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January 13, 2006

China: The Three Emperors at the Royal Academy - Christie Davies contrasts the cultivated, refined tastes of The Three Emperors with the cultivated vulgarity of our own rulers

Posted by Christie Davies

China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795
Royal Academy, London
12th November 2005 - 17th April 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays & Saturdays until 10pm)

To visit an exhibition of Chinese art is to remember that one is in the presence of a culture superior to our own. It reminds us that the Chinese already had a sophisticated civilisation at a time when we were savages. It is fine for us to treat Caractacus or Boadicea as heroic national ancestors or to imitate in Ioloic fantasy the unknown rituals, though not the human sacrifices, of the wild druids but let us not forget that they were barbarians and would have been rightly regarded as such by the Chinese. Cultures are not equal. Cultures can be ranked in a clear if changing hierarchical order and for most of our history the Chinese have ranked far higher than we do.

By chance we got to the magic of capitalism first and in the nineteenth century were able to dominate and humiliate the Chinese in one of the very few but most shameful episodes in our island story. Now that the Chinese have discovered the virtues of capitalism they will soon return to their former pre-eminence. Go in humility to the exhibition at the Royal Academy, a humility enhanced by a realisation that our grossly inadequate educational system does not equip us with a proper knowledge of Chinese characters, symbols and society. They know all about us and understand us, easily appropriating our past achievements. We know nothing about them and our arrogant ignorance of China is our disgrace today and our downfall tomorrow.

The three emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644 -1911) known by the titles of their reigns as the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722), the Yongzheng Emperor ( 1723-1735), and the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795) were descended from the Manchu invaders who overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644 and created a vast Chinese empire that included not only the whole of present day China but also Outer Mongolia and the maritime provinces of Russia. Even in Korea, Japan and Vietnam the local languages had come to be written in Chinese characters. Their rule was a time of stability, prosperity and military success, perhaps the last such episode before the present day.

All three emperors were highly cultivated men, men steeped in Chinese literature and culture, great collectors of Chinese art and interested in the arts and techniques of Europe. The Kangxi Emperor commissioned large book projects including a major dictionary, an imperial encyclopaedia of 5,000 volumes and anthologies of poetry from earlier dynasties. The Yongzheng Emperor was a dedicated collector and patron of the arts. The Qianlong Emperor composed many thousands of poems, collected old texts to be edited and printed and wrote about the paintings he owned, adding new inscriptions to them each time he contemplated them.

There is in the exhibition a jade cup accompanied by an imperial essay held in a lacquer box dated 1753. It tells how the Qianlong Emperor discovered that the jade cup was a Ming Dynasty (1386-1644) fake imitating an original from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). This essay was written by an emperor who kept a tight control over the finances and administration of his empire and was an active military leader, not by an idle dilettante.

Indeed here is Lang Shining's painting of The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour on Horseback, 1739 or 1758. Lang Shining was in fact Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit painter who had insinuated his way into court by means of his artistic talents. It is a very western equestrian portrait of this Manchu horseman of the North with a realistically portrayed horse and a skilled use of perspective to position the emperor in the landscape. The emperor's impassive face peers out beneath his metal helmet and between the blue and gold bands that protect and constrain his throat and the sides of his head. His armour has the auspicious golden dragons of a Chinese son of heaven but on his helmet is writing in Sanskrit showing him to be the protector and promoter of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Emperors were first and foremost Chinese and masters of Chinese culture but they also knew the value of their Manchu ancestry and the need to retain the loyalty of their Buddhist subjects, the Mongols and the Tibetans. The Jade Mortuary Tablets announcing the ancestral name for the late Qianlong Emperor 1799 have two tablets engraved with imperial dragons and five in the Manchu script and this is 150 years after the foundation of the dynasty. Y ddraig aur ddry cychwen. There are thankas here from centres of Tibetan Lamaist Buddhism in the Hall of Central Righteousness within the Forbidden City, paintings of the Emperor pictured as a Boddhisattva and a statue of the Emperor's preceptor, a reincarnated lama. It is not though mere cynical imperial posturing. The rituals performed at the altars of Heaven, the Earth, the Sun and the Moon, some of which are displayed in the exhibition, were mere state ceremonies, rather like the Church of England's. For personal religion it was necessary to turn to Buddhism. Even Emperors know they will suffer and know they will die.

It is a different world from that of the cruel, bigoted atheist Mao Tse Tung who attempted to destroy the national and religious identity of the Tibetans and the Mongols of Inner Mongolia by force, by the destruction of religious artefacts, buildings and institutions and by swamping them with immigrants from other parts of China. Like all true socialists Mao sought revolutionary immortality through irreversible destruction. All immigration tends to swamp, absolutist immigration swamps absolutely. The same policy of obliteration was applied by Mao to the Muslim Uighurs of Eastern Turkestan known in Chinese as Sin Jiang.

What we can see displayed here is the degree of religious toleration in Qing China. Emperors were both the upholders of Confucian morality and performers of the traditional rites and by religion Buddhist. They were even willing to have Jesuits at court who would build them better clocks and astronomical instruments that gave greater precision to the performance of rites tied in with the calendar and with the signs of Heaven that gave them their mandate.

