Have you not seen what is truly great and beautiful?
Have you alone not heard of the Imperial Park of the Son of Heaven?
Sima Xiangru (179-117 BC)
Shanglin fu [Rapsody on the Imperial Shanglin Park]1
The present magnificent twelve-panel lacquer screen epitomises the aesthetic beauty and exceptional craftsmanship associated with objects made for the imperial court during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722). The decoration depicts a procession entering a walled hunting park through a gate. The party consists of mounted huntsmen and women, attendants and soldiers, accompanied by several hounds. The central figure, who is portrayed slightly larger in size than those accompanying him, is depicted seated on a splendid white stallion. He is shielded from the sun by an extended golden-yellow canopy held by an attendant and is wearing the traditional Manchu short black winter coat over an elaborately embroidered long robe. The outer coat bears a square insignia of rank in the front, which also appears to be repeated on his shoulders. The insignia provides an indication of the rank of this huntsman, who if not the emperor himself, was certainly one of the imperial princes of first or second degree (see below).
Other participants in the hunt consist of riders who appear to be members of the Manchu nobility, including two court ladies, one holding a musical instrument and the other a pipe which she is extending in a gesture of offering to the central figure. The party is depicted fully engaged in the pursuit of game and birds, and are shown using weapons that include bows and arrows, slings, spears, bolas and a gun. Their enjoyment of their sport is reflected in the informal exchanges between riders and in some of the witty details included in the composition. The procession is headed by the soldier holding the Bordered Yellow Banner, two behind him are blowing hunting horns for signalling messages to the huntsmen and the hounds, and a further two horsemen each carry gold incense burners to clear the air. A dog may be seen held in the lap of one of the riders, while another huntsman crossing the bridge is holding a raptor on his arm. The hounds are playfully wrestling with their prey, one with a monkey and another with a leopard, and a humorous touch is provided by a stallion discreetly defecating in the corner, away from the other riders. Overall, it is a composition that would have brought a smile and pleasant memories to its owner, not only for its content but also for the remarkable detail and exceptional workmanship.
To appreciate fully the importance of this screen as an imperial furnishing, we should consider the technique of the screen's decoration, the significance and meaning of the hunt and hunting parks, and the role of screens as imperial furnishing. We will also examine in more detail the insignia and the clues they provide as to the identity of the central figure, who may indeed be the emperor himself.
Arts during the Kangxi period were influenced by the emperor's personal vision, which was in turn shaped by his Manchu heritage, his traditional Chinese cultural upbringing and his keen interest in innovation, science and technology. In its workmanship, the screen represents a complex technique that was invented in the 17th century and developed by Chinese craftsmen working in one of the twenty-seven workshops under the directorship of Viceroy Lang Tingzuo (1656-1668) in the newly established Zaobanchu (Imperial Manufacture Department) in the Forbidden City.2 The screen was produced using a technique that constitutes the final stage in the history of lacquerware technology in China.3 The twelve large wooden panels are covered with layers of black lacquer which are carved and decorated with inlaid tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl containing painted details, and further applied with gold and silver leaf and dust. The luxurious pictorial effect of the composition is achieved by the use of the precious mother-of-pearl, which was employed for its significance to the Manchu culture. Small freshwater seed pearls, also known as 'Eastern pearls' were harvested from the Sungari, Yalu and Amur Rivers in Manchuria. Hence, these pearls were especially prized by the emperor for their association with his Manchu homeland. In fact, their use was restricted predominantly to the decoration of objects and costumes kept in the imperial palace or worn by the emperor and members of his family.4
The screen is a remarkable example of a piece of palace furnishing. The extreme rarity of imperial lacquer screens from the Kangxi period is noted by Sir Harry Garner in his work on the history of Chinese lacquerware.5 Only one other screen of this twelve-panel form and decoration is recorded, the companion to the present piece, preserved in the collection of Ca'Pesaro, the Museum of Oriental Art in Venice (fig. 1), and illustrated in Annamaria Rispoli Fabris, L'Arte della Lacca, Milan, 1974, pl. 44. The Ca’Pesaro collection was formed around the possessions of Prince Enrico di Borbone, Count of Bardi, who acquired his artefacts during a 2-year visit to Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, Indochina, China and Japan between 1887 and 1889. However, the Borbone twelve-panel screen, which has recently been meticulously restored to its former glory, was already in the possession of the family at the time of the prince’s tour and was not acquired during these travels according to the museum’s website.6
