Lapis lazuli alms bowl and leather case - possibly Tibetan work, Qianlong imperial inscription dated to 1759, Qing dynasty, 18th century© National Palace Museum

 The Mongolian, Tibetan, and western Muslim territories of China are located in the central part of the Eurasian continent and geographically consist mostly of plateaus and basins. With its northern latitude and high terrain, the cold climate of the area yields unpredictable rainfall. Except for settlements along river valleys and oases, a nomadic economy has traditionally governed the way of life there. The inhabitants of this region are ethnically diverse as well, being mostly comprised of Mongolian, Uyghur, and Tibetan peoples. In terms of geography, religion, and history, their lifestyle therefore differs greatly from that of the Han Chinese with their agriculture-based economy, highlighting the unique art and culture of these nomadic groups.

Starting from the seventeenth century, the Manchu people in China's northeast expanded their territorial control west and south to establish the "Great Qing Empire." As dynastic rulers, the Manchu never gave up their ambition of playing a dominating role among tribes on the northern steppes, at the same time actively maintaining control of Tibetan peoples in the Kham-Tibetan plateau of the southwest. In addition to military conquest and political rule, the Qing dynasty also used marital alliances, religious beliefs, and tributary relations to extend and maintain its governance, hold various peoples together, and consolidate its authority.

This special exhibition focuses on artifacts related to imperial authority of the Qing dynasty and its interaction with Mongolian, Muslim, and Tibetan peoples. From the perspectives of material culture and anthropology, it explains the features of these groups and, at the same time, the unique characteristics and cultural contents of their art forms.

Esteemed Vessels of Food and Drink

Nomadism is a lifestyle of certain peoples often chosen in response to the natural conditions of the place where they live and usually involving the optimal use of limited resources. Following the customs and experiences they inherited, nomads move with their animals in keeping with the seasons. Livestock, such as horses, cattle, and sheep, is important to them, providing clothing, food, and transportation. Every part of the plants they encounter along the way is also utilized to make many of the things needed in life. These people often live in tent-like structures easy to erect and take apart, as vessels for food and drink are taken with them and not much else. Such basic necessities of life as wooden bowls and utensils, when given as presents, reflect their simple and practical values. The workmanship involved in such objects, however, is elegantly refined, amply demonstrating the maturity of arts and crafts among these nomads.


 Birch-bark phoenix finial with gold inlay, Qing Court work, Qing dynasty, 18th-19th century© National Palace Museum

Birches are a tree species commonly found in northern temperate regions, whereas birch bark has been used by nomadic people to make objects such as house roofs and writing papers since ancient times. Birch bark, which is soft, flexible, light, and thin, had also been used to make the Gugu Guan (an oblong headdress covered with textiles) worn by aristocratic women during the Yuan dynasty. By examining the National Museum of Mongolia's collection of rare Yuan dynasty birch bark crowns (excavated from Yuan dynasty tombs) as well as the National Palace Museum's collection of Yuan dynasty empress and concubine portraits, visitors can gain insight into how birch bark had been used in the past. The birch-bark phoenix finial with gold inlay showcased here features a phoenix supported by a wooden frame on the inside and covered by birch bark on the outside. The crown, trailing edges of the wings, and feet of the phoenix as well as the cloud-shaped base of the artifact are decorated with gold leaves to make up the golden components, whereas the body and tail of the phoenix contain pearl inlays of varying sizes. The styles and designs of the phoenix are identical to those of the golden thread phoenix. The birch-bark phoenix finial with gold inlay had been commonly worn by Qing court empresses and concubines and is highly representative of the cultural characteristics of the nomadic people.