In the exhibition are the artistic and material manifestations of this breadth of imperial sympathies and interests - the Emperors' calligraphy, connoisseurship and scholarly interests are all on display. What will be the comparable legacy of Tony Blair? A soggy football from a muddied oaf at the goal. Alongside it will be a scroll recording the three O-levels John Major had in common with his friend the purveyor of pulp fiction, Jeffrey Archer. With a few exceptions, who can imagine a contemporary British politician having serious artistic or literary interests and accomplishments? The Three Emperors had these interests and accomplishments partly because they were men of genuine refinement and cultivation but also because they lived in a society where a mastery over literature and history was the key to power. In Britain today it pays better to appear a boor who watches Eastenders because that is what the slob class expects of you. The members of the slob class have no influence over events but those in the mass media who pander to their crudity while despising them and manipulating them in the direction of political correctness are, are seen as and see themselves as powerful.

Yet even in Qing China there was an opposition, in particular from Ming loyalists to the previous dynasty among the scholar-gentry, who chose not to seek office under the new foreign usurpers from Manchuria. Their art is here too, quiet, private, often monochrome, conveying subtle, hidden criticisms of the regime, using allusions to past parallels with present wrongs and pictures and poems of collapsing houses, of separation and exile, of Autumn and its meaning of decay and decline.

Usually the Emperor would ignore these cultured expressions of discontent but there was always the risk that he would pounce on the perpetrator, kill off all the male members of the family of an artistic or poetic offender and send their womenfolk off to become comfort women in a garrison on the frontier; that is why their works are of necessity oblique and indirect. Behind the exquisite lay the brutal, oriental despotism analysed by Wittfogel and beneath it, even in good times, was the idiocy of rural life of poor peasants in a stubbornly agrarian society unable to transform itself through trade.

It was this underlying weakness that in the next century allowed the long-nosed foreign devils, to penetrate and undermine a civilisation older and greater than their own. In the twentieth century they were followed by the vicious and at times genocidal Japanese army that came close to conquering China and then the Maoists who created the worst famines, the largest programme of mass murder and the greatest anti-intellectual destruction of works of art and literature the world has ever seen. But here in the Royal Academy exhibition we can still enter and savour the cultivated court of the three emperors through the artefacts brought to us from the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Professor Christie Davies has written about China and its neighbours for the Wall Street Journal (Asia) and the Straits Times. His shortly forthcoming book Dewi the Dragon (Y Lolfa, 2006) tells of the Chinese scientist Dr Mabel Wong who brings the Chinese dragon Mei-Kamlung to Britain to ensure the survival of the native dragons. You could call it an allegory.

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Thank you for this excellent piece. I would like to ask the good Dr Davies a deadly serious question. Isn't the difference between the artistic patronage of China or Florence versus the moronic vulgarity of the modern West democracy -- and does not democracy guarantee that culture will inevitably be dragged down to the lowest common denomimator? Had the lowest level of Qianlong Chinese consumer set the tone for his culture, might it be known for nothing more than eating, screwing and sports (as modern British culture shall be remembered, if remembered at all)?

Are there many sustained cases where the 'keys to the socioeconomic car' were held by the hoi polloi, yet high cultures were venerated? I have begun to wonder if the empowerment of the Western masses is not so much progress, but rather an inexorable descent initially too slow to notice. It might be that utilitarianism leads to cultural collapse.

Does Dr Davies concur, and if so where does that leave Western liberalism except as slow poison?

Posted by: s masty at January 15, 2006 01:49 PM

there are examples where 'high' and 'low' culture co-exist - often in the sme person! cf. Mozart's Idomeneo and the Magic Flute, Beethoven's late string quartets and Wellington's Victory

Posted by: reader at January 16, 2006 09:31 AM

Democracy can have the effect S J Masty describes but only if cultural and academic elites are fearful of appearing elitist or are manipulated into posing as anti-elitists by politicians. Ancient Rome is as much remembered for fights between gladiators as for its writers and Britain will be remembered favourably for the artifacts of its high culture ( even though the plebs neither like nor understand them) as well as despised for its devotion to the flanneled fool at the wicket, and the muddied oaf at the goal, and a return to an eighteenth century level of public drunkeness which democracy had curbed between 1860 and 1955. The problem is not democracy but the intellectuals betrayal of their calling in order to court the favour, not just of the masses ( most of whom are respectable philistines as in Victorian times) but of the lumpen,the underclass, people who ought to be despised , rejected and excluded . The real rotteness lies not in liberalism but in social justice. We need less of it . It is perfectly possible to have a liberal democracy that is elitist and rejects social justice.
Christie Davies

Posted by: Christie Davies at January 18, 2006 05:42 PM

Perhaps Christie Davies could devise a short multiple-choice quiz so that one could work out whether one was a member of the:

a) elite
b) masses
c) underclass

then at least we'd know where we stood.

Posted by: curious at January 20, 2006 02:09 PM
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