Wed, Feb 16, 2011 - Page 15 News List

Emperors and their women

The Golden Age of the Qing, currently on view at the National Museum of History, presents a detailed look at the rise of Manchu power and the lives of imperial concubines

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff Reporter

Armor and flags of the Eight Banners.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of History

Unless you enjoy people stepping on your toes, tourists poking you in the back and barely visible displays, avoid the National Museum of History’s (NMH) The Golden Age of the Qing: Treasures From the Shenyang Palace Museum (大清盛世—瀋陽故宮文物展) on weekends. Saturday afternoon found this reviewer squeezed into the exhibit’s dimly lit space with hundreds of other museumgoers keen to catch a glimpse of the garments, weapons, jewelry and furniture on loan from Shenyang Palace (瀋陽故宮), located in northeastern China and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

The crowd at the entrance was three-people deep — a child had to be hoisted up to see the introductory contents. A guided tour of about 30 people managed to obscure entire displays — an easy feat, considering the maze of glass display cases visitors are forced to circumvent.

Despite this, The Golden Age of the Qing is not to be missed. The show follows on the heels of recent collaborations between the NMH and museums in China, and provides another “great breakthrough in cross-strait cultural exchange,” according to Chang Yu-tan (張譽騰), the museum’s director.

A year in the making, the top-down exhibit presents artifacts from the early seat of Manchurian power established after busybody chieftain Nurhaci united the region’s disparate nomadic tribes in the early 17th century.

Begun in 1625, Shenyang Palace was expanded in 1636, a decade after Huang Taijin (皇太極), Nurhaci’s son, ascended the throne. It was also during this time that Huang conquered northern China, crowned himself Qing emperor and changed the name Shenyang (瀋陽) to Shengjing (盛京), or “Flourishing Capital.” In 1644, after defeating Ming loyalists at the Battle of Shanhai Pass (山海關之戰), Emperor Shunzhi (順治皇帝) moved the Manchu seat of power to Beijing, but Shenyang retained some symbolic power.

Exhibition Notes:

What: The Golden Age of the Qing: Treasures from the Shenyang Palace Museum (大清盛世—瀋陽故宮文物展)

When: Until May 1. Open daily from 10am to 6pm

Where: National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館), 49 Nanhai Rd, Taipei City (台北市南海路49號), tel: (02) 2361-0270

On the Net: www.nmh.gov.tw

Admission: NT$250


Though the exhibit is presented in five sections — The Rise of the Manchus; Emperors and Empire; Warriors of the Eight Banners; Beauties of the Court; and Luxuries of the Court and the Imperial Life — it essentially tells one story in two parts.

The first, common with exhibits of this kind, examines the imperial line beginning with Nurhaci. The second, less common, offers a glimpse of the fashions and mores of the imperial concubines. The two themes are linked by the Eight Banners (八旗), a hierarchical (class or caste) system of administration established by Nurhaci in 1605 (though it wasn’t fully implemented until 1642). The banners were employed in all facets of life, from hunting to entertainment and religious rituals.

The exhibit explains in detail the structure and purpose of each banner — the ethnicity of its members, their rank and pay, and how each was positioned on the field of battle. The color-coded armor worn by each banner’s soldiers is here displayed along with their corresponding flags. The bows and arrows used by the cavalry and swords and daggers used by the infantry are shown alongside colorful paintings depicting military formations. Historians agree that the Eight Banner system made the Manchu army a potent military force.

The organization of the banner system also extended to the imperial court, as is revealed by the somewhat euphemistically titled Beauties of the Court section. The clothing and jewelry of the emperor’s concubines were ordered along the same lines as the military.

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