Wood bowl and gilt iron case inlaid with turquoise, Tibetan work, Qianlong imperial inscription dated to 1786, Qing dynasty© National Palace Museum

Wood bowls are the utensils that best illustrate the Mongolian and Tibetan eating habits and can be used to drink tea, hold tsampa, and store food. In addition, wood bowls are light, durable, easy to carry and can be used to preserve the taste of food as well as prevent the heat of the food from burning the hands. Wood bowls are generally made from birches, Rhododendron roots, or roots from a variety of trees; however, the most precious wood bowls are made from parasitic plants (especially a type of tumor called "zan" that is parasitic in mugwort roots). Since the time of the Kangxi era, Tibetan people had often offered wood bowls in early spring as tributes to the Qing court and to wish them a prosperous new year. The Qing court commonly used wood bowls to drink milk tea, earning the container the name "milk bowl." The practice of using the container to drink milk continued through the Yongzheng era. According to the Imperial Workshop Archives, Kalon Khangchenné Sonam Gyalpo offered wood bowls to the Qing court. Similarly, the Dalai Lama offered a set of five small and large wood bowls. The wood bowl and gilt iron hollow round case inlaid with turquoise exhibited here features a metal bowl made of delicate, light, and precious materials and displaying distinct and contrasting threadlike patterns, making this artifact set an example of the treasures offered by Tibetan aristocrats to the Qing court.


Gilt eating utensils, leather case, wood box, Russian work. Presented by the Torghut Ubashi Khan to the Qing court, Qianlong imperial inscription dated to 1771, Qing dynasty© National Palace Museum

The Torghuts, one of the subgroups of the Four Oirats, migrated westwards to the Volga River downstream river basin by the end of the sixteenth century. Faced with the threat of Russian tsars in the late-eighteenth century, the Torghuts embarked on a journey back home to the East, where they were welcomed and appeased by the Qing court. The Torghuts then settled in the Ili River region. In 1771, Khagan Ubashi Khan (1742-1775), head of the Torghut clan, and his people travelled to the Rehe Mountain Resort to pay their respects to Emperor Gaozong of Qing (i.e., the Qianlong Emperor), where they offered fine Kazakhstan horses and white eagles. The artifact exhibited here is a set of folk, spoon, and dagger, which are placed inside a leather case, offered by Ubashi Khan to Emperor Gaozong of Qing. The leather case is decorated with geometric floral designs and exemplifies the gorgeous and smooth Russian Rococo style. The center of the leather case contains two lines of Mongolian writing. The Qing court subsequently made a wood box to hold the aforementioned utensils and inscribed the box cover with words to explain the significance of this set of special artifacts.

Immersed in Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism traces its roots to an amalgamation of Indian Buddhism and the original Bon, an indigenous belief system in Tibet. Flourishing by the fifteenth century, Tibetan Buddhism became an important part of Mongolian and Tibetan thought and life, also coming to assert an influence on the Manchu people. Not only were Tibetan monasteries centers of religion, they also were vital focal points for local administration and the economy. For this reason, the tribute items sent by Tibetan lamas and nobility to the Qing dynasty court were always the finest in terms of quality. They invariably submitted Buddhist religious implements as gifts because of their constant reference to the Qing emperor in Tibetan diplomatic letters as "Manjusri," the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. The Qing emperors likewise paid homage to Tibetan Buddhism, demonstrating the high level of importance attached to its influence and the accompanying esteem that it earned as a result.


Bone prayer beads. Presented by the Panchen Erdeni to the Qing court in 1780, Qing dynasty, 18th century. © National Palace Museum

Prayer beads, also called counting beads, are used as an aid in Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism when reciting scriptures, saying incantations, and reading titles. The bone prayer beads shown here were offered by Lobsang Palden Yeshe (the 6th Panchen Lama) to Emperor Gaozong of Qing in 1780 when the emperor was 70 years of age. In July of the said year, the 6th Panchen Lama visited the Rehe Mountain Resort and stayed in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Accordingly, the Qing court constructed the Xumi Fushou Temple. On the 6th and 24th day of the eighth month, Emperor Gaozong of Qing visited the temple to burn joss sticks. In 1751, the Qing court conferred political power to the 7th Dalai Lama, mandating that the Dalai Lama regularly go on pilgrimages and periodically visit China's capital city during the emperor's birthday. The 6th Panchen Lama was one of the three Dalai Lamas who visited the capital during the Qing dynasty, an event marked as a grand occasion at the time. The prayer beads exhibited here were made from human bones and contain beeswax, coral-made Buddha head beads, lapis lazuli Buddhist pagodas, turquoise, crystals, and gold and silver vajras gadas, exemplifying the solemnness and magnificence of Tibetan prayer beads in the eighteenth century. 


