I enjoyed watching period dramas on the streaming services, and one of my favourite was the Story of Yanxi Palace. The series was shot very well, with beautiful replica of period furnitures and paintings, and according to the producers, they took inspirations from the collection in the National Palace Museum.
The collection was from the Qing imperial palaces. Most of the works were from earlier dynasties, but bulk of it was collected during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796).
Hall of Three Rarities 三希堂
If you noticed in the series, Emperor Qianlong loved to collect paintings from Tang and Song dynasties. He would meticulously examined them and wrote down his thoughts on the side, not unlike how we wrote our notes on the sides of the textbooks. Lucky for us, Qianlong’s calligraphy skill was very good. And then he would stamped them with his personal seals.
In this particular example, Ancient Plum Tree Trunk 畫古榦梅花, drawn by Zou Yigui 鄒一桂 (1686-1772), Qianlong wrote at a long poem on his thoughts, and sealed them with his personal seals as well as the seal of his personal library Hall of Three Rarities 三希堂. This was followed by many other inscriptions from his court officials, all writing praises of the painting. Of course, who dared to challenge the taste of their boss! Qinalong kept his favourite paintings in the library and would stamped the seal of the library. So that seal has become a mark that modern collectors looked for.
Zou Yigui 鄒一桂 (1686-1772) was from Wuxi, Jiangsu and was inducted into the civil service in 1727 (雍正5年) as an Editor in the Royal Academy 翰林編修. He was promoted during the reign of Emperor Qianlong to Minister of Rituals 禮部侍郎 and reached Cabinet Minister 內閣學士.
The antique copper is covered with gravel, palms and thin bamboos are planted, and the lake stones are matched, and the vases next to it are placed with alum and winter jasmine. This picture is based on the theme of the flower pot offering and the “swastika” knot decoration at the time of the scene, which makes people feel like a new year. The whole brushwork is vivid, the color is light and elegant, and the lake rocks in the basin deliberately leave highlights and have a three-dimensional effect.
Mandarins and Court Artists
Among the collection are rare pieces that were drawn by court artists and/or court officials. During the Qing dynasty, court officials were mainly inducted from the best from the Imperial Examinations.
Wang Chengpei 汪承霈（？－1805）was one of those cour officials. A scholer from Qiantang, Jiangsu, he was inducted into civil service in 1747, and he was Secretary of Department of Military 兵部尚書 at the peak of his career. He was very adept to painting scenery, portraits, flowers and finger painting.
He drew this scroll painting of “Floral Cycle of Longevity” 畫萬年花甲 around 1784 as a celebration of the long and peaceful reign of Emperor Qianlong. The painting is around 550 cm long and 37.5 cm wide, and consisted of 24 pots of different flowers and shrubs for each seasonal change.
Jiang Tingxi 蔣廷錫 was a native of Changshu, Jiangsu province. He served as Grand Secretary in the Wenhua Hall 文華閣大學士 and achieved a reputation as a great statesman. He excelled at outdoor sketching of nature. After he became an official, however, his dignified position did not allow him time to paint casually. Because he painted only occasionally and these works were collected in the imperial palace, very few examples of his paintings are still in existence.
The tuberose, which blossoms in the summer, produces fine flowers with a pure, clean fragrance. Scholars like to plant the tuberose in the garden of a study where they can enjoy its beauty. He painted this plant using outdoor sketching technique. Branches with leaves rise from the stems, with flowers and leaves clearly separated. In the rendering of the flower pot, the western use of light and shadow results in a realistic quality. This painting is dated 1718.
Pretty Woman Walking Down the Street
This is a painting with a really romantic backstory. It was procured by Emperor Jiaqing (1760-1820), the son and heir to the throne of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799). And you can also see the last emperor, Emperor Xuantong (1906-1967), leaving his mark on the painting.
The painting Imitating a Tang Artist’s Lady Painting 傲唐人仕女 illustrates the story of Li Duanduan, a famous Yangzhou courtesan, visiting Tang poet Cui Ya to ask for a poem. She is the lady standing next to the wall holding the white peony. He later wrote the famous line, “there goes a walking white peony…” which described Li Duanduan as a beautiful white peony.
The painter was an ancestor of mine. Tang Yin 唐寅 was better known as Tang Bohu 唐伯虎. He wrote a poem in the painting, “Wealth filled the brothels of Yangzhou, putting a price on beauty makes it cheap.” Reminded me of the popular movie starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.
Grandfather and Grandson
Among all the paintings and calligraphies, there were two calligraphy that were placed side by side. These were the writings by a grandfather and his grandson. Emperor Kangxi (reign 1661-1722) was the third emperor (and longest sitting emperor ever in imperial China) to ascend to the throne and Emperor Qianlong was the fifth (1735-1796). Qianlong would have broken his grandfather’s record if he had not voluntary conceded the throne at 60 years as a mark of respect to his grandfather’s legacy (61 years). He remained Emperor Emeritus until his death in 1799.
