'Superlative Examples of the Genre' in “Emperors' Treasures”

One of the most visited objects in the National Palace Museum of Taipei is a little carving made of jasper, with a gold stand depicting waves and lotus blossoms. The delicate carving, the Qing dynasty’s Meat-shaped stone depicts a piece of pork belly, which has inspired 12 Bay Area chefs, including Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s, Dennis Lee of Namu Gaji, and Michelle Mah of The Slanted Door to create their own take on it.

Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu says it’s fitting that this object is featured for the museum’s new exhibition, Emperors’ Treasures, organized in partnership with the Taiwanese museum, and showcasing more than150 masterworks of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qian dynasties.

“Food, like art, is a way to share culture,” Xu said.

[jump] This year is the Asian Art Museum’s 50th anniversary of sharing culture, and this show includes paintings, jades, ceramics, textiles and calligraphy, organized around nine rulers- eight emperors and one empress – from the 12th through the early 20th century, illustrating how the rulers’ tastes and preferences influenced Chinese art over 800 years.

Xu calls the show a special one, the best of the best of the four dynasties. It’s an opportunity to see some of the National Palace Museum’s collection, which rarely leaves Taiwan – it hasn’t been in North America for two decades about about half the works have never been seen outside Asia. 

“These are superlative examples of the genre,” Xu said. “They show the enduring power of the emperors’ tastes to shape a country’s attitudes about art for generations.”

The exhibition is so important to Xu that, like the rulers who took time from their administrative duties to collect or create their own art, he curated “Emperors’ Treasures” with He Li, the associate curator of Chinese art at the museum.

The artwork in the show consists of things like belt ornaments, a vase with floral pattern or a porcelain wine cups –object emperors kept for personal pleasure, not like the big public displays of power of the pharaohs or kings. The exhibition, Xu said, is designed to engage viewers and to humanize the emperors.
Walking through the exhibition, which Xu pointed out is called Emperors’ Tastes in Chinese, the museum director showed off some of his favorite pieces. “Let’s meet an emperor,” he said, leading the way to Song Emperor Huizong’s “Grotesque Stones,” done in the “slender-gold style,” he created, which is still recognized today. Writing is so important to the Chinese, Xu said, that this is a kind of portrait, telling more about the person than a picture of their face.
Another object Xu has a fondness for is Emperor Chengua’s little cup with a chicken design from the Ming Dynasty, famous for its porcelain. On white porcelain, the cup shows two chicken families of a hen, a rooster and chicks, using red, blue, yellow and green. The cup is extremely rare, Xu said, and elegant while being homey and humble at the same time.

Xu also took a moment to brag about his staff’s abilities when pointing out a jade belt set decorated with dragons, flowers and fish. The belt plaques have been displayed so the shadow of these figures in clearly  visible in the case below.

Then there’s a plaque that belonged to Emperor Yongzheng, from the Qing Dynasty. Xu said Yongzheng was temperamental and his father Emperor Kangxi told him to “heed rashness and use perseverance.” He had this displayed on the plaque with enamel inlays. A little more patience is something we could all use, Xu said – from emperors to museum directors.

Xu called Emperor Qianlong, also of the Qing Dynasty, an egomaniac. I guess if you give yourself the nickname, “Old Man of Ten Perfections,” that’s a fair characterization. Qianlong, a painter, tea master, poet, and calligrapher, never met a piece of artwork that he didn’t want to carve on or inscribe, making him a sort of extremely refined tagger. And what did he love to do in those rare moments of downtime? Play with the treasure box with 44 objects that is on display.

“He was an emperor and like a really cultured child,” Xu said. “He liked to play scholarly games with little toys.”

In the final room of Emperors’ Treasures, there is some of Empress Dowager Cixi’s collection. She was a big fan of porcelain, and auspicious symbols. The wish- granting wand in this room is covered with fruiting peach trees, mushrooms, bamboo, bats and narcissus- all good luck symbols. Also on display are some decorative belts, headdresses, bracelets, necklaces, and some real serious looking fingernail guards.

This room also holds the fabled pork belly carving, which attracts thousands of visitors a day in Taiwan, Xu says. Why is it so popular? It’s a prime example, he says, of relating works of art to everyday experiences.

Emperors’ Treasures, through September 18, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. Free-$20. 415-581-3500.

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