The subject matter of the screen reflects the importance of the hunt in early Qing political culture. Imperial hunts were not merely elite activities of a leisurely nature, but functioned as inspection tours and imperial progresses. They were a means of asserting Manchu authority over the empire, which included peoples as well as the animal world. Just as human subjects were to recognise the emperor’s sovereignty, so was the natural world brought within the power structure by means of the hunt. The history of imperial hunts in China date back as early as the Western Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 9) when the Shanglin park, located outside the capital walls of Chang’an, was constructed as a microcosm of the empire, a study ground for the emperor and his officials to observe nature, plants and animals, as well as the setting for organised hunts and animal fights for the entertainment of the court.7 Roel Sterckx explains the significance of hunting parks for symbolical reasons, noting that ‘parks served as scenes in which rulers staged symbolical conquests of the natural world through the means of ritual hunts and staged animal combats.’8 This function is not dissimilar to that of the hunt in the West, explained by Simon Schama as being a form of blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was displayed and maintained.9
Similar to the ancient Shanglin grounds, Qing dynasty hunting parks were maintained as nature reserves where a miniature version of the empire was recreated by means of planting representative flora and fauna from the various regions and the enclosure of wild animals from all over the empire. It is known that during Kangxi’s reign, captive animals such as tigers, leopards, bears and wolves were brought in cages and released in the parks.10 Thomas Allsen notes how hunts represented the ‘court out-of-doors’ - an open-air theatre for displays of majesty, the entertainment of guests, and the bestowal of favour on subjects.11 Another important aspect of the Qing hunt was its use as a military training and strengthening exercise in the traditional Manchu martial skills of archery and horsemanship. It was also a bonding ritual intended to emphasize the shared martial traditions of the Manchu and Mongol soldiers of the Eight Banners who were selected to participate in these events that strictly excluded Han soldiers.12 The Kangxi Emperor, in particular, encouraged the development of skills such as riding, archery, shooting and hunting both as a physically strengthening exercise and as a preparation for warfare and military training in the Manchu tradition. Great hunts were recognised to be covert preparations for military purposes. They were conducted with strict discipline as that applied in war, and were also used as sources of innovation in military organisation and tactics.13 The headdress worn by the central figure on the screen presents him as a military figure, emphasising the martial nature of the hunt.
The presence of ladies on hunts is also noteworthy and provides an interesting example of the different treatment of Manchu women in society from Han Chinese women. Contemporary Western accounts note how they wore boots and rode astride like men, making a notable figure either afoot or on horseback.14 George Staunton, a member of the Macartney delegation to China commented on the equestrian habits of Manchu women, and noted on the absence of foot-binding as follows, ‘[There] were several women, natives of Tartary or of Tartar extraction, whose feet were not distorted like those of the Chinese… Some of these ladies were in covered carriages, and others on horseback, riding astraddle like men.’15
Royal hunts were conducted in the three imperial hunting parks located in the outskirts of the capital, Beijing, and administered by the Imperial Household Department (Neiwufu). The parks were enclosed by large brick walls and contained roads, artificial lakes, hills and plenty of game, especially deer. Even grander than the parks in the capital was the imperial reserve at Rehe, in eastern Inner Mongolia, site of the grand hunts established by the Kangxi Emperor in 1681. Known as Mulan Weichang or the ‘Mulan Enclosure’, the reserve occupied an area of over 1600 square kilometres, and was large enough to offer a varied topography and environmental conditions needed for the diverse game.16 According to the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ripa, a resident in China between 1710 and 1723, it was divided into two sections, one in the east that was reserved for the emperor, his ladies, and eunuchs, and a larger one in the west for his guests.17 Lord George Macartney, who visited Kangxi’s grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, at Rehe in 1793, described the Mulan reserve as wild, woody, mountainous, and rocky, abounding with stags and deer of different species, and most other beasts of chase. He further notes how the emperor rode about his park for several hours without exhausting the sights.18 The first official hunt by the Kangxi Emperor at Rehe was organised in 1681, and from 1683 hunts were conducted on a yearly basis usually starting in the fifth month and lasting until the ninth month in autumn. The emperor had the honour of the first shot, and if a tiger was caught, he would kill it personally as a spectacle demonstrating the bravery and martial skill of his imperial lineage.19 The emperor’s exceptional valour is recorded in 1692, when his retinue came across a bear which he shot with an arrow and then finished off with a pike.20 Interestingly, imperial hunts were temporarily discontinued by the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35), who hunted as a prince, but never again on the throne.21 The tradition was restored by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95), who conducted them in an even grander and wider scale.22
