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Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) amassed enormous ancient bronzes, which decorated halls and became a scenery in the Qing palaces like his other precious collections. Notably, he commissioned officials to measure, depict and write entries for these vessels. The sustained research effort—spanned sixty years during the Qianlong reign—resulted in three catalogues of imperial bronze collection. The most comprehensive official catalogues of their kind, this labor-consuming project produced visual documentation of numerous bronze antiquities at the Qing court in pre-modern China, an era without photography and digital archives.

Upon opening the bronze catalogues compiled during the Qianlong reign, we perceive the then perspective on the past. Bronze vessels, with their mysterious décor and ancient inscriptions, have been the subject of the ancients pursuit due to the intellectual curiosity for the Xia, Shang and Zhou periods. Selected and catalogued during Qianlong's time, those vessels not only reveal thoughts on historical artifacts but reflect intellectual changes in connoisseurship. Now that excavated materials and technical examination have renewed our understanding regarding the names, dates and regional styles of bronzes, we have more approaches to ancient civilizations through antiquities.

This exhibition features three themes. Firstly, "Profound Reflections on Antiquities: Emperor Qianlong and Ancient Bronzes" showcases the fun of collecting and the knowledge manifested in Qianlong's poems on bronzes and his catalogues. In the second section "Careful Delineation and Modelling: The Classification and Documentation of Bronzes," typologically arranged vessels illustrate how catalogues define the name and shape of a certain form, upon which other mediums were based. Thirdly, "Erudition Acquired from the Past: Bronze Assemblages Understood and Recreated" reflects the shift in scholarship from the perspective of ritual use, and recreates assemblages consisting of different vessels. Finally, a video clip in collaboration with our conservation technician presents the discovery of a pastiche vessel formerly in the imperial collection.

Profound Reflections on Antiquities - Emperor Qianlong and Ancient Bronzes.

Surrounded by ancient bronzes at the Qing court, Emperor Qianlong wrote poems on some of them, revealing his historical reflections and Confucian learning. In addition, Qianlong recruited officials to document the massive imperial collections of bronzes based on Emperor Huizong's Illustrated Catalogue of the Xuanhe Antiquities (Xuanhe bogutu, d. 1123), producing series of illustrated catalogues that were hand-painted and traced. These publications exhibit the variety of antiquities in the court collection, which dated from the Shang and the Zhou dynasties to the Han and the Tang dynasties, encompassing objects from the Central Plains as well as from foreign lands.

Tracing the Three Periods

As the pacification of Muslim regions in the 24th year of the Qianlong reign (1759), the discovery of eleven ancient bronze bells in Jiangxi was regarded as an auspicious omen. After these bells were presented to the Qing court, Emperor Qianlong matched them for the traditional pitch-standards to think about the Xia, Shang and Zhou periods. Among the eleven bells, only four pieces survive today, including two displayed in this exhibition. The two bells were identical in shape and decoration. They were commissioned by Zhe Jian, a prince of the Wu state active in the late Spring and Autumn period, in order to pray for the ancestors with the melodious sound of bells.

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Chime bell of Zhe Jian, Late Spring and Autumn period, 570-476 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Xujian Jjiabian (First Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 17, p. 12© National Palace Museum.

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Chime bell of Zhe Jian, Late Spring and Autumn period, 570-476 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Xujian Jjiabian (First Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 17, p. 14© National Palace Museum.

Beyond the Three Periods

All thirty-eight objects documented in the appendix of Xiqing Xujian Jiabian came from the west or southwest of the Qing Empire. Besides vessels, they also include weapons, musical instruments, seals and coins. Different from the traditional bronzes adorned with Chinese characters and decorative patterns, these objects represent cosmopolitan characteristics on the Qing borderlands. These foreign bronzes were included in the huge palace collection, been catalogued and researched, and became the cultural display of Emperor Qianlong's imperial martial achievements.

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Islamic footed bowl (jam) with Arabic inscription, 13th century. Documented in Xiqing Xujian Jiabian (First Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), appendix 1. © National Palace Museum.

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Drum with raised frogs, Late Eastern Han to Six Dynasties, 2nd-6th century. Documented in Xiqing Xujian Yibian (Second Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 18, p. 1© National Palace Museum.

Findings of bronze drums abound in the local gazetteers of the south during the Ming-Qing period. Emperor Qianlong also wrote a poem, "A Song of Bronze Drum", which recorded a "Zhuge drum" unearthed in Guangxi in the 8th year of the Yongzheng reign (1730). An essay in Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities) relates bronze drums found in different locations to Ma Yuan's and Zhuge Liang's military conquests in Han dynasty. The matching of bronze artifact with historical legends reveals the then perception of bronze drums in the Qianlong period.

