Resituating Chinese Culture in Vancouver

Written by: Michelle Zhang

Edited by : David Cowling 

The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors @Vancouver Art Gallery.October 18, 2014 to January 11, 2015

The world has become a multicultural society, people learn about different cultures and history through historical artifacts and art. The exhibition The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors brings an exploration of ancient Chinese cultural history in from the East to the West. While it is exciting to see the East resituated in a different context, there is still much criticism revolving around the art gallery setting despite the fact that they do not share a common space. This paper will evaluate the cultural context on the artwork Portrait of Emperor Qianlong, and to imagine the audiences resituated within the context of cultural politics in the exhibition.

Before analyzing Portrait of Emperor Qianlong, it is important to understand the brief history of China and the exhibition. The Forbidden City located in the heart of Beijing, it was established in the early fifth century and was the home to Chinese emperors. The Forbidden City captured the world’s attention with its power, wealth and mystery. Selected from the vast collections of Beijing’s Palace Museum, the exhibition showcases nearly 200 precious works from the Forbidden City, which date from as early as 500 CE to the early-twentieth century. The show assembles a collection of historical art including treasures such as paintings, ceramics, gold and silver wares, jade, cloisonné, bronzes and textiles.

The Portrait of Emperor Qianlong is a life-size, silk painting that offers insights into the cultural context of China. Emperor Qianlong, is shown in the portrait wearing formal, ceremonial robes in Chinese style and seated in the dragon throne. His robe is embroidered with dragons, which emphasize the imperial power and royalty of the emperor. The design of the robe features a dragon with five claws without wings. In European cultures, dragons are often associated as evil bat-like lizards, however Chinese dragons are depicted as benevolent creatures as a symbol of imperial power. In Portrait of Emperor Qianlong, Emperor Qianlong sits on the dragon throne and situates himself as “the Son of Heaven,” ruler of the entire world. The painting has great detail and quality such as the patterned architecture and design of the work. This represents Qianlong’s divine nature and attempts to display the growing wealth and power of the Emperor. In the cultural context, the formal qualities and design of the painting are similar to European art culture and architecture, as is made evident by the floor tiles and the dragon throne. This also shows that assimilation and exchange in culture as trades between the East and the West were welcomed during the year 1616. The style of the clothing was nomadic and yellow was often used to symbolize the wealth and the highest honor of the Qing Dynasty.

     Ink and colour on silk               Qing dynasty, Qianlong period

Ink and colour on silk
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period

The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors collects a collection of artworks that evoke a variety of responses when the viewer look at the works, whether it is personal or not. It gives the audience the opportunity to engage with the stories and memories attached to these early artifacts, and explore the historical and cultural background with the works. While it is interesting to see Chinese artifacts in a Western art gallery, the artifacts have been liberated and resituated in a foreign context. Because of resituating in a different setting, such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, the context of the work changes the cultural significance. In other words, these cultural artifacts would not call out strong emotional responses to many viewers, particularly to those that have no understanding or prior knowledge to the Chinese history. Arguably, having Chinese artifacts as the notion of immigration brings assimilation of the East to the West but there seems to be a superficial understanding about Chinese history. Chinese history has rich and heavy information, therefore one cannot simply understand the deep cultural and historical background embedded in ancient Chinese artifacts that have been brought out in the exhibition. Additionally, the works in the exhibition would have been more suitable in a museum rather than in a gallery. For example, many works have been install in a display case, which historical artifacts instead of viewing it as an artwork. Nonetheless, the cultural artifacts allow an opportunity for Western viewers to understand and learn about ancient Chinese history.

The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors was an enjoyable and successful exhibition. Living in a multicultural country, it was a great opportunity to see valuable Chinese artifacts in the art gallery, and it gave people opportunities to briefly learn about Chinese culture, such that the exhibition presents a reflection of structured, chronological events of ancient China. It is relevant to see the exhibition as whole organized around the aim of resituating Chinese culture in a different context, however presenting the vast collections would have been more appropriate in a museum instead of in a gallery.


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