Apart from the symbolism of the imagery represented on the present screen, traditional Chinese influence is reflected in its use as part of an imperial furnishing. The Chinese term for screens of this type, zhang, which may be translated as a ‘shield’ or ‘to shield’, denotes the basic function of screens as important architectural tools for distinguishing private spaces within a larger area. According to Wu Hung, screens had a versatile function as an architectonic form; in a palace hall they surrounded the throne or divided a large space into separate quarters, and in the bed chambers they maintained discretion and privacy.23 Screens have an established history in China, dating to as early as the Zhou dynasty (1027-256 BC). The Li ji [Book of Rites] records that a formal audience with the emperor required the emperor to face south while situating himself in front of a screen – a tradition that continued throughout China’s imperial history.24 Screens were also utilised to create a sense of excitement and suspense with their ability to transfer the perspective from one location to another. It not only defined two separate areas, one in front of it and the other behind it, but its decoration invited one to explore a different world.25 The present screen is a masterpiece for transforming an indoor space within the palace compound into an ingenious allusion to the much beloved hunting parks outside. We can only speculate how this screen was deployed. Was it used in a private chamber or in a more formal setting? Its large size and decorative theme suggests a more formal rather than informal setting.
And now, let us return to the insignia and the clues they provide on the identity of the central figure. Eight years after the founding of the Qing dynasty, in 1652, regulations regarding imperial costume requirements in the Manchu national style were instituted which stipulated that first and second degree princes were commanded to wear jackets with square rank badges on their breast, backs and shoulders.26 Although early Qing statutes did not give details about the costume of the emperor, and fail to mention coats with insignia for his use, nevertheless, Manchu etiquette demanded that an outer coat be worn over all but the state robes on any public appearance. It is most likely that the emperor would have worn an insignia of some sort on his outer coat.27 It was later, during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, who was especially fond of pageantry and ceremonies, that rules concerning insignia were particularised.28
The central figure’s headdress is embellished with two long pheasant feathers, known in Chinese as lingzi and worn by military generals of the highest rank. Although it is impossible to identify the rider with surety, an imperial connection is further revealed in the banner held by the soldier leading the procession. It is the Bordered Yellow Banner in the Eight Banners system that was established by Nurhaci (1559-1626), founding father of the Manchu state, as a patrilineal system of military and administrative division into which all the Manchu families were placed. The Bordered Yellow Banner, which was the first banner among the upper three banners,29 belonged to the imperial ancestry and was directly responsible to the emperor. Furthermore, the Bordered Yellow Banner was also the emblem of the Imperial Bodyguard, the most elite imperial guard unit who followed the emperor everywhere and was responsible for protecting his safety at all times, within and without the palace.30 Could the central figure be the Kangxi Emperor himself? A painting depicting the emperor on his second inspection tour of the southern regions in 1689, portrays him with his distinctive facial moustache and mounted on a similar white horse with bright red trappings as seen on the present screen. The painting, titled Emperor Kangxi Going on an Inspection Tour to the South (scroll no. 1, fig. 2)31 is the work of the court artist Wang Hui (1632-1717) and his assistants and is now housed in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Interestingly, the Kangxi Emperor’s early inspection tours involved the gifts of imperial favour that took the form of handing out spoils of his hunts and exotic goods to generals and to Han scholar-officials as a symbol of domination and their incorporation into the empire.32 Furthermore, the emperor is described as physically fairly tall and well proportioned, a man who loved all manly exercises and devoted three months annually to hunting.33 He was an active ruler who considered physical strength and energy assets that aided mental vigour and endurance.’34
Artists working on the present screen may have been familiar with earlier paintings depicting imperial hunts, such as the hanging scroll by Liu Guandao (fl. c.1275-1300) titled Kublai Khan Hunting (fig. 3),35 now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and another scroll painting by the Ming dynasty artist, Shang Xi (fl. c. 1430-40), titled The Emperor Xuanzong’s Pleasures (fig. 4),36 from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, in the Palace Museum. From the arrangement and positioning of the figures and animals, as well as the landscape setting, both these court paintings would have served as early exemplars for the decoration of this screen.
