The Glory and Finery of Chinese Emperors

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The Glory and Finery of Chinese Emperors

From the rise of the Shang Dynasty (16th century B.C. -1066 B.C.) to the fall of the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911), Chinese civilization has operated under a dynastic system of government. The country's sophisticated governmental structure has awed many Western scholars and travelers throughout history. A complex bureaucracy was linked with a succession of legendary emperors, who were ordained as the Son of Heaven. Often shrouded in mystery, Chinese emperors have evoked the intellectual curiosity of many generations right to the present.

An important exhibition called "A Selection of Chinese Emperors' Relics" features more than 150 rare artifacts from various Chinese museums: Tianjin Art Museum, Tianjin History Museum, National Museum of Chinese History and Shenyang Palace Museum. The artifacts, considered the pride of China, take up more than 1,600 square meters of space in the Exhibition Hall on the first floor of the 63 Building in Yoido-dong, Seoul. The exhibition is split into five categories: Emperors' Collection of Official Affairs, Warfare, Crafts, Paintings and the Event Hall.

With the help of guides, viewers get a close look at Chinese emperors' personal belongings, which serve as a powerful link to their way of life. As the guide begins to tell the age-old stories behind each item, it takes only a few minutes to travel back to the world that belonged to Asia's most powerful rulers.

Royal relics include clothes, armor and weapons, stationery, paraphernalia, decorative objects, calligraphy, paintings and a reproduction of the royal podium inside the Forbidden City. The emperors' ultimate power is symbolized in intricately woven royal garments, accessories and sumptuously decorated living quarters. The superb craftsmanship on precious stones and silk has often been viewed as gaudy grandeur by art critics; however, the fine detail signifies the artisans' blind loyalty and respect to the emperors.

A golden royal silk gown specially embroidered with nine dragons symbolizes the Son of Heaven, in which one dragon is hidden inside the gown to protect the ruler. The sleeve, in the shape of a horse hoof, is designed to protect the hands from the wind while riding. This design is also a reminder of the important role of horses in Chinese history.

The crown belonging to the Ming's Emperor Wanli (1573-1619) shows exquisite detail and craftsmanship, using find gold threads. The crown was found in a tomb - it was Ming Dynasty custom to bury the dead with full honors. Emperor Wanli and two wives, Empresses Xiaoduan and Xiaojing, were buried in the same tomb. A total of 2,780 relics, including three phoenix coronets, were unearthed.

The coronet (pictured lower left) exemplifies elaborate Chinese motifs and exceedingly delicate decoration. This official headpiece depicts nine gold dragons under which phoenixes - eight blue and one gold - perch. The headpiece contains more than 100 rubies and 5,000 pearls. The empress wore the ceremonial headpiece when she attended morning court, received a titled person bestowed by the emperor or paid homage to the divinities at a temple.

The burial ceremony during the Sung Dynasty (960-1271) included a simple gold mask that covered the dead person's face. As pictured above, the mask, in fine detail, depicts an authoritative facial expression. Attached behind the mask is a silver net that falls over the dead person's head.

The exhibition also shows how the emperors engaged in cultural exchanges with other countries, such as ancient Korea, Japan and the Middle East. The gold necklace, found in Shaanxi Province, is made of 28 gold beads each inlaid with 10 pearls. The use of lapis lazuli, to which a gold ring is attached, and a stone called "chicken blood" is reminiscent of ancient Persian art.

Weapons were the key to ultimate power - they were not only symbolic but also functional. Emperors on horseback carried the sword of honor and wore gold armor bearing the symbol of the ultimate ruler. The steel-studded armor is in 12 layers, with a gold-plated steel helmet. The helmet is decorated with 12 dragons and inlaid with copper beads.

The tips of arrows from the Ching Dynasty are shaped like a duck's beak. The other end is made from hollow horn with a hole in it. When fired en masse, the arrows made a frightening noise against the enemy.

The handle of the royal sword is made of intricately carved blue or white jade, China's precious stone. As with the handle of the dagger shown left, a singular piece of stone was used to make various objects, making the jade piece original.

Horses were important and feature prominently in various motifs, such as the hoof-shaped sleeves of royal garments. A royal painting from the Sung Dynasty shows Emperor Xian Zhong playing polo. The perfectly composed, delicate yet dynamic line drawing in India ink makes the painting one of the rarest masterpieces among Chinese paintings.

The emperors' other hobbies included scholarly calligraphy. Calligraphy by the last emperor of the Ching Dynasty, Xuan Tong, otherwise known as Pu Yi (1906-1967), shows his artistic talent. His tragic fate was made into the film "The Last Emperor" in 1987. Director Bernardo Bertolucci's award-winning film is epic, lavish and poignant.

The exhibition also features a 10-minute showcase from the famous Peking Opera "The King's Parting with His Favorite," better known as a popular Chinese movie, "Farewell My Concubine," released in 1993. The opera tells of the last moments of the Chu Dynasty emperor Xian Yu, whom the Han Dynasty emperor Liu Bang defeated around 202 B.C.

"A Selection of Chinese Emperors' Relics," nicely captures the former splendor and glory of the Chinese court. The exhibition provides an excellent, if not complete, look at an important part of Chinese history. As intricate as the silk stitches on a royal gown, as dynamic as the soaring fire dragon, the emperors' relics contain a multitude of stories from a magnificent past as China continues to mesmerize the world.

"A Selection of Chinese Emperors' Relics" is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until March 4. The Exhibition Hall is on the first floor of the 63 Building in Yoido-dong, Seoul. An English-speaking guide is available. For more information, call 02-789-5666.

by Inae Cho

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