Lapis lazuli alms bowl and leather case - possibly Tibetan work, Qianlong imperial inscription dated to 1759, Qing dynasty, 18th century© National Palace Museum.

The lapis lazuli alms bowl and leather case displayed here is bright in color, rounded in shape, and solemn in appearance. According to the records found on the leather case used to hold the alms bowl, the said bowl was a trophy taken from Dzungar people after they were defeated by the Qing army in 1755; the Dzungar people were surmised to have obtained such a bowl earlier in Tibet. A total four languages (i.e., Manchu alphabets, Chinese characters, Mongolian scripts, and Tibetan alphabets) inscribed by Emperor Gaozong of Qing can be found on the alms bowl. The Mongolian Dzungar people, whose capital city was Ili and who believed in Tibetan Buddhism, emerged in the seventeenth century. They once invaded Tibet and ruled Lhasa and Tibet for three years (i.e., 1717–1720). In 1741, Emperor Gaozong of Qing bestowed an iron bowl upon the Mongolian Jebtsundamba (currently in the collection of the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan), which shares an identical design with the National Palace Museum's iron bowl with an old crane feather design (presented at the current exhibition). The iron bowl with an old crane feather design involved plating the colors of bluish purple on iron. In the Imperial Workshop Archives of the Yongzheng Era, a number of records on the making of colored spoons and chopsticks with an old crane feather design can be found. Therefore, the lapis lazuli alms bowl and leather case may have been fabricated by using the lapis lazuli (because of its unique color) and by imitating the design of the iron bowl with an old crane feather design.


Silver mandala with multicolored khatas, Tibetan work, Presented by the Tuguan Hutuktu, et al., to the Qing court, Qing dynasty, 19th century. © National Palace Museum

The silver mandala with multicolored khatas was presented by Tuguan Hutuktu (1839–1894), the 6th Lama of the Gönlung Jampa Ling Monastery (in Qinghai) who stayed in China's capital city, to Empress Dowager Cixi on her birthday. The mandala symbolizes the Buddhist world; the surface of the mandala was engraved with wave-like text, whereas the center of the mandala contains a four-story square platform. Mount Sumeru, which represents the center of the universe, is found in the axis, whereas Mount Akravada-Parvata is observed covering the circumference of the surface. On the four sides of the mountains are city gates, which represent the four continents of Pūrva-videha, Jambudvīpa, Aparagodānīya, and Uttarakuru (the continents are represented by the symbols of circle, triangle, moon-like shape, and square, respectively). On the surface of the sea is a circle of garden stonecrop, whereas on the four sides of the sea are various objects (i.e., a moon, treasure bowl, sun, and ox) used to worship the Buddha. The outer edges of the sides of the mandala were embedded with corals and turquoise in lianzhu (connected circle) patterns, in which vajras gadas and lotus petals were used as decorations. In the center are rolled leave patterns separated from garden stonecrop; the center of the rolled leaf patterns shows a cross-shaped design comprising corals and turquoise beads. The patterns and workmanship of this artifact are awe-inspiring and embody a hint of Chinese styles, making it different from other Tibetan artifacts created during the eighteenth century. 

Conversing in Coral and Turquoise

Coral and turquoise are products of nature that have long been appreciated by Mongolian and Tibetan peoples, who used these precious materials as inlay on gold and silver wares or to complement pearls and amber for colorful and magnificent forms of personal ornamentation. For important ceremonial occasions, such jewelry was adorned in layers, creating a unique aesthetic trait in the culture of these nomadic peoples. Their coral was sourced from the Mediterranean Sea and the turquoise mined in Iran. Of significant value, these materials came to signify the status and economic clout of the person wearing them. Rare and semi-precious gems of coral, crystal, and clamshell not only were concrete symbols of Buddhism most excellent, the native Tibetan religion of Bon, with its reverence for nature, came to imbue them with protective powers as well. Thus, personal ornaments decorated with these gems served as symbols of auspiciousness, good fortune, and social status, becoming a unique image of beauty of the Mongolian and Tibetan peoples.