For rare examples of imperial screens from the Kangxi period see a magnificent three-panel piece decorated with figures in landscape, formerly in the Low-Beer collection and now in the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Berlin, illustrated in Harry Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, pl. 184. Garner considers this screen and its matching throne to be two of the most important surviving pieces of mother-of-pearl furniture known,37 suggesting that at the time he was not aware of the existence of the present piece and its pair in Venice. See also a screen dated to 1672, recorded as a gift to the governor of Yunnan province, Kong Yangchen, in commemoration of his retirement. The screen, which is in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art and illustrated ibid., pl. 206, and also described in Jonathan Bourne, Christie Anthony and Craig Clunas et al (eds.), Lacquer, Wiltshire, 1984, p. 60, depicts the Spring Festival in the women’s quarters of the Imperial Palace.
1 David R. Knechtges, trans., Wen xuan or Selections of Refined Literature. Volume Two: Rhapsodies on Sacrifices, Hunting, Travel, Sightseeing, palaces and Halls, Rivers and Seas, Princeton, 1987, p. 75.
2 Carl Skiff, The Land of the Dragon, Pittsburgh, 2014, p. 11.
3 Harry Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, p. 259.
4 John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, Princeton, 2003, p. 135. Further explanation on the importance of Eastern pearls in Manchu culture is provided in A Garland of Treasures: Masterpieces of Precious Crafts in the Museum Collection, Taipei, 2014, p. 60.
5 Garner, op. cit., p. 262.
6 See http://www.veniceinperil.org/projects/ca-Pesaro-oriental-museum-18th-century-chinese-screen, accessed 5th September 2018.
7 Wang Zhongshu, Han Civilization, trans. K.C. Chang and collaborators, New Haven and London, 1982, pp. 8-9.
8 Roel Sterckx, The Animal and the Daemon in Early China, Albany, 2002, p. 113.
9 Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, New York, 1995, pp. 144-45.
10 Thomas T. Allsen, The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History, Philadelphia, 2006, p. 88.
11 Ibid., p. 88.
12 Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China, Stanford, 2001, p. 335.
13 Ibid., pp. 182-86.
14 Ibid., p. 246.
15 Ibid., p. 246.
16 Allsen, op. cit., p. 46.
17 Ibid., p.46.
18 Ibid., p. 46.
19 Mark C. Elliott and Ning Chia, ‘The Qing hunt at Mulan’, in Ruth Dunnell, Mark Elliott, Philippe Forêt et al., eds., New Qing Imperial History: The Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde, Routledge, 2004, pp. 73-4.
20 Allsen, op. cit., p. 88.
21 Elliott, op. cit., p. 186.
22 Ibid., p. 186.
23 Wu Hung, The Double Screen. Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting, London, 1996, p. 11.
24 Ibid., p.11.
25 Ibid., p. 68.
26 Schuyler Cammann, ‘The Development of the Mandarin Square,’ Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1944, p. 92.
27 Ibid., pp. 92-3.
28 Ibid., pp. 92-3.
29 The three upper banners were the Bordered Yellow Banner, the Plain Yellow Banner and the Plain White Banner. See Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West. The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, Cambridge, Mass., p. 113.
30 Elliott, op. cit., p. 81 and p. 366.
31 See the scroll painting illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 5.
32 See 'Kangxi, a Conference in Singapore, March 2009', China Heritage Quarterly, no. 17, March 2009.
33 Herbert Giles, China and the Manchus, Cambridge, 1912, p. 40.
34 Regina Krahl, ‘The Kangxi Emperor: Horseman, Man of Letters, Man of Science,’ China: The Three Emperors, London, 2005, p. 210.
35 See this painting included in Jeannette Shambaugh Elliott and David Shambaugh, The Odyssey of China’s Imperial Art Treasures, Seattle and London, 2005, p. 34.
36 See this painting included ibid., p. 45.
37 Garner, op. cit., p. 236.
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