I have added another calligraphy by the son, Emperor Yongzheng (reign 1722-1735) that was recently discovered in Shenyang Palace Museum. Among the three, I find Yongzheng’s calligraphy the best. It was said that Kangxi picked Yongzheng as his heir because he saw the potential of his grandson Qianlong as the future emperor.
Here’s an example of calligraphy of Emperor Jiaqing 嘉慶, the grandson of Yongzheng. This was one of the collection of fan paintings to which he wrote the description on the back. The structure of these fans from the Song dynasty was taken out but the precious paintings were kept together with the calligraphy of the emperor.
Letter, Su Shi (1037-1101), Song Dynasty 宋 蘇軾 書尺牘
Here’s one very unique collection, a letter from Song dynasty poet Su Shi 蘇軾 to a friend collected by Emperor Xuantong 宣統. Who’s Xuantong? He was the last emperor of Qing Dynasty.
The stokes in this letter are strong and mellow at the same time, the variations of the brush tip natural with poses that flow with ease in an innocent and straightforward manner. This letter from Su Shi to his friend Chen Jichang was a thank-you note for his gift of raspberry. A trivial – the Chinese name of raspberry is 覆盆子 or “turning over the urinal basin” because of its antidiuretic medicinal property. This was recorded in the Northern Song medical book “Extension of the Pharmacopeia” 【本草衍義】by Kou Zongshi 寇宗奭.
Calligraphy Scroll “The Lesser Learning”, Zhao Mengfu, Yuan dynasty 元 趙孟頫 書小學 卷
This calligraphy was written by Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254-1322) who had written the entire text using Small Kai 小楷. Zhao Mengfu was a descendant of the Song Dynasty’s imperial family and was a famous Chinese scholar, painter and calligrapher during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Many of his works were sought after by collectors. This scroll was collected by Emperor Qianlong and contains many seals worth mentioning – his Emperor Emeritus 太上皇 seal, the Imperial Study 御書房 seal, and of course the Hall of Three Rarities 三希堂 seal.
Zhu Wengong 朱文公 is the posthumous name given to the great Song dynasty Confucianist, statesman and educator Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200). For those following my blogs would know that he was one of the keyperson that rebuilt Yuelu Academy in Changsha. The essay was Zhu’s “The Lesser Learning” of Confucianism.
Calligraphy Text “Explaining Yue Yi” in the style of Tang calligrapher Zhu Suiliang, Yu He, Yuan dynasty 元 俞和 摹唐代禇遂良《樂毅論》可臨帖
Another Yuan dynasty calligrapher Yu He 俞和 (1307-1382) was from Tongjiang, Jiangsu and a great admirer of Zhao Mengfu. Later in life, he was famous for writing in the same style as Zhao, and not many can differentiate between the two. This was an earlier work that he “copied” the style of Tang calligrapher Chu Suiliang 褚遂良 (596-659).
Xiahou Xuan 夏侯玄 字泰初 (209-254) was one of the Prime Minister of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms. He wrote an essay called “Explaining Yue Yi” 樂毅論 which explained why General Le Yi was not about to conquer the city of Jimo 即墨.
Xiahou Xuan was a great calligrapher, and the later the God of Calligraphy Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303-361) wrote the same essay using the technique of “copying from the original” 臨摹. Subsequent copies many have “copied” the version of Wang Xizhi. This is one example of a copy kept in the collection by Yu He of Chu Suiliang, which copied from Wang Xizhi, who copied from the very original by Xiahou Xuan.
It was said that the collection in the National Palace Museum was so large that one cannot see everything in one lifetime even if they changed the exhibition every day. A large amount of paintings that were kept and curated for the pleasures of the emperors were moved to Chongqing with the invasion of the Japanese armies. Then there’s the retreat to Taiwan, these treasures were kept intact and curated for the pleasures of the public.
About the National Palace Museum
The National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) was originally founded within the walls of the Beijing Forbidden City in 1925, the present-day National Palace Museum moved to Taipei’s Shilin District following the Republic of China government relocation in 1949 with an official opening for the public in 1965.
Over 600,000 of the most precious artefacts within the collection were moved to Taiwan to prevent their desecration during and after the Chinese Civil War.
Due to the enormous numbers of collection spreads over 4 floors and 2 exhibition halls, the museum’s exhibits continuously rotate, as only a small percentage of the museum’s collection can be displayed at a given time to prevent wear and tear, so there will always be a new series of collection being exhibited on each visit!
National Palace Museum
No.221, Sec. 2, Zhishan Rd., Shilin Dist., Taipei City 111001, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
Tel : 886-2-2881-2021
Date Visited : Oct 2018