'Palace Museum and the Maritime Silk Road Exhibition' explores China's global connections

Updated 2017-06-08 10:28:57 Global Times
Visitors appreciate a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) clock

Visitors appreciate a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) clock

A porcelain bowl decorated with Arabic writing

A porcelain bowl decorated with Arabic writing

Porcelain decorated with European-style patterns or writing in Arabic or English, a painting of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Yongzheng Emperor sporting the same wig English lords wear - the exhibits on display at the Palace Museum and the Maritime Silk Road Exhibition cannot be simply classified as being solely Eastern or Western art.

They are some of the best examples of the important role maritime trade had played in the cultural communication between China and the West.

The exhibition at the Palace Museum in downtown Beijing explores this cultural fusion in three sections - the first is made up of items that China sent to other countries, for example porcelain, which had a huge impact on ceramics in many parts of the world; the second section features gifts and cultural and scientific products that spread to China from other countries; while the third section delves into how Eastern and Western culture impacted each other.

"We hope to use the Palace Museum's collection to show people how the imperial families of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties interacted with the outside world," Zheng Hong, curator of the exhibition and also a porcelain expert at the Palace Museum, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

The perfect icebreaker

"Western clocks opened a window for missionaries to enter into the imperial palace," Zheng said.

Although products from China such as porcelain spread quickly in the West due to their popularity, it wasn't as easy for Western culture to be presented and fully accepted by the Chinese upper class.

Clocks reversed this situation, causing the emperor and other members of the upper class to take notice of the Western missionaries who were bringing these advanced mechanisms into China.

Clocks became the go-to gift for foreigners after the Ming Dynasty Wanli Emperor highly praised the timepieces that were presented to him by Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary.

"It was believed that clocks demonstrated the advanced technology of Europe. The emperors of China found them greatly inspiring, so they became the first choice of gifts among foreign missionaries," Zheng said.

On display at the exhibition are several luxurious and gigantic tower-like clocks. Exquisitely carved with tiny miniature figures, these gold gilded works of art shine under the display lights.

Zheng said experts from other countries and regions told her that the clocks on display are actually much more lavish than those intended to be sold in their home countries.

Science and medicine

"The Kangxi Emperor [1654-1722] was very open-minded about Western science and medicine. His interest greatly helped the spread of Western medicine in the royal palace," Zheng Hong said.

Kangxi, the longest-reigning emperor ever at 61 years on the throne and considered one of the most learned ones, was highly influential when it came to establishing the prosperity of the Qing Dynasty.

Kangxi's enthusiasm in learning about science is very obviously on display at the exhibition. Many of the textbooks and tools he used to learn math can be seen. Some astute visitors may notice that the little table he used while studying also has different rulers carved into it.

According to Zheng, Kangxi was also very passionate about astronomy. When the emperor order a map of China be created in the year 1708, he personally took part in some of the fieldwork carried out by Western and Chinese experts, putting his knowledge of the stars to use to help determine latitude. The introduction of Western astronomy was a great help in improving the Chinese calendar.

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