Catalogues of bronzes

The first bronze catalogue compiled during the Qianlong reign, Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities, 1755) consists of forty volumes and sixteen additional volumes on coins. As the imperial collection kept growing, the second catalogue Ningshou Jiangu (Illustrated Catalogue of the Ningshou Antiquities, c. 1781) in sixteen volumes catalogued bronzes housed in the renovated Palace of Tranquil Longevity. Two other supplemental catalogues were completed in 1793. Xiqing Xujian Jiabian (First Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), composed of twenty volumes, recorded bronzes collected in the Forbidden City. Also in twenty volumes, Xiqing Xujian Yibian (Second Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities) listed bronzes kept in the Mukden Palace in Shenyang. Together, these catalogues documented a total of 4,105 objects and are the most comprehensive official catalogues of their kind, known as "the Four Catalogues of Xiqing" or "Qianlong's Four Catalogues."

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Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities). Edited by Liang Shizheng (1697-1763) and others The Wuying Palace woodblock-printed edition, 1755© National Palace Museum.

Careful Delineation and Modelling - The Classification and Documentation of Bronzes

The manufacture and use of bronzes were prevalent during the Shang and the Zhou dynasties. The collecting, cataloguing, and studying of them, however, emerged in Song China. Means to document a bronze object include taking measurements, record the inscription with tracing copies or rubbings, and delineating the shape. To know a vessel begins with matching its specific name to the shape. The Song catalogues, for instance, were arranged typologically to serve their illustration purpose.

In Qianlong's Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities (Xiqing Gujian, d.1755), bronze vessel types in name have been expanded to seventy, providing archaic references for other mediums to adapt. Drawing on prior scholarship, exhibits are organized typologically here to show how individual vessel form varies chronologically and geographically.

The name of bronze vessel

Every type of bronze vessels has its own name, and it will change according to the different understandings of the bronze. Take gui vessels as an example, it was named "dui" or "yi" from the Song to Qing dynasty. After the epigraphists identified the word "  " from the inscription as "gui" in the literature, and distinguish it from "yi" in the Jiaqing period (1796-1820), the name of this bronze type was finally confirmed.

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Gui food container with dragon design on a square base, Early Western Zhou period, c. 11th-10th century BCE. Documented in Ningshou Jiangu (Illustrated Catalogue of the Ningshou Antiquities), vol. 11, p. 21. © National Palace Museum.

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Gui food container of Shi Huan Fu, Late Western Zhou period, c. 9th century-771 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Xujian Yibian (Second Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 12, p. 29. © National Palace Museum.

Function and form

The yi vessels entered the bronze repertory during the late Western Zhou period, replacing the he vessels as water ewers and were often used in conjunction with the pan basin. The animal-shaped lid, was probably adapted from the gong vessels. The intertwined developments of the two types, one succeeding another, resulted in their confusion in later bronze catalogues from the Song to the Qing periods.

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He spouted ewer dedicated to Father Ding, Late Shang dynasty, c. 13th to 11th century BCE. Documented in Ningshou Jiangu (Illustrated Catalogue of the Ningshou Antiquities), vol. 12, p. 41© National Palace Museum.

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Yi pouring vessel of Fu Shu, Late Western Zhou period, c. 9th century-771 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Xujian Yibian (Second Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 14, p. 41© National Palace Museum.

Line drawing illustration

Inlaid with copper, the vessel is decorated with seven layers of patterns from the mouth to the bottom of the belly, across which a motif of double triangles serves as further division, forming an overall grid pattern. From top to bottom, there are two layers of phoenix patterns, four layers of unicorn patterns, and the lowest layer is realistic deer patterns.

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Hu jar with copper-inlaid decoration of birds and animals, Warring States period (475-221 BCE). Documented in Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 21, p. 13. © National Palace Museum.

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Illustration from Xiqing Gujian, vol. 21, p. 13. 

Bronze ware as an example

Following the example of bronzes was the way that Emperor Qianlong advocated in order not to be conventional. The forms they mainly copy from were ding, zun and hu. The materials include jade, bamboo carving, and cloisonné enamel.

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Hu jar with tubular handles and animal mask design, Late Shang dynasty, c. 13th to 11th century BCE. Documented in Xiqing Xujian Yibian (Second Supplement to Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 5, p. 34© National Palace Museum.

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Carved bamboo vessel in the form of archaic bronze hu jar with tubular handles and animal mask design, Qing dynasty (1644-1911). © National Palace Museum. 

