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Thoughts on an Exhibit

January 7, 2015

A couple days ago I went to the Forbidden City exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, because it’s about to leave town and I couldn’t pass it by. It was definitely a different experience than the Chinese exhibits in British museums, which is what I have to compare to, to date. There, the pottery and lacquered boxes and screens are nicely labelled, grouped by type or dynasty, and maybe have a sentence or two about their provenance or context. Here, the context was much more present, right up there on the walls or in large paragraphs next to the artifacts, and it all felt that much more real because of it. Like, I got a short bio of an emperor along with the dates of his reign, and then saw his name attached to all sorts of things that he’d owned and used or seen regularly.

Possibly there’s been some of that, re: dates, in the British museums. Honestly, I spend so long in large museums that everything starts to blur together and I stop being able to process information properly. It’s bad. My parents are probably thrilled.

One thing that struck me during my visit was that the Chinese emperors weren’t really all that different from European monarchs, in terms of their way of life. Both were big on propaganda, portraits, posturing, and ceremony. They both liked luxury goods as a sign of status, their nobles would ape their tastes to gain status at court, and this resulted in rules about which social level got to wear what*. They doted on their dogs and horses, to the level of getting tailored dog jackets and albums of horse paintings. They raised daughters with the expectation that marriage was the peak of their potential. They collected stuff they found pretty or interesting. Where the 18th Century Europeans were fans of chinoiserie and commissioned porcelain with Europeans painted on it, one Chinese emperor commissioned European scientific instruments for a private collection.

And yes, I know the similarities shouldn’t surprise me because we’re talking about people, who tend to act similarly regardless of when or where they are, and we’re talking about a period of history where Chinese-European contact had been established through the Silk Road for centuries, and where more immediate contact was happening while the artifacts were being made. But y’know, it’s one thing to know that and another to see…

The next biggest thing that struck me was the level of symbolism. I knew there were some symbols that were more Imperial than others, and that some beliefs and associations based on homonyms persist to this day. (The number between 3 and 5, for instance.) For some reason, I’d assumed those were isolated incidents and that most of the images on traditional Chinese clothing and porcelain were there solely because the artists or owners found them attractive or saw them regularly in daily life. (Well, probably yes to that last one too.) But about half the images seem to be auspicious because of their color or attributes—the sort of symbolism I’m used to from European cultures—and the other half are auspicious because their names sound like a positive word such as “happiness” or “luck”. So, bats are frequent decorations not for anything bat-like, but because “bat” is fu and the word for “good fortune” is also fu.**

And I’d also been operating on the belief that the non-flora, non-fauna symbols I’ve seen on cloth and porcelain symbolized knots or gates or something so deeply, anciently Chinese that its meaning has been pretty much forgotten. But no, I’m an idiot and slightly blind. They’re writing. Stylized calligraphy of the same sorts of lucky words that get turned into bats. Because of course they are.

Then there’s the need to put everything into order, to group anything that can be grouped, to make the world more harmonious. It’s not a European way of thinking—we’re not talking scientific classifications—but it’s certainly an interesting one. I kind of like it. One of these days, I’ll sit down with a book that explains the deeper philosophies underpinning that.

All in all I got a lot out of the exhibit and am glad I went, but there were things I wished had been there, gaps that I noticed that could’ve been filled. Not big ones, mind you, but small ones that historical knowledge I’ve gleaned from other sources could have plugged. The fact that the Chinese emperors had ultimate power of decision, for instance, was a subtext in a lot of the exhibit but never explicitly said. That was why they could mobilize their armies so efficiently, could build the fleets of ships or lock down the borders or ban such-and-such from the culture. Imperial decree was also the reason clocks didn’t take off the first time they were introduced to China, and why the explorer and merchant Zheng He*** flourished under one emperor and had his fleet destroyed under the next.

The lack of that knowledge didn’t detract from the exhibit—it rarely does—but I always wonder in museums how the addition of what I know would change the average patron experience. I don’t know why I wonder that, really. Probably I think too much.


* the Renaissance Brits went for dyes, cloth, and ornaments; the Chinese went for dyes and symbols

** with different tones and symbols, but still

*** More on Zheng He later. He’s cool.

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