“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies…. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do… so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away.”
While we may not immediately connect Ray Bradbury’s words in context of Qing dynasty imperial history, the ideas expressed are apposite to an approach in the connoisseurship of Chinese painting – specifically the interplay of recorded responses through generations by scholar-collectors who extend the expression of a work from the past through to the future. In other words, the connoisseur becomes part of the story of that painting. Whether we call it a “soul”, as Bradbury does, or some nameless living quality, works of art are born of much more than ink, paper, or stone.
Consider an imperial soapstone seal, bearing the inscription: "Qianlong yulan zhi bao". Feeling the weight of this seal, we may sense that in such a personal object of the Qianlong Emperor, he must have left behind something of himself. The characters on the soapstone surface have been worn over time, through the act of impressing masterwork, after masterwork, after masterwork. And through its contact with so many paintings, the magnificent seal imparted its mark in red cinnabar paste, incorporating itself to the evolving histories of these masterpieces.
The six-character inscription “Treasure admired by his majesty the Qianlong Emperor” reminds us of the relationship the fourth ruler of the Qing dynasty had with the vast collection he amassed. He commissioned official catalogues that were not only extensive inventories of masterworks, but also assertions of imperial power and dynastic legitimacy. The archives detailing the tens of thousands of treasures – paintings, calligraphy, poetry, and art objects – that had been the preserve of the Emperor, serve as proof of his instinct to cultivate and shape literati philosophy on art and connoisseurship, a tradition that was by the 18th century more than a thousand years old. And within all these riches under heaven, which works did the Qianlong Emperor choose for posterity to reflect his own personal taste for art?
"Admired by his majesty the Qianlong Emperor"
The seal itself was carved by a master craftsman working for the Qianlong Emperor’s father Yongzheng or grandfather Kangxi, and after ascending the throne in 1735 Qianlong selected it for the purpose of recording the finest works in the imperial collection. During the fall of the Qing dynasty, the seal vanished from Shouhuangdian, the temple of Imperial ancestors, and its whereabouts was unknown for more than a century. The only proof of its existence had been upon the most revered works in classical Chinese history, amongst them: Fan Kuan’s Travelers among Mountains and Streams, generally considered the apotheosis of the monumental landscape tradition; Guo Xi’s canonical masterpiece Early Spring; and Wang Ximeng’s A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains, the only extant work of an artistic prodigy which has attained legendary status in art history.
The Seal that Connects All of China's Masterpieces
Reflecting upon these well-known Song-dynasty landscapes, it would be easy to overlook the fact that the Qianlong Emperor did not limit his tastes to the canonised masterworks of Chinese painting tradition. What perhaps is more telling are the chosen works that represent newer painting styles – for example, Leng Mei’s Lofty Scholar Admiring Prunus Blossoms. So, why this painting?
It is a widely held understanding that Chinese painting tends to be aesthetically oriented towards internalised depictions of the natural world – landscape, rocks and water, bird and flowers – and less interested in representations of real-life objects or beings. Thus, genres such as portraiture or figurative painting had been less favoured historically. During the Qing dynasty, there had been important developments of court figure painting – a new style that not only imported methods of perspective and modelling from the West, but also reconciled them with traditional painting techniques. In the integration of the diverse visual language, we see a demonstration of imperial expansion.
The works of Leng Mei offer great insight on the maturation of early Qing figure painting, as he was an accomplished artist whose service to the court spanned three Qing dynasty reigns – Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. Notably, he was the figure painter most admired by the Qianlong Emperor.
The Emperor’s seal is imprinted prominently on Leng Mei’s exquisite painting Lofty Scholar Admiring Prunus Blossoms, dated to 1713. A vivid, twisting plum tree serves as the background to this work. Under the tree, a scholar is shielded from the snow by a child holding a parasol, while another boy proffers a plum branch. This is all conveyed by Leng Mei through the traditional “three whites technique” to colour the faces of the figures, but then added shading to create dimension. Inspired by the details of the image, the Qianlong Emperor let fancy take flight, and in 1736 he added an inscription on the poetry hall to record this idea. The Emperor imagined this scholar as the reclusive poet Lin Bu (967-1028) who sought neither fame nor fortune, and instead concerned himself in practicing calligraphy, reciting poems, cultivating plum trees, and raising cranes. It is an allusion that shows the Qing Emperor’s understanding of Han culture.
What is most extraordinary is the way the Qianglong Emperor demonstrates the ongoing or open-ended nature of a work of art, adding not only his personal seal but also incorporating new meaning and new dimension to Leng Mei’s masterpiece. This takes us back to the notion of connoisseurship and touching a work so that we leave something of ourselves: "so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away."