Wed, Oct 14, 2009 - Page 15 News List

A controversial emperor gets his due

The National Palace Museum’s exhibition on the Yongzheng Emperor is a masterful scholarly achievement, albeit one that seems to regard the average admission-paying viewer as something of an afterthought

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

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Harmony and Integrity — The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times (雍正─清世宗文物大展), which opened last week at the National Palace Museum (故宮博物院), has received particular attention as the first plank in an extensive cooperation agreement between the museum and the Palace Museum (故宮博物院) in Beijing.

Thirty-seven items are on loan from Beijing, along with a couple of contributions each from the Shanghai Museum (上海博物館), Academia Sinica (中央研究院) and the private collection of UC Pharmaceuticals (五洲製藥股份有限公司), making this the most comprehensive exhibition ever on the life and times of the Yongzheng Emperor (雍正), a shadowy but crucial figure in the consolidation of the Manchu Qing Dynasty’s domination over China. (The rest of the 246 pieces on display come from the National Palace Museum’s permanent collection.)

Putting aside the gratifying achievement of inter-museum cooperation, which will also include a host of scholarly exchanges, the exhibition itself is not much of a departure for the museum. While some of the items are splendid to look at, the nature of the exhibition is still very much research driven, with an unduly high proportion of objects that might excite scholars but are unlikely to wow the general public at first glance. This may be partly remedied by the audio tours, thematic tours, educational activities and training tours for elementary and high school teachers.

Yongzheng, who reigned for just 13 years (1722 to 1735), came to the throne after a bitter succession struggle in which he proved utterly ruthless toward anyone who got in his way, including many of his siblings. Despite the peace and prosperity that he brought to his realm through efficient administration, building on the foundations of his father the Kangxi Emperor (康熙), this legacy of brutality and the suspicion of an illegitimate succession have tainted his name. The fact that his reign was sandwiched between two of the Qing Dynasty’s most able and long-reigning emperors — his father was on the throne for 61 years and his son Qianlong (乾隆) for 60 years — further places him in the shadows. This exhibition is intended to go some way toward clearing his name, presenting him as an individual and revealing the artistic flourishing over which he presided. It achieves this enormous task with considerable success, though given its huge scope, it is easy for visitors to lose the thread.

EXHIBITION NOTES:

WHAT: Harmony and Integrity — The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times

WHERE: Halls 105, 107, 202, 208 and 212 of the National Palace Museum, 221, Zhishan Rd Sec 2, Taipei City

(台北市至善路二段221號)

WHEN: Until Jan. 10, 2010. The museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm, closes at 8:30pm on Saturdays

ADMISSION: NT$160, NT$80 for students with ID

ON THE NET: www.npm.gov.tw/exh98/yongzheng (Chinese only); www.npm.gov.tw/en/visiting/exhibit/exhibit_08.htm?docno=587

(basic introduction in English)


One of the key items in the show is The Kangxi Emperor’s Last Will and Testament (康熙遺詔), one of a small number of items on loan from the Collection of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, which supports Yongzhen’s legitimate claim to the throne. The relevant text is highlighted in the display case. While doubtless of inestimable value as a piece of historical evidence in a complex scholarly debate, for the casual visitor, there is insufficient context to excite much interest.

The many-layered facade of imperial court life makes getting to know someone like the Yongzhen Emperor enormously difficult, something that is highlighted above all else by the two larger-than-life formal portraits of him, one sitting, one standing, both showing in painstaking detail the intricate imperial garb and impassive features of the emperor. Other works such as a massive 468.7cm-long scroll of the Yongzheng Emperor making offerings at the altar of the god of agriculture chronicle the infinitely complex court ceremonial practices of which Yongzheng was the center.

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