Story of an Imperial Brand Name

The Collection and Packaging Aesthetics of the Qing Emperor Qianlong

By National Palace Museum

Yu Zhi Shi Chu Ji (Imperial Poem, volume 1) (1749) by GaozongNational Palace Museum

The Qianlong emperor possessed a variety of treasures. In addition to his role of attending to state affairs, he constantly collected, researched, arranged, and organized his art collection. Each artwork was stored in custom-made cases, the production of which gave rise to new creations with contemporary Qing dynasty characteristics.

The achievements of the Qianlong emperor correspond to the modern concepts of product innovation and branding. Therefore, it might be fruitful to reconsider the connection between new styles produced in the eighteenth century and the original imperial collection through the lens of the creation of Qianlong’s own brand. The remarkable storage methods used at the time also exemplify the art of packaging and artistic creativity. 

Two-layered carved lacquer box with eight deities decoration (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

This exhibition intends to reflect on modern branding trends, stimulate creativity by exploring packaging from the eighteenth century, and reconsider the way the imperial collection reflected the emperor’s image by studying how the emperor established his individual brand.

Square red sandalwood curio box with carved dragon decoration (contains 44 curio pieces) (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Chapter I: Open the Treasure Box

The Qianlong emperor possessed a variety of treasures. The collection consisted of inherited heirlooms from past dynasties, goods brought in by foreign diplomatic envoys, and local artworks offered as tribute by provincial ministers. The abundant and vast imperial collection was enriched by its diversity. Just like you and me in the present, the emperor Qianlong stored his collections in boxes. The boxes storing his selected treasures are called “Hundred-item” curio boxes. What is inside a “Hundred-item” curio box? Open it, and discover a plethora of treasures and infinite possibilities.       

Square red sandalwood curio box with carved dragon decoration (contains 44 curio pieces) (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Square red sandalwood curio box with carved dragon decoration
Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign (1736-1795)    

This two-tiered curio box contains 44 curios. The upper tier, which is decorated with calligraphy and paintings, holds jades; the bottom tier contains various artworks including porcelains, jades, calligraphy, paintings, Japanese lacquerware, and Western snuff bottles.

The upper tier, decorated with calligraphy and paintings, holds jades.

The bottom tier contains various artworks including porcelains, jades, calligraphy, paintings, Japanese lacquerware, and Western snuff bottles.

Square red sandalwood curio box with carved dragon decoration (contains 44 curio pieces) (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The artworks are divided by separating plates, and a “Collective treasures” curio shelf for display can also be found inside. The ingenious space design, decorative methods, and use of materials all contribute to make this piece representative of the “hundred-item” curio box during the Qianlong reign.  

Imperial writing by Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing dynasty (AD 1796-AD 1820) by Emperor JiaqingNational Palace Museum

Intriguingly, imperial writings by the Jiaqing emperor, the Qianlong emperor’s successor, were also stored inside the box. Their presence suggests that this curio box was reassembled and added to by Jiaqing's imperial court. This curio box reveals a unique tradition in which the Qing court placed great attention on compiling and organizing historical relics and passed them down across generations.

Bi disk, with wood frame stand made in Qianlong reign, Qing dynasty (c. 3 millennium B.C.E.) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Chapter II: Beloved Antiques

The rich collection enabled the emperor to explore ancient texts, identify relics, and demonstrate his connoisseurship on various types of antiques, calligraphic works, and paintings. The emperor enjoyed clarifying the context of artwork production, including discoveries into imperial rituals, or even expressing personal opinions through poems. Marks of the emperor's connoisseurship are visible on many artworks. This collection of art reveals the emperor's attention to the "past "and his intention to connect with the ancients. In doing so, he reconstructed a historical trace bridging the past and the present.            

Bi disk, with wood frame stand made in Qianlong reign, Qing dynasty (c. 3 millennium B.C.E.) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Bi Disk

Qijia culture, c. 3 millennium B.C.E.
In ancient times bi disks were ritual objects used to praise the heavens, and represented ultimate authority.     

