Given the western fascination with all things Chinese from feng shui to fusion food, from Mandarin collars to the mainland economy it is hardly surprising that London's Royal Academy would mount an exhibition devoted to its art. All the riches of Chinese civilization are on display at the sumptuous "China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795" show until mid-April: artifacts from ancient dynasties, flowing calligraphy, elaborate scrolls, magnificent dragon-decorated robes, priceless jades and ancestor paintings that represent the most important Confucian value, filial piety. In fact, the subjects of this exhibition are a father, his son and grandson the Qing Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong who ruled the Middle Kingdom for 133 consecutive years and expanded China even beyond its present-day borders.
And the trio weren't even Chinese. They were Manchus, hunters and fishers from north of the Great Wall who successfully vanquished the crumbling Ming Dynasty in 1644 and were greeted with surprising resignation by most of their new subjects. How these foreign rulers used Chinese tradition, culture and ritual to consolidate their vast empire is a principal theme of the show and is illustrated with 400 objects, most the Emperors' own treasures, on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing's Forbidden City. Some items reveal facets of their personalities; others are designed to create imperial images that would promote their subjects' fealty. So important were the artworks in buttressing the family's right to rule that Qianlong inspected them all at draft stage.
The Manchus had ousted the last Ming Emperor, whose rule was marked by financial bankruptcy and internal rebellion. Kangxi was only 7 in 1662 when he assumed the throne from his father, the first Qing Emperor, who died in a smallpox epidemic. Surviving the contagion (with scars intact, as portraits show), Kangxi worked skillfully to identify himself with both his native tribal culture and the scholarly traditions of the Chinese. Two likenesses, commissioned when he was about 30, demonstrate his Manchu soldier–Chinese scholar balancing act. A vibrant silk hanging scroll shows him in Manchu military armor, with crossbow and arrows at the ready. Like most of his tribe, he was an expert archer and, as ruler of a still restive empire, he relished his role as commander in chief. In the other portrait Kangxi sits at his desk in a simple Chinese robe, holding a large brush to practice calligraphy, the most prized Chinese art and one of his favorite pastimes. Though he kept ordinary Chinese segregated from the ruling Manchus, Kangxi spoke their language fluently, studied Confucianism daily, and presented himself as the true Son of Heaven, fitting heir to the Chinese dynasties before him.
Kangxi was a strong and effective leader who ventured throughout the empire to raise his profile among his subjects and to reinforce his absolute authority. A 26-m-long hand scroll, The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, is a lively record of his 1689 voyage from Nanjing to Jinshan on the roiling Yangtze River. In the middle of a vast flotilla of two-masted sailing vessels is the Emperor's ship, identified by the yellow standard at the stern and the five-clawed dragon on the side. In a horseshoe-backed chair on the deck, Kangxi sits calmly stroking his beard.
For all his achievements in scholarship, empire building and propaganda, the Kangxi Emperor had one major failing. After 60 years in power, he died without naming an heir among his 20 sons (by various wives, of course). Competition among the young men was fierce, and the victor, who took the name Yongzheng, was forced to spend most of his 13 years in power defending his claim. One remarkable hanging scroll, painted in the second year of Yongzheng's reign by the Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione who had been brought to court by Kangxi and lasted well into Qianlong's time can be read as a political piece. Pine, Hawk and Glossy Ganoderma was commissioned to mark the Emperor's birthday and is replete with imagery. The pine tree stands for wisdom and long life, and the ganoderma, also known as lingzhi, is a fungus associated with immortality. But the majestic, rare white hawk it dominates the painting is the most auspicious symbol, representing a sovereign's virtue and legitimacy.
Though Yongzheng's reign was short he may have accidentally poisoned himself searching for the elixir of life the art associated with him is perhaps the most intriguing in the exhibition. One set of hanging scrolls shows six of the 12 Portraits of the Yongzheng Emperor Enjoying Himself Throughout the Twelve Months. In all of them, Yongzheng is portrayed as a Chinese scholar participating in such traditional activities as playing a qin, a classical stringed instrument, and in such celebrations as the Lunar New Year festival, where one of his sons sets off a firecracker. A set of paintings from a small album for private viewing depicts the Emperor in 13 different guises, from a Taoist sage to a Mongolian noble to a Westerner, in wig and waistcoat. Was Yongzheng trying to make the point that he was the embodiment of his multiethnic empire, or was he just having a bit of fun?
Hongli, Yongzheng's favorite son and Kangxi's most beloved grandson, became the Qianlong Emperor in 1736 when he was 24. He abdicated 60 years later, not wanting the length of his reign to eclipse that of his grandfather. During that time, he consolidated the Qing empire, strengthened the bureaucracy, improved tax collection and amassed one of the greatest art collections of all time.