Sunday, January 24, 2010

Emperor Qianlong’s legacy of small art treasures ready to delight in a new TV documentary

By Nancy T. Lu

Only an emperor in an era of peace and prosperity could have afforded the luxury of the rare and exclusive “toys” of great beauty and refinement in equally fascinating treasure chests, now all in the safekeeping of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Only a great lover of the fine arts who had the best artisans and most ingenious craftsmen of the land at his beck and call could have ordered the creation or reproduction of the impressive objets d’art in totally scaled-down miniature size for his private enjoyment and appreciation in the Forbidden City of Imperial China.

At long last, however, the legendary miniature curios not easy to see and appreciate in detail with the naked eye are ready to be viewed up close in a new Franco-Taiwanese documentary titled “The Emperor’s Treasure Chests” or “Les Coffrets a Tresors de l’Empereur de Chine.”

Arte France, Public Television Service (PTS) and Novoprod OWL have collaborated in cooperation with the National Palace Museum to produce the full-length film scheduled to have its Asian premiere telecast on the PTS channel at 10 p.m. on January 29.

Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong stood out in Chinese history for seeking to cultivate and satisfy his sense of beauty through extensive art acquisition and collection during his 60-year reign in the 18th century. In his lifetime, he amassed more than enough art treasures to fill a modern-day museum. Treasure chests or so-called “drawers of 10,000 objects” storing miniature art items of great value constituted just a portion of what he left behind.

His revealing or concealing curio boxes of jade, lacquer, sandalwood and bamboo have marvelous and ornate external features like carved dragon patterns all over or a lid design full of crafted auspicious symbols using precious materials like jade, coral, and ivory. The intricately designed containers and their priceless contents, in fact, are some of the reasons explaining the endless daily crowds of curious visitors at the National Palace Museum.

Images from the film which took about two years to produce zero in on a priceless and awe-inspiring cultural legacy. Items are introduced in succession against a background of the historical development of the arts and crafts like pottery as well as lacquerware in Imperial China. The traditional occupations requiring special skills are still continued to this day.

Famous ancient carver Chen Zu-zhang in 1737 transformed an olive pith into a miniature boat with eight passengers in different natural poses. Underneath the boat he etched over three hundred words of poetry by Su Dong-po about river ride at Red Cliff. The fruit pith masterpiece measures 1.6 centimeters high and 3.4 centimeters long. Its inclusion in the documentary concludes with a glimpse of a present-day Taiwanese miniaturist painstakingly carving a very tiny boat out of an olive pith.

French director Alain Jaubert’s professional team admitted that the task of filming Emperor Qianlong’s tiny toys was very challenging because of their incredible size. As a last resort after a month-and-a half of shooting under controlled lighting condition at the museum, they requested digital pictures of high resolutions from the National Palace Museum for back-up use during the final editing of the documentary in Paris.

To watch the film is to be greeted with endless surprises. Treasure chests open in different ways to delight through previously unimaginable revelations. Each cavity, never left hollow, has to hold something small, beautiful and special.

A bamboo container designed to keep tiny curios looks initially like a holder of paraphernalia in an ancient scholar’s study. Parts, however, can be flipped open 180 degrees, transforming it into a folding screen. The museum display piece can also be turned around 360 degrees to make a square-shaped chest with many compartments.

This Qing Dynasty box of great ingenuity in design is only 24.5 centimeters high and it stretches to show a length of 18.5 centimeters. Inside is a little cylinder which can turn 360 degrees. No less than 27 “toys,”including a really rare portrait painting album of only 3 centimeters as well as scroll paintings of only 7 centimeters, are kept.

Another square curio chest has tiny windows of different shapes which seem to frame copied paintings of Yuan Dynasty masters and imitated calligraphic works of Sung Dynasty masters. The windows can be slided to flip open the four hinged parts of the box like a fan. The box with a length of 25 centimeters, a width of 25 centimeters and a height of 21 centimeters has very small compartments revealing a total of 30 treasures. Even the base has secret storage space for more miniature items.

A dark sandalwood container opens to show 12 jade Chinese zodiac animals forming a circle. In the middle is a very small book of poetry written by Emperor Qianlong but copied by his son.

The documentary attempts to reconstruct an ancient lifestyle of the highest class and privilege through paintings from the collection of the National Palace Museum. Without doubt, Emperor Qianlong lived life to the fullest.

All photographs except the close-up picture of the tiny boat from the National Palace Museum are courtesy of the Public Television Service (PTS). Visit for more information on the documentary to air on the PTS channel at 10 p.m. on January 29.


  1. Have you tried dumplings and roast ducks? They are the famous and traditional Beijing dieshes. And also bird's nest soup? Its a delicacy in China.

    Enjoy your days~~~