Bi disk, with wood frame stand made in Qianlong reign, Qing dynasty (c. 3 millennium B.C.E.) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Qianlong emperor showed particular interest in this piece, for which he wrote two poems. The poems indicate that he paid great attention to the work’s texture, color, style, and especially its time period. He argued against the general assumption that the disk was made in the Han dynasty, instead suggesting that it was created during the time between the Yu and the Xia dynasties.

Zi Su Bell (7th-6th Century BC) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Zhutaizai Bell

Spring and Autumn period, 770-476 B.C.E.
(with red sandalwood frame made in Qianlong reign, Qing dynasty)

Imperial poems and seal stamps were often marked on jade wares and porcelains favoured by the Qianlong emperor. However, when it came to bronze works, the solid nature of the metal made it hard to engrave. 

As a result, the Qianlong emperor instead had his opinions carved on the artifact’s wooden stand. The imperial poem was placed on the head plate of the stand, and the Qianlong emperor as well as eight ministers contributed verses praising the bell.

Imperial ink stick, with lacquer case (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Chapter III: Adored Precious

The Qianlong emperor treasured his possessions dearly. A variety of packaging boxes custom made for each artwork was consistently produced, generating the beautiful and unique art of packaging culture. The intricate details and meticulous patterns on the tapestry demonstrate that the emperor’s appreciation and connoisseurship derived from his love and repeated examinations of his collection—hence the myriad forms of packaging that served the functions of decoration, display, and storage.              

Yu Zhi Shi Chu Ji (Imperial Poem, volume 1), Gaozong, 1749, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Vase with bat-shaped handles and white plum-blossom decoration on a blue glaze ground, Anonymous, 1622/1722, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Ice-Plum-Blossom Pattern

The ice-plum-blossom pattern symbolizes integrity, and was popularized in the late Ming to early Qing dynasties. During the Qianlong reign, the emperor issued several imperial edicts to produce paper painted with the ice-plum-blossom pattern, and the pattern can also be seen on copper wares with painted enamels. These examples demonstrate that the ice-plum-blossom was an official pattern approved by Qianlong's court.

Red sandalwood curio box with bamboo-veneered decoration (contains 23 curios pieces and calligraphy album and painting scroll) (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Red Sandalwood Curio Box with Bamboo-veneered Decoration
(containing 23 curios pieces, calligraphy albums and painting scrolls)
Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign (1736-1795)

This curio box best demonstrates the ingenuity of craftsmanship and the imperial display of curios during the Qianlong reign.   

Red sandalwood curio box with bamboo-veneered decoration (contains 23 curios pieces and calligraphy album and painting scroll) (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Each differently sized space in the curio box is accordingly fitted with a jade work. The asymmetric bamboo and sandalwood grids were created with refined skill.   

Dual sack-shaped lacquer container with bamboo and grass decoration (contains 5 jade pieces, and Emperor Qianlong's imperial calligraphy album and painting scroll) (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Dual Sack-shaped Lacquer Container with Bamboo and Grass Decoration
(containing 5 jade pieces, and Emperor Qianlong's imperial calligraphy album and painting scroll)
Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign (1736-1795)

Japanese lacquer boxes were used in various packaging of the Qing court. Antiques were stored within a variety of lacquer boxes.

Dual sack-shaped lacquer container with bamboo and grass decoration (contains 5 jade pieces, and Emperor Qianlong's imperial calligraphy album and painting scroll) (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

This lacquer container has two tiers and features dividing plates and tapestry cushions to store artworks. The jade wares were separated by wood-based plates and stored on the upper layer, with plates decorated with Western figures in falangcai enamel paint. Albums of painting and calligraphy by the Qianlong emperor were placed in the bottom layer of the box.

