos. 4-5, part 1, pp. 51-8 and part 2, pp. 51-6.
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