For centuries, imperial rituals had been an integral part of Chinese society, often serving to legitimise the emperor’s ‘Mandate of Heaven’. The Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty resolved to standardise and reinforce imperial state ritual practices. He not only restored and expanded the altars and temple buildings where ceremonies were conducted, he also instigated a commission to detail the paraphernalia such occasions required to demonstrate Manchu authority. This imperial commission produced the Illustrated Compendium of Ceremonial Paraphernalia for State Rituals (shortened hereinafter as Illustrated Regulations). The Illustrated Regulations, under the personal direction of the Qianlong emperor, documents ritual utensils and vessels, formal dresses, jewelries, musical instruments, weapons, insignia, summaries of the altars and temples at which state ritual was conducted, the quantity of each ritual vessel form required at each location and other paraphernalia necessary for the highly complex imperial state ritual practice, in approximately 1,300 coloured illustrations with accompanying text.
In stark contrast to sumptuous Qing court art, Qing ritual vessels were made primarily of glazed porcelains after ancient bronzes. The Illustrated Regulations describes eight main types of Qing imperial ceramic vessel for state rituals, with each type varying in size and intricacy of decoration. The form, scale and character of Qing ritual banquets established hierarchies of special vessels in terms of quantity and glazed colour, offering foods appropriate to the altars and temples involved. The archaistic Qing vessels were arranged symmetrically and filled with a wide range of prescribed foodstuffs, thereby enhancing the solemn atmosphere and ensuring the proper execution of the rites. As such, these objects were of utmost significance in activating state rituals during the Qing period.
With the generous donations of Qing ritual vessels by Dr. Iain Clark and Mr. Anthony K. W. Cheung, the Art Museum has not only enriched its collection but can also boast the largest repository of Qing ritual vessels outside of the Palace Museum. The exhibition showcases over 60 items of Qing ritual vessels and a Blue silk dragon robe, Jifu. The ritual vessels displayed are rare examples of ritual vessels specified in the Illustrated Regulations. While the exhibition focuses on the colourful ceramic forms, bronze and lacquer examples are also included. The ceramic vessels show the five ritual colours, only one of which was stipulated for the twelve most important state altars and temples in Beijing. While thousands of The Illustrated Regulations vessels were produced and used at state ritual altars and temples in Beijing between 1748 and 1911, few have survived to the present day. Now, for the first time, this exhibition gives us a glimpse of the part such vessels played in creating solemnity and magnificence for the ceremonies where Qing emperors offered prayers for blessings and guidance, and the wellbeing of their Chinese empire.
Admission is free and all are welcome.