Ten Imperial Inscription of Agricultural Implements by Gaozong (AD1644-AD1911) by Xu YangNational Palace Museum

Chapter IV: The Brand of Qianlong

The Qianlong Emperor frequently expressed his opinions through imperial writing and poetry, and consciously kept records of identification and restoration during the process of advanced maintenance. Through examinations of inherited works, we can see the repeated use of "tapestry with repeated-octagon patterns" to remount calligraphic works and paintings, and numerous examples of works bearing the engraved seal of the Qianlong emperor. Close examination reveals that many works produced during Qianlong's reign were based on copies of the Qing court’s original collection. The recurring seal of the Qianlong emperor reflects his ambition to build a new brand name.       

Letter (AD 960-AD 1279) by Cai Xiang (1012-1067)National Palace Museum

Paper of Cheng Xin Studio

This work was created by Cai Xiang (1012-1067, Song dynasty) in regular script. The fluency of Cai’s writing gives a sense of modesty to this excellent work of calligraphy. With its smooth surface and resilient quality, Paper of Cheng Xin Studio is believed to have been made by the imperial court of the Southern Tang dynasty. According to the Treasured Book of the Stone, this piece of paper was not considered to be Cheng Xin Studio paper, indicating that the Qing court held different opinions regarding this work.

Chicken cup in doucai painted enamels (1465/1487) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Chicken Cups in Doucai Painted Enamels

Ming dynasty, Chenghua reign (1465-1487)

This set of two chicken cups from the Chenghua reign (1465-1487, Ming dynasty) came with openwork wood cases made under the authorization of the Qianlong emperor. An imperial poem written in the 41st year of the Qianlong reign (1776) was carved on the case, which documents the journey of the emperor’s connoisseurship. The numbering system produced by the 'Inventory committee of the Qing court' suggests that the cups were originally stored in a curios box located in the Yangxin Hall of the Forbidden City.

Dou-cai Cup with Chickens (Cheng-hua Reign (1465), Ming Dynasty (1638-1644) - Cheng-hua Reign (1487), Ming Dynasty (1638-1644)) by UnknownNational Palace Museum

According to the Archives of the Imperial Workshops (Huojidang), the seal mark refers to the  "bingsheng" year (1776). The record reveals that an imperial kiln located in Jiangxi Province produced copies of the chicken cups during the same year. 

Chicken cup in fencai painted enamels (1736/1795) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Chicken Cups in Fencai Painted Enamels

Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign (1736-1795)

When compared to the original chicken cups, the copies from the Qianlong reign feature a fuller shape and modified decoration. The motif of a child and chickens was inspired by the story "Jia Chang training fighting chicken” from the Tang dynasty. 

Chicken cup in doucai painted enamels (1465/1487) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The same imperial poem was carved on the wood cases of both the original cups and Qianlong's copies. Evidence suggests the possibility that the Qianlong emperor took inspiration from the old collection to create new artworks in various styles.

Imperial Poem (1736/1795)National Palace Museum

Yu Zhi Shi Ji (Imperial Poem)

The portraits featured on the opening page of the Imperial Poems (volumes 1, 2 and 3) were completed when Emperor Qianlong was presumably 39, 49 and 61 years old, respectively. These years were the most accomplished and glorious of the Qianlong reign. Royal portraits shaped not only the public image of the emperor, but also subtly concealed the intention of building up a brand or style for the emperor.

Royal portraits shaped not only the public image of the emperor, but also subtly concealed the intention of building up a brand or style for the emperor.

Imperial Poem, 1736/1795, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Imperial Poem, 1736/1795, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Left: Portrait of 49-year-old Emperor Qianlong; Right: Portrait of 61-year-old Emperor Qianlong

Story of a Brand Name - Gallery displayNational Palace Museum

Credits: Story

Curatorial Team: Pei-chin Yu, Hsiao-yun Wu, Yi-li Hou, Yan-chiuan He, Yuan-ting Hsu, Sun-hsin Hung, Hui-Hsien Lin, Li-Chun Chen

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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