A glimpse of a city that was forbidden to the public for 500 years can now be seen in Vancouver for the first time.
On Oct. 18, 1000 visitors flocked to the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) for the opening of The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors, an exhibition that will run until Jan. 11, 2015. The exhibit showcases 200 objects and works of art on loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum.
These treasures include many personal items that still bear the aura of the once all-powerful emperors and their families. Ranging from scroll paintings and clothes to furniture and weapons, the items convey a sense of the grandeur and power of the imperial city.
“The robe is so big. I guess the Chinese emperor must be an oversized person,” said one visitor at the exhibition.
The display of wealth and power
The exhibits are arranged loosely from the outer court of the Forbidden City, where the emperor carried out his everyday business, to the inner court, where he lived with thousands of women. These objects are mostly related to the three Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) whose reigns were the zenith of the
“It is all about the display of wealth and power,” explains Timothy Brook, a UBC history professor and the curator of the exhibition, in a tour given to the VAG’s public educators.
Most objects symbolize imperial power. The emperor’s dragon must have five claws. The bright yellow was the imperial colour that nobody else could use. The Forbidden City itself was like a stage to showcase the supreme power of the emperor who viewed himself as “the Son of Heaven,” ruler of the entire world.
While the emperor had absolute political power in the empire, some of his personal domain was actually dictated by the symbolic system that had been created over many generations.
“Even items as personal as clothing and jewelry were not necessarily selected by individual choice. He and his family had no choice but to wear robes embroidered with dragons. These objects are not marked with anyone’s personality,” writes Brook in the exhibition guidebook.
The emperor had to sit on a sedan when he traveled in the outer court of the Forbidden City, never walk. Some of his movements were carefully choreographed and even some conversations between the emperor and the people around him were scripted.
“Some emperors got tired of this system but they just had to do it,” says Brook in the tour.
The imperial taste attracts many
The Qing Empire collapsed in 1911. The Forbidden City was turned into the Beijing Palace Museum in 1925, and many objects were preserved. Even though the palace is open to the public, the stories behind these objects are still a mystery for many.
Many of these treasures are so precious that they remain enclosed in glass cases. Even Brook was not allowed to touch them; the Palace Museum sent a special team for the installation.
The painted portraits of the Qianlong emperor, the emperor’s ceremonial robe and the imperial seal are among the most popular exhibits that captivate the visitors.
“Many people show up in my guided tour and they are very fascinated by the exhibits,” says Jessa Alston-O’Connor, the public and family educator of the VAG.
Ho Yuan Lau, a Vancouver resident originally from Hong Kong, had the opportunity to visit the Beijing Palace Museum and the Palace Museum in Taipei. However, at the Beijing Palace Museum he saw only architecture and no artifacts on display, and he found the museum in Taipei too crowded and noisy to enjoy the treatures on display. In contrast, Lau was impressed with VAG exhibition.
“This is the best viewing experience of the Chinese treasures,” says Lau.
The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors
Oct. 18, 2014–Jan. 11, 2015
Vancouver Art Gallery,
750 Hornby St., Vancouver