Erudition Acquired from the Past - Bronze Assemblages Understood and Recreated

To reinstate ritual practices, Emperor Qianlong once reassembled the bronzes as sacrificial vessels to be used at the Confucian Temple in the National Academy. Recent advancement in scholarship has transformed our understanding of bronzes tremendously. Rather than focusing on single pieces, a discussion on sets offers better access to patrons' status and circumstances. By reading inscriptions on bronze among Qianlong's court collections, we can identify objects from the same clan or commissioned by the same patron and associating them with excavated examples. As time goes by, a bronze object has been transferred from historical sites, court collection to modern museum. It accumulated layers of history not only of its own but of different times.

Ritual vessels of Guozijian

The Guozijian (National Academy) was the central administration for educational institutions in premodern China. As Emperor Qianlong emphasized the reformation of rites in the Guozijian, he ordered sacrificial vessels made of wood and ceramic be replaced with bronze ones in the 14th year of his reign (1749), and appointed Fu Heng, the Grand Secretariat, to renovate the Temple of Confucius in the Guozijian in the 33rd year (1768). When the renovation was completed in the next year, Emperor Qianlong selected ten bronze vessels of the Zhou dynasty—in tribute to Confucius—from the imperial collection and placed them in the Dacheng Hall of the Temple of Confucius as ritual vessels, known collectively as Zhoufan shiqi (Ten exemplary vessels of the Zhou).

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Xi washing basin, Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 16. © National Palace Museum.

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Animal-shaped zun wine vessel inlaid with malachite and turquoise, Mid-Warring States period (375-276 BCE). Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 5© National Palace Museum.

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Square ding cauldron of the Marquis of Kang, Early Western Zhou dynasty, c. 11th-10th century BCE. Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 3 © National Palace Museum.

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You wine vessel with swing handle of Nei-yan, Southern Song to Ming dynasty, 12th-17th century. Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 6. © National Palace Museum.

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Jue wine vessel with Zi emblem, Late Shang dynasty, c. 13th-12th century BCE. Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 15. © National Palace Museum.

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Gu wine beaker with animal mask design, Southern Song to Ming dynasty, 12th-17th century. Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 14. © National Palace Museum.

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Gold and silver-inlaid hu jar with cloud décor, Southern Song to Ming dynasty, 12th-17th century. Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 9. © National Palace Museum.

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Fu rectangular grain vessel inlaid of Shao Zhong, Southern Song to Ming dynasty, 12th-17th century. Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 10. © National Palace Museum.

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Lei wine vessel with whorl design, Late Shang to Early Western Zhou dynasty, c. 12th-10th century BCE. Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 8. © National Palace Museum.

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Gui food container of Grand Preceptor Wang, Southern Song to Ming dynasty, 12th-17th century. Documented in Qinding Guozijian Zhi (Imperially Endorsed Records of the Guozijian), vol. 46, p. 12. © National Palace Museum.

Bronze assemblage in archaeological perspective Ⅰ

"" is an emblem of a clan in the late Shang period, generally reading as "Ya Chou." More than a hundred bronze objects inscribed with Ya Chou emblem are extant, most of which documented in the illustrated catalogues of Emperor Qianlong. Several Ya Chou objects have been unearthed at Subutun, in Shandong province, where the Ya Chou clan cemetery was probably located. The highest-ranking tomb there might belong to a local military chieftain from the Shang. 

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Square zun wine vessel of Zhe Hou with Ya Chou emblem, Late Shang period, c. 12th-11th century BCE. Documented in Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 8, p. 35 © National Palace Museum.

Bronze assemblage in archaeological perspective Ⅱ

The Rui state was a polity ruled by a lineage of the Ji clan during the Zhou period. A Count of Rui was known for his assistance during the reign of King Kang of Zhou (1005/3-978 BCE). Based on inscriptions and stylistic features, a group of early Spring Autumn period (770-671 BCE) vessels, including ding, gui, hu, and chime bell, have been identified as objects commissioned by a Duke of Rui. The bronzes commissioned by Duke Huan of Rui, found in Liangdaicun, Hancheng, in Shaanxi province, however, belonged to his descendants.

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Ding cauldron of the Duke of Rui, Early Spring and Autumn period, 770-671 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 2, p. 8. © National Palace Museum.

Gui food container of the Duke of Rui, Early Spring and Autumn period, 770-671 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 6, p. 1. © National Palace Museum.

Gui food container of the Duke of Rui, Early Spring and Autumn period, 770-671 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 27, p. 9. © National Palace Museum.

Hu jar of the Duke of Rui, Early Spring and Autumn period, 770-671 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 9, p. 4. © National Palace Museum.

Chime bell of the Duke of Rui Early Spring and Autumn period, 770-671 BCE. Documented in Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of the Xiqing Antiquities), vol. 36, p. 6. © National Palace Museum.