When the emperor Qianlong took the throne of China in 1736, his approach to international trade negotiations consisted largely of lavishly entertaining foreign dignitaries while denying all their requests. He saw no need to indulge the incessantly warring monarchs of Europe when he already had more wealth than they had combined and absolute power over an unprecedented 300 million people.
Qianlong ruled for 63 years from what is still the largest palace complex ever built: a 178-acre city-within-a-city surrounded by 30-foot walls at the center of Beijing. Only the emperor could wander at will through all of its 9,999 rooms. The imperial family and some 2,000 eunuch guards, officials, and servants were allowed limited access to the inner court. All others, even cooks, had to leave by nightfall. By comparison, Versailles could seem provincial.
Most of the riches within the Forbidden City have never traveled beyond the palace walls—and many have never been shown publicly. But after two years of quiet negotiations, Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson, curators at the Field Museum in Chicago, persuaded Chinese authorities to display more than 400 artifacts, including paintings, sculpture, furniture, and pieces of jade in an exhibition opening this spring.
This is an unusual show. Typically, Western exhibits of Chinese culture present a sweeping panoramic view of the world’s longest continuing civilization. Few focus on one man and one period in history. Qianlong wasn’t the last emperor of China, but he was the last great one, and he presided over an astonishing flourishing of the arts. Furthermore, he didn’t just happen to be on the throne while an age of great art blossomed. His imprint profoundly influenced everything from the literature of the day to chair styles. And while at times he may have gone too far, such as inscribing his commentary directly into the glaze of already ancient ceramics, the exhibit reveals a legacy unrivaled by any Western king. “He makes George III look almost thuggish and the Louis of France colorless, passive, and rather dumb,” Bronson says.