An Emperor's heaven on earth

By GREG COOK  |  September 22, 2010

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PORTRAIT OF THE QIANLONG EMPEROR: Conqueror, and devout Buddhist, the 18th-century ruler had a passion for beauty.
In the next room, a rootwood table, chair, and couchbed are animated by the polished material's fantastic, winding, gnarled patterns. As early as the 12th century, rootwood furniture symbolized Buddhist priests' and Daoist monks' indifference to worldly goods and their attunement to the cosmos. Here it touches on that philosophy, but it's also a sign of ostentatious wealth.

The emperor was a devout Buddhist. In the Supreme Chamber for Cultivating Harmony was a tiny room for Buddhist contemplation, framed by a lotus petal doorway. Originally pasted to a wall inside — and exhibited here — is calligraphy by the emperor: "Harmony in the air causes spring. Harmony in principles begets humane-ness./People should cultivate themselves, and the most important person among the people is the emperor./The blessings of the emperor reach to ten thousand things."

In a nearby mandala, dozens of little gold-gilt clay figures of Buddhas and Buddhist deities are set into niches of a silk painting depicting an imperial temple, a lotus pond, mountains, and clouds. The largest gold figure, set into a glass-windowed niche at center, is the Qianlong emperor, portrayed as the wise Bodhisattva Manjusri and holding the wheel of law to identify him as a just ruler.

He ruled from bench-like thrones. A zitan and cedar throne is edged at the top with a curling carved dragon pattern. Back and side panels are delicately carved with a screen of deer roaming wooded mountains. It's displayed before a wide cabinet of zitan, lacquer, and gold paint. The 100 compartments are bordered by a carved relief of clouds and paintings of golden dragons.

Another throne is decorated with carved zitan reliefs inlaid with jade and adhered to glass (then a rare import from Europe, since China couldn't yet produce glass sheets). The carvings depict pines, plum blossoms, and bamboo — the "three friends" who stay green in winter and, Berliner says, "symbolize the ability to remain upright even in harsh conditions." Like so much of the exquisite craftsmanship here, it seems to embody patience and poise, a balance between stillness and action. You may still find something deep within you responding to the thrones' signals to bow down before authority.

"The Emperor's Private Paradise" arrives as recession America is engaged in a delicate dance with rising China, not quite decided whether we're friends or rivals. In old Federalist downtown Salem, one can't help noting that the Qianlong emperor's life coincides with Ben Franklin's, and that he died the same year as George Washington. America's Founding Fathers built Greek Revival halls to symbolize their ideological connection to ancient democracy. The Yankee sparseness of their architecture signaled a break from the indulgences of royalty. The Qianlong emperor was a hereditary king who portrayed himself as a sort of saint and "the most important person among the people." He pursued expansionist conquests. For his garden, he directed the power and wealth of his vast empire toward building a lavish retirement retreat — completed in America's revolutionary year of 1776 — that he hardly used. It's a ravishingly beautiful example of everything American patriots opposed.

Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , China, Beijing, Peabody Essex Museum,  More more >
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