Gallery Guide

Gallery Guide

Prepare to immerse your senses and suspend your expectations. Below describes the thematic progression and holdings of rooms within the exhibition.

Download the Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty, Concept and Design by Robert Wilson Gallery Guide.


1 Darkness


China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Vase, 19th Century, porcelain, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 96.97.16

The dark room at the beginning of Power and Beauty contains a single object: a black glazed porcelain vase, made in the 19th century. Something that lies in darkness may be difficult to see but is not to be feared, and in ancient Chinese philosophy darkness is simply complementary to brightness. There can be no light without dark. They are physical manifestations of yin and yang, the duality at the heart of most classical Chinese science and philosophy. Allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness, and your mind to empty—a state characterized by simplicity, quiet, and the absence of worldly desire.

2 Prosperity


China Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Nine dragon box, Qianiong period (1736-95), red, green, and brown carved lacquer (ticai), Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2001.68.14a,b

Emptiness gives way to abundance. The emperors’ insatiable appetite for art is suggested here through hundreds of Qing objects. At the empire’s peak in the 1700s, decorative arts of incredible virtuosity flourished in the environment of political stability and unprecedented prosperity. The Forbidden City in Beijing, seat of the imperial court, became a center of artistic production where highly skilled artisans produced astonishingly beautiful objects for palaces and court life. Some of the artworks here predate the Qing dynasty, reflecting the efforts of the ethnically Manchurian Qing rulers to reconcile with the majority Han Chinese culture.

3 Order and Hierarchy


China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Manchu emperor’s ceremonial 12-symbol jifu court robe, 1723-35, silk tapestry (kesi), The John R Van Derlip Fund 42.8.11

A rigid social hierarchy—with emperor on top, answering only to the heavens above—ensured the stability of the empire. Within the court, dress denoted a noble’s title, rank, and social status through color, symbolism, and accessories. The five imperial robes in the center of this space, arrayed by rank, demonstrate the rigid order of the dress system. Only the top members of the royal family could wear robes decorated with the 12 imperial symbols: sun, moon, mountain, constellations, dragon, ax, cups, flame, bat, grain, pheasant, and waterweed. And only the emperor himself could wear yellow. Here, nine dragons—a symbol of imperial authority—fly amid mountains, oceans, and swirling clouds in a kind of diagram of the celestial landscape.

4 The Common Man


China, Warring States period (575-221 BCE), Standing figure, 5th-4th centuries BCE, bronze with gold inlay, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2003.140.3

“The ruler is the boat and the people are the water. It is the water that holds up the boat and the water that capsizes it.”
—Chinese Philosopher Xunzi, (c. 313-c. 238 BCE)

A tiny bronze figure is accompanied only by the singing of a child. Amid the opulence of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). this lone statue—made some 2,000 years earlier—suggests the ancient Chinese philosophy of governance, in which primacy is given to the people. Chinese rulers, starting with the Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1046-771 BCE), believed their right to rule was divinely granted. But Heaven granted or withdrew this authority according to the welfare of the people. If an emperor was cruel and oppressive toward his subjects, it was said that he lost his right to rule, and would be toppled.

5 Fearsome Authority


China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Imperial Throne, Qianlong period (1736-95), polychrome lacquer over softwood frame, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 93.32a-d

The emperor’s imperial throne conveys his fearsome authority. (The soundscape of ceremonial music is intermittently interrupted by a scream.) Gold lacquer dragons adorn the seat. Scrolls are carved into the sides, back, and legs, suggesting clouds and the emperor’s heavenly mandate to rule. The hierarchical system of administration that placed the emperor at the top dates to 221 BCE, a system embodied in the throne—it was regarded as the center of the world. Many thrones, like this one, were produced at different times for different rooms. But at the center of of the Forbidden City, in a Throne Hall elevated above the surrounding square, was a primary throne. And from there, it was as though the emperor could survey his entire kingdom.

6 Buddhist Art


China, Northern Qi dynasty (550-577), Standing Buddha, late 6th century, limestone, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2000.207

Amid the chants of a Buddhist sutra (scripture), five Buddhist statues stand on high pedestals, demanding visitors to look up to see them. Religion and politics have always intertwined in China, with rulers using religious devotion to reinforce their reign. Buddhism was a major catalyst for monumental sculpture, painting, printing, and temple architecture. The Buddhist monk Faguo expressed this link in the early fifth century when he equated the emperor with the Buddha, explaining, “the Buddhist law would be very difficult to disseminate if it did not rely on imperial power and influence.”

7 Daoist Art


China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), The Three Purities (detail), late 16th century, ink, colors, and gold on silk, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2002.126.2.1-3

Three Daoist paintings are displayed in a cave-like setting that evokes the solitary mountain retreats of Daoist practitioners. During the Qing dynasty, Daoism flourished alongside Buddhism. Its roots can be traced to the sage Laozi (c. 571 BCE-c. 471 BCE), who wrote the classic text Daodejing (The Way it is Power). Six centuries later, Daoism emerged as an organized religion with a supreme god known as Tianzun (Heavenly Worthy), a canon of scriptures, temples, priests, and a practice modeled on traditional Chinese popular religion. Its influence extended to Chinese art and culture, and, like Buddhism, was used by rulers to legitimize their rule.

8 Court Ladies and Noblewomen


China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Pillow, 17th-18th century, greenish-white nephrite, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and Gift of the Thomas Barlow Walker Foundation 92.103.8

In male-dominated Chinese imperial society, and within the principle of yin and yang, women were the counterpoint to men- existing only in relation to them. In classical Chinese literature, the attributes of refinement, delicacy, and fragrance are share by both flower and women. Indeed, poets often encouraged the reader’s imagination to flit between there two kinds of “flowers.”

Here, artifacts associated with noblewomen suggest the palace’s inner quarters—a counterbalance to the public court life visualized in Room 3. At the Qing court, women’s lush clothing and ornamentation reflected advances in textile production and the making of gold and silver jewelry. Even the women’s informal robes are lavishly adorned with imagery of good fortune and naturalistic floral motifs, often executed with exceptional embroidery.

9 Mountain of the Mind


China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of scholars at the Lanting Pavilion, Qianlong period, 1790, light green jade, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and Gift of the Thomas Barlow Walker Foundation 92.103.13

Centuries of accumulated religion, history, literature, and folklore have built up China’s mountains into divine realms. Emperors and courtiers alike dreamed of retreating from society into a life of seclusion in the mountains—an escape that remained hypothetical. Instead, they cultivated the concept of chaoyin (“recluse at court”), a belief that one could engage with the world while preserving an internal sense of seclusion, remaining spiritually remote and uncontaminated by public life.

A large “jade mountain,” a type of mountain scene roughly carved out of jade, is displayed by a finely woven landscape handscroll. The walls of the room are clad with a mountainscape created by contemporary Chinese artist Yang Yongliang. These and other artworks demonstrate the new outlets emperors and courtiers found for expressing their love of mountains and to associate themselves with the tranquility and harmony of the spiritual realm.

10 Lightness


China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Covered vase in Mughal style, Qianlong period(1736-95), white camphor jade, Gift of Mr. Augustus L. Searle 37.56a,b

Dark is forever balanced by light. In ancient China, the yin and yang forces that make up all aspects and phenomena of life are traditionally depicted as the light and dark halves of a circle. Here, the darkness of the exhibition’s first room is complemented in this final gallery by glowing walls lit from within, a white floor, and a Mughal-style pale jade vase commissioned the the Qing court. The sound of waves against rocks suggests the wave patter (lishui) along the borders of imperial robes, a final reference to the power and beauty of Qing, China’s last dynasty .