Silver hat finial with coral and turquoise inlay, Tibetan work, Qing dynasty, 18th century. © National Palace Museum

In Tibet, both men and women prefer wearing gemstones as personal accessories. The most common materials used to make such gemstones are corals, turquoise, and beeswax. Most of the corals in Tibet come from the Mediterranean Sea, the corals of which come from regions such as India and Kashmir. Tibet produces some of its turquoise; however, such turquoise is relatively greener in color and features brown patterns. The silver hat finial with coral and turquoise inlay presented here is relatively greener in color; thus, it may have been fabricated using local Tibet turquoise. Hat top accessories generally reflect social status. The hat top of the artifact exhibited here is made of partially gold-plated silver. The uppermost gemstone was lost, and coral beads are found between the turquoise and the beeswax. The bottommost layer contains petal-shaped turquoise surrounded by a circle of coral beads. Regarding the silver stand in the middle, it contains beeswax-made, melon-shaped beads at the top. The said beads are accentuated by coral beads of all sizes above and below them. The base of the artifact was hammered to create the desired shape, in which hammer marks are faintly discernible. The gilt is light in color and the bottom of the artifact is equipped with a screw-shaped lock presumably used to enable users to secure the artifact to hats. This artifact is simple and plain and is the work of local Tibetan artists.


Pearl hat with turquoise inlay, Tibetan work, Qing dynasty, 18th century. © National Palace Museum

During the Qing dynasty, Tibetan aristocrats had been conferred the titles of duke, jasagh, and taiji; such titles were subsequently incorporated into the Qing court's administrative system. Aristocrats of different social statuses and/or from different regions wore different hats. During festivals, female aristocrats in the Lhasa region wore pearl or coral caps. The said caps feature a triangular base that is covered with pulu on the first layer and stone beads on the second layer. Aristocrats of even higher social statuses wore pearl hats on top of the caps. The hats are made of wood and covered with layers of small connected pearls as well as scattered turquoise, the last of which is used as an embellishment. The top of the hats contains decorated turquoise with gold inlay, whereas the inside of the hats is coated with red paint, making the hats heavy and gorgeous. In addition to wearing pearl caps and accessories, the aristocrats regularly wear large turquoise earrings joined with their braids in front of their ears. Furthermore, they wear ga'u (a Buddhist container) in front of their chest together with strings of pearl ornaments, allowing them to exude a sense of Tibetan-styled prestige, elegance, and beauty.


Black velvet hair cuffs with coral and pearl inlay, Mongolian work, Qing dynasty, 18th century. © National Palace Museum

These braid covers, referred to by the Qing court as "black velvet hair cuffs," are cylindrical in shape and can be used to encapsulate hair. To hold the tubes up, leather is inserted into the two ends of the tubes as support. Outside, coral beads are arranged into ring-shaped ribbons. The artifact was identified by the researchers of the National Museum of Mongolia as a device used by Torghut women. The velvet hair cuffs are made in black because black is a symbol of good luck for the Torghut people. Mongolian braid ornaments and hats are remarkably unique, the most well-known of which is the twin high-arched, cow horn-shaped braids worn by Khalkha women. Such braids are decorated with various hairpins, whereas those that lie on the shoulders are adorned with gemstone-made cuffs. At present, hair cuff outer layer restoration involves adding a layer of protective crepeline, which is a type of markedly fine silk commonly used in the preservation and restoration of fabrics. The National Palace Museum's restoration department has exerted a great deal of effort to restore the velvet cuffs, in which black crepeline was selected for the black velvets before sewing it into cuffs. The cuffs are subsequently utilized to encapsulate the velvets for protection and support.

Treasures Transcending Borders

The western Muslim regions of China are located at the confluence of Europe and Asia, being home to ethnically and linguistically diverse groups of peoples, including Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Uyghurs all co-existing at the same time. Located at a vital point along the Silk Route, it was a place where Mediterranean, Islamic, and Indian cultures converged by means of trade and commerce over an extended period of time. Both the movement of peoples and circulation of their art techniques enjoyed free passage in this region transcending borders, forming a mix of cultures. In the Yuan dynasty, the Mongols were able to connect the great civilizations of East and West, and later the Manchu in the Qing dynasty assumed control over Inner Asia, reopening this passage in the west once more. Consequently, the delicate metal wares of nomadic peoples and the aesthetics of Islamic jades and precious stones appeared as far away as the Forbidden City in Beijing, injecting Qing dynasty art with new vitality.


