Many people are already looking forward to the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of the month, but these days the event is generally a simple affair of the family getting together for a meal. Though there is no shortage of spring couplets and New Year delicacies, the elaborate symbolism that affirmed the natural order of nature and of political power that made the New Year such an important event in the Chinese calendar has gradually faded. As a little reminder, the National Palace Museum has set up a small exhibition entitled New Year Paintings of the Ch’ing (Qing) Capital (京華歲朝), which presents 12 works from the Qing Dynasty related in various ways to New Year celebrations.
The center piece of the exhibition, Synergy of the Sun, Moon and the Five Planets (日月合璧五星聯珠圖), was painted in 1761 in the 26th year of the Qianlong (乾隆) Emperor’s reign. It depicts the cosmic order as represented within the imperial city of Beijing from the purlieus to the center of power, the Forbidden City itself. The scroll, which is more than 13m in length, shows the activities of the city’s people, from peasant children playing on a frozen river to high court officials preparing to offer New Year salutations to the emperor.
According to curator Lina Lin (林莉娜), the painting’s creator was not only intimately acquainted with the city and the people he depicted, but was also a skilled cartographer. His representation of the city is accurate, Lin said, in depicting the capital as it was before the famous hutongs (衚衕), or narrow streets, were flattened. This is the first time this work has been put on public display in Taiwan.
Other exhibits also feature the same focus on detail, such as Joyous Celebration of the New Year (歲朝歡慶圖) by Yao Wen-han (姚文瀚), which depicts a well-to-do family celebrating the New Year. This is another painting that repays detailed study. It shows the whole household, from the master and mistress of the house at the dining table, to maids in the kitchen and the children at play. Also painted at the zenith of the Qing Dynasty, it is a scene of idealized celebration. Pictorially, it is interesting to note the rudimentary use of perspective and shading, devices imported by the Jesuits residing at the Chinese court, and ironically, harbingers of the dynasty’s eventual demise at the hands of Western arms.
WHAT: New Year Paintings of the Ch’ing (Qing) Capital
WHERE: National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院), 221, Zhishan Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市至善路二段221號), Main Building Galleries 202 and 216
WHEN: Sunday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. Closes at 8:30pm on Saturdays. Ends March 25
TICKETS: General entry is NT$160; admission is free from 5pm onwards on Saturdays
ON THE NET: A detailed English-language introduction to the exhibition can be found at www.npm.gov.tw/exh98/newyear/
Another highlight of this small show is Nine Goats Opening the New Year (緙繡九羊啟泰), a silk tapestry ornamented with embroidery. Lin said that the demands of time, money and skill meant that a work like this is extremely rare, even within the imperial collection. “It piles refinement on refinement,” Lin said, “as she pointed out the fine detail and the textured effects produced by the overlay of embroidery over the already detailed tapestry. This, as with other works on display, are all from a period of enormous prosperity and self-confidence, and this gives these celebratory works an exuberance that is manifest to the non-specialist, even if some of the finer detail is missed.
The main points of interest are highlighted and the esoteric language of auspicious symbols explained in an enormously helpful brochure in Chinese and English. Though the exhibition is small, it more than makes up for size in the enormous amount of detail that there is to appreciate.