How a Qing Dynasty Cabinet Captured the Marvel of an Emperor

How a Qing Dynasty Cabinet Captured the Marvel of an Emperor

The story of one Emperor’s fascination with the philosophical reflection of self told through a mirror raree cabinet.
The story of one Emperor’s fascination with the philosophical reflection of self told through a mirror raree cabinet.

T he Qianlong Emperor reigned over a period of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) that flourished with great prosperity, fostering the development of science, art and culture to their pinnacle height. He was known to favour the mixing of influences from the East and West, for example, in his reign, we see a new style in art combining Western realism and traditional brushwork emerge with the involvement of European Jesuit artists such as Giuseppe Castiglione. Meanwhile, previously unseen exotic objects, from optical and musical to mechanical instruments, were introduced to the Qianlong Emperor through European Jesuits; populating the long corridors and grand halls of the imperial palace with Western-style playthings.

Among the myriad objects was the so-called “peepshow box”, a novelty device which became widely popular in Europe during the 17th century, though its invention has been credited to the Italian cryptographer Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century. The delight of the “peepshow box” was the illusion of three-dimensionality it created through lenses, mirrors and the layering of flat painted panels enhancing one’s sense of depth. Peeping into an enclosed cabinet, painted two-dimensional images suddenly appeared enriched with another dimension. It is quite likely that upon being presented with such a brilliant mirror cabinet, the Qianlong Emperor desired to have his own version, adapted and executed by artisans of the imperial court.

A Qing court record which dates from the 1st day in the 11th month of the 17th year (6th December 1752) states that “the Emperor ordered a pair of Xiyangjin (Western raree show mirrors) to be made for Shuifadian (Water Palaces)” and tin plates in the storage would have to be utilised. The rare show cabinet seen here is thought to likely be one of the pair stated in the entry of the Qing court archives; so rare that only one other example of comparable material, structure and size, and possibly made around the same time, is presently known to still exist.

Whimsically designed with overlapping layers of cutout panels, the cabinet is carved from agarwood, known as chenxiang or qinan in Chinese, a timber highly valued for its fragrance and rarity. Along with tanxiang (sandalwood), agarwood was burnt as incense in Buddhist rituals, yet so rare is agarwood that from a record pertaining to the 54th year (1789) documenting valuable tributes that arrived from Siam, we can learn that there were only three catties of agarwood, while there were 600 catties of ivory and 150 catties of sandalwood.1

Marvellously carved and crafted, the cabinet showcases both the influence at the time of Western theories of optics and perspective as well as elicits philosophical reflections of the self and self-identity. One can imagine the moment the Qianlong Emperor peeping through the two eye slits at the top and met by his the most poignant and enigmatic double-portrait One or Two on the right side, accompanied by a glimpse of paradise on the left.

Produced over a period of more than 30 years, the painting series One or Two comprises five tieluo (affixed hanging), the largest number of versions among all the imperial portraitures of the Qianlong Emperor. Modelled after a Song dynasty dual portrait and executed by Qing court artists, the paintings in the series depict the Qianlong Emperor in a traditional Han-style robe in an antiques-filled room, casually seated in front of a screen suspending a further portrait of himself. The five portraits from the series are held in the Palace Museum in Beijing, and the portrait in the cabinet seen here appears to possibly be resembling the version titled Hall of Mental Cultivation, evident by the screen and the long object in the bronze gu beaker. While the name One or Two? Arises from inscriptions by the hand of the Emperor which accompany the works within the series; the sixteen-character poems vary for each of the portraits, however they all open with the titular question: “Is it one or two?”

One or Two, Yangxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation) version, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper © Palace Museum, Beijing

One possible explanation for the Qianlong Emperor’s fascination with seeing his own realistic depictions was that he was “repeatedly challenging the boundary between illusion and reality.”2 In our brief imagining of the Emperor as he sees his own image within the cabinet, it calls to mind the Lacanian “mirror stage” which describes a formative moment of our conscious development when we first become aware of ourselves in relation to the inner and outer worlds.

A portrait within a portrait of himself, raising the question of the external and internal self which flutters within the liminal space between dream and reality, perfectly captured within the looking-glass lens of a peepshow cabinet.

1Ji Ruoxin, ed., Uncanny Ingenuity and Celestial Feasts. The carving of Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Art of Bamboo, Wood and Fruit Stones, Taipei, 2009, pp. 102-3.

2Kristina Kleutghen, ‘One or Two, Repictured’, Archives of Asian Art, vol. 62, 2012, pp. 25-46.

Chinese Works of Art

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