The Emperors Are a Strange Breed, Indeed

I have recently come to the conclusion that a prerequisite to being an emperor in China is that you must have a weird quirk. The type of quirk is quite open for interpretation, but there must be something that makes you odd, unusual, and at least a little bit eccentric. Otherwise, and I say this very seriously, you will not be fit to run one of the largest, most influential empires in the entire world.

Let’s look at some examples:

While we in the West do have our dollhouses, the worldwide fascination with everything in miniature actually originated with Ch’ien-lung, emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty from 1736-1795. And a strange man he was–emperor Ch’ien-lung loved all 20,000 pieces of his precious inherited art collection SO much that he hired some poor artist to craft about a hundred bamboo boxes with identical replications of all of his favorite pieces so he could see and play with them at all times. It was quite an arduous process to go into the vault, sift through all 20,000 pieces, and lug up Ch’ien’s fascination of the moment, so the boxes were kind of a practical idea–and they inadvertently started the “everything-in-mini” craze in Asia. The curio boxes, as they’re called in English, are art in themselves, perhaps even more stunning than the mini-artifacts held within them. They’re not only an accordion-style box, but they’re also an intricate puzzle that takes time, skill, and lots of patience to learn how to properly open it (Ch’ien-lung apparently had a lot of time on his emperor hands….must have been an unusually boring dynasty in the mid 1700s?). Most of the boxes are housed in the National Palace Museum, propped open and displayed with magnifying glasses so visitors can see all the little prizes inside: jade sculptures, bamboo toys, ivory carvings…. If Ch’ien-lung had it in the vault, it was probably replicated in some fashion in a mini bamboo box. As the story goes, Ch’ien-lung spent most of his life playing with his little toys, cherishing each tiny piece and lovingly placing them back in their proper place each evening. I believe I would have liked Ch’ien-lung very much.

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A bit earlier, we have Lang Shining of the Qing dynasty (late 1600s), man who loved Chinese brush painting but who was an absolutely terrible painter (I don’t think anyone ever actually told him this–at least I wouldn’t have! Wouldn’t want to get on an emperor’s bad side) Lang adored painting so much, in fact, that he became extremely upset one afternoon when he couldn’t replicate the infamous emperor Xuanzong’s auspicious painting of the three goats, “Three Yang,” (which was painted in the late 1300s and is still heralded as one of the most accomplished paintings of the era), and so, he hired an Italian Renaissance painter named Giuseppe Castiglione to teach him to paint those goats, no matter what. Now, he didn’t want to paint the whole canvas–he JUST wanted to paint the goats (no bamboo stalks, no grass, no mountains). So Giuseppe painted the rest of the canvas in his elaborate European Renaissance style (which, as you might imagine, looks absolutely nothing like Chinese art in any way, shape, or form), and then Lang Shining went in there with his Chinese brush and went to town on recreating the three grazing animals. The painting is extremely awkward–a mashup of two artistic aesthetics that have little in common other than the fact they were both painted with brushes).

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Nonetheless, Lang’s painting was cherished by his dynasty, and he believed himself to be a very good painter, indeed. Both paintings now hang side-by-side in the National Palace Museum, and I bet you’d be able to tell whose was whose.

A special thanks to the Taiwan Tourism Board for graciously sponsoring this trip and introducing me to the painful and beautiful Chinese history.

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