Unveiling artistry and legacy

The Xiaoqin Xian Empress in Court Attire, Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk
The Muzong Yi (Tongzhi) Emperor in Court Attire
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Close up of the imperial portraits hung using the zhaomu system
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Details of the motifs on a dragon robe
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Portraits of Qing Emperors and Empresses

The exhibition, Encountering the Majestic: Portraits of Qing Emperors and Empresses at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, examines the roles and development of imperial portraits during the Qing dynasty and the conservation research conducted by the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Portraiture and its History

Portraiture is an art form that dates back approximately 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. The earliest works were in clay, stone, plaster, or cave paintings, usually in profile. Portrait sculptures in Classical Greece (5-4th century BC) and Ancient Rome (625 BC-476 AD) recorded ruler succession. During the Renaissance, portrait paintings recorded the sitter before the invention of photography and advertised their status, achievements, beauty and tastes. Court painters were typically ordered to portray kings and queens in a highly idealised and Chinese portraiture gained prominence during the Song dynasty. Qing dynasty Manchu conquerors legitimise their rule by using imperial portraits to confirm the emperor’s great significance, authority, and legitimacy. This art form served as a tool for reinforcing hierarchical structures, promoting loyalty and romanticising a style that represented their legacies.

Imperial Chinese Portraits

Imperial portraits in ancient China gained prominence during the Song dynasty (960-1279). But during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the Manchu conquerors formalised this practice to legitimise their rule. As a result, imperial portraits held great significance for the emperor’s authority and legitimacy, reinforcing hierarchical structures and promoting loyalty. The art form also served as a tool for propagating Sinicization through Han-Chinese principles. The illustrations of the Qing court attire are an example of this form of propaganda.

Kangxi Emperor

Portraits of three Qing dynasty rulers illustrate how the official garments of the emperors evolved. The dragons embroidered on the Shunzhi Emperor’s robe are white with a relatively simple design. The ornaments became more complicated as time progressed. The Kangxi Emperor’s portrait incorporated more coloured embroidery and added a wider variety of dragons, such as the front-facing and moving dragons. Often these dragons were depicted in a symmetrical composition or a twisting motion. This symmetry and motion symbolised the emperor’s strong and dynamic rule. Embroidered mountains implied stability and longevity, conveying the idea of an enduring empire. Rolling waves represent the seas’ vastness and might and the never-ending imperial power over maritime territories. The lower arm sleeves changed to bright yellow, and a court bead necklace made from eastern freshwater pearls completed the outfit for the Qianlong Emperor.

Empress Robes

Changes were more subtle for the empresses’ robes. Apart from dragons, the significant addition was the embellishment of repetitive shou (longevity) motifs on top of the rolling waves. Another obvious observation was that Xiaokang Empress was in summer court attire. However, as can be seen by the black fur trim under their court robes and around the winged-like lapels, the Xiaohe and Xiaoquan Empress were dressed for winter. Likewise, accessories resembling a modern-day long tie known as caishui also differ. It was predominantly white, with minimal decorations before the Qianlong period. Over time, it became more vibrant, as illustrated by the multi-coloured embroidery of the green caishui worn by the two empresses from the latter periods.

Royal Court Attire

A book called Huangchao liqi tushi details regulations about court attire for royal family members. From this, historians can speculate the identities of unnamed characters in portraits, from empresses to consorts and other ranks of concubines. For example, an empress would wear bright yellow and red robes with freshwater pearls. An imperial noble consort would be dressed in purple. She could also be adorned with phoenix-shaped accessories, but only with seven tails, not nine. Lower-ranked consorts could wear paler hues with less costly materials, including diancui (kingfisher feather), coral, gold, silver, or velvet flowers. The fusion of traditional Manchu nomadic clothes modified by fashions that reflected Han values further projected an image of moral rectitude and harmonious governance.

Preservation and Conservation

Many of the artworks have badly deteriorated over time. In response, the Palace Museum in Beijing has conducted a series of conservation exercises on the portraits. For example, a new sketch of Xianzhe Yi Empress in Court Attire provides a simple line drawing, referred to as huayang, which offers a glimpse into the creative process of the court painters from initial conceptualisation to the final touches. Specialised tools, papers, and reinvented colour pigments are also on display. In this way, the exhibition provides an opportunity to understand better the importance of preserving and safeguarding these distinguished treasures of Chinese history for this and future generations.

Text Shek Man / Photo Shek Man & Hong Kong Palace Museum