I had a free afternoon after lunching with a friend in Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong and I was within walking distance from the Hong Kong Museum of Art. It had been a long time since I last visited the museum and from afar, I could see two banners on the wall of the museum advertising an exhibition of the treasures of Emperor Qianlong and an art exhibition of modern Chinese artist Feng Zikai.
Emperor Qinalong of the Qing Dynasty enjoyed a long reign of over 60 years. The country was prosperous in his times and QianLong was reputed for his love for fine arts. The title of the exhibition was A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Quanlong. (Red Dust is a literal translation in Chinese. It means the noisy secular world.) This title was taken from part of a poem written by the emperor himself.
The exhibits were on loan from the Palace Museum for the first time outside of China. Little was known about this Garden that Qianlong built for himself at the northeastern corner of the Forbidden City.
In the pamphlet handed out and display in the entrance hall of the exhibition, there was a map of the “Secret Garden”. There were photos of individual buildings in the garden. A digital portrait of Qianlong continuously display the morphing of the emperor from a young person to his senior years.
I was disappointed that there was not a model of the Garden. However, this was compensated by graphic displays of the various architectural styles of the roofs, the arches, doorways and some floor plans. I liked the paintings depicting the family life of the emperor and his children. His collection of artifacts, ranging from his tea set, his pencil cases, carved screens, furniture to a clock manufactured in Europe were also part of the exhibits. His taste apparently was eclectic. The exhibition succeeded in presenting Qianlong as a family man and an avid art collector of all kinds of curios.
Furthermore, his affinity for the Han culture was reflected by his dressing up his Han costumes in many paintings.
The exhibition provided a good audio-visual presentation on the life of Qianlong in general, and how specifically the artifacts were reproduced or restored by the present government. Although it sounded remarkable, for example, how a search team went out to look for embroiders in Suzhou and some 200 of them were recruited to reproduce the embroidery for the cushions on the Emperor’s chair, I could not help feeling sad that a lot of China’s national treasures had been lost or destroyed in a recent page of the country’s history under the same government. If now, why then? I asked myself. I wonder if there is an answer.