Lace veil with tassels, Work of the Muslim regions, Presented from Yengisar in 1779, Qing dynasty, 18th century. © National Palace Museum

This lace veil is an item used in Tajik women's wedding. The lace veil, weaved in a rather unique way, features a hollow square added with silk threads to produce geometric patterns. The lace veil is one of the few surviving works of such designs from the eighteenth century. The upper edge of the veil was embroidered with guipure embroidery, one side of which comprises grass-patterned red velvet strips in gold silk threads, and the other side of which contains flower-patterned blue fabric strips in silk threads. The aforementioned embroidery techniques and designs are common in Central Asia. The lace veil is attached with two sets of bands, one set of which consists of a red cotton thread decorated with a silver silk thread knot, and the other is made up of a gold silk thread decorated with a pearl knot and a gemstone pendant with gold inlay. For the latter, gold pearl-based geometric patterns were employed to form its golden accessories, which were embedded with red and green gemstones, exemplifying a typical Islamic style. This veil was made in Yengisar, a city under the administration of Kashgar, which was a gathering place west of China linked with the northern, central, and southern routes of the Silk Road in ancient times. Trading between countries in Central Asia bloomed during the time of the Silk Road, and the lace exhibited here truthfully exemplifies the multicultural elements observed along the Silk Road.


 Gold aigrette with pearl and gem inlay, Work of the Muslim regions, Presented from Kashgar in 1770, Qing dynasty, 18th century. © National Palace Museum

The Qing dynasty wooden box used to hold the gold aigrette with pearl and gem inlay shown here is written with the characters "gold–jade jigha," where jigha may have been the Chinese pronunciation of the Persian word for the feather headdress found on the headscarves worn by Indian and Islamic aristocrats or royal families. According to the "Inspection Report of the Committee for the Disposition of the Qing Imperial Possessions," the gold aigrette with pearl and gem inlay was offered by Kashgar to the Qing court in 1770. The roots of the feathers found on this headdress consist of jade-made tubes. The center of the headdress is a circular flower, whereas the two sides of the feathers are adorned with a series of round gemstones that progressively diminish in size. The end of feather hangs down on one side and contains a single gemstone. Such a design is identical to the accessories found on Islamic headscarves. The bottom of the headdress, also decorated with gemstones, is attached with loosely spread gold leaves. The two sides of the headdress are equipped with a golden hook that can be fixated to hats. Behind the feathers are two long crests. The feather headdress, initially worn only by aristocrats, took on different forms after the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. New complex or altered designs of the headdress caused it to deviate from its original purpose (i.e., used as a symbol of social status) to one that focused on the pursuit of exquisiteness. Based on the craftsmanship and style of this artifact, it is surmised to have been an imitation of Islamic-styled Altishahr works.


Gold overlay aigrette with pearl and gem inlay, Work of the Muslim regions or the Mughal Empire, Qing dynasty, Early 19th century. © National Palace Museum

This magnificent accessory, called gold overlay aigrette with pearl and gem inlay, is a clear embodiment of Islamic culture. The artifact holds numerous thin, long golden branches that extend outwards from the central column. The top of the column is a pink tourmaline featuring a design that is reminiscent of the cluster of upright feather tassels found on kings' headscarves in Islamic culture post-eighteenth century. In addition, the beads and red and green gemstones embedded on the central column demonstrate colors, aesthetics, and inlay and string decoration techniques that mirror those of the Mughal Empire. The Islamic-styled headdresses found in the collection of the Qing court may have been offered by Altishahr, a region comprising the Tarim Basin as well as the Southern Circuits of Tian Shan at the time. The said region includes modern-day Afghanistan and a part of Kyrgyzstan. In the early nineteenth century, merchants of the Khanate of Kokand controlled the import and export trades of Central Asia as well as those of Northern and Southern Circuits of Tian Shan. Because of geographical vicinity and cultural similarity, Islamic culture-related artifacts were remarkably common in Altishahr at the time, contributing to some of its artifact masterpieces being subsequently sent to the Qing court.