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VA museum gets Imperial 'Palace' exhibit

The entrance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' "Forbidden City" exhibit, October 15, 2014
The entrance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' "Forbidden City" exhibit, October 15, 2014 McClatchy

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond has scored a “Palace” coup.

Or at least got hold of some impressive Chinese treasures.

The museum is playing host to the exhibit “Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing” through Jan. 11, 2015.

This is the royal life in China at its most opulent. Here hairpins have green jade butterflies, scrolls decipher a gentle and courtly life behind closed doors and even a humble wine cup is made of gold, colorful enamel and pearls. This world ended in a revolution in 1924.

Beijing’s Forbidden City was the home to the two Chinese dynasties and 24 emperors. The exhibit pulls its displays from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1420-1924). The Qing hailed from northern China, Manchuria, and replaced the Ming dynasty in 1644.

Among the exhibit’s treasures is a huge painting of the Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) decked out in an elaborate dress uniform and leather tasseled helmet. Nearby in a glass case is the actual helmet of lacquered cowhide bedecked with gold dragons, pearls, diamonds, and Sanskrit.

It was painted by a Westerner, the Italian Jesuit missionary, Guiseppe Castiglione or Lang Shining, who lived through three emperors. His paintings are marked by a mix of Chinese style and realism that shows the influences of Western culture seeping into China. He also immortalized Zizaiju, the Qianlong emperor’s horse.

Each of the exhibit’s four rooms has separate themes: rituals, arts, religion and paintings.

Every item has multiple symbolic meanings. Painted peonies and peaches in background a scroll of the Empress Dowager Cixi were symbols of good fortune and longevity. A pearl, red floss and feathered crown is topped with three phoenixes, according to the guidebook only “an empress dowager, an empress, or an imperial royal consort could wear a hat decorated with cat’s eye stones and a grouping of seven phoenixes and one zhi as featured in this crown.” The five-clawed dragon, exclusive to the Emperors, is everywhere.

In one room eight suits padded silk armor stand guard. Each one is a different color which signified which of the “Banner” divisions of the Manchurian Army the soldier belonged to – orange, white, red, blue, yellow, white edged with red, red edged with white and blue edged with red.

Another room is a carved red lacquer throne, matching lacquer screen, cloisonné copper incense burners and gold and blue carpet. The golden cushion was the only padding on what was likely a very hard seat.

The glory of the scroll of the Emperor Kangxi “Returning the Capital” (1695-1698) is available if you look up. The full 85.7-foot scroll was digitized so every inch can be seen.

Other treasures on display include a Qing Emperor’s jade seal, bows and arrows, musical instruments like the standing display of stone chimes, and an entire set of ritual bells, decorated with dragons, from 1713.

The last room devoted to religion includes a magnificent dark wood and white jade multi-paneled screen of sixteen “lohans”, followers of Buddha.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has created a scale model of the actual Forbidden City done on a 3-D printer hanging beside the entrance to the exhibit. They also teamed up with a local craft brewery to produce white ale with Asian dragon fruit “Forbidden Ale” with a flashy dragon label.

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“Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum Beijing”

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Richmond, Va., through Jan. 11, 2015

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