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The Forbidden City comes to Oakland

Imperial treasures revealed at the Oakland Museum of California

By Julie D. Soo

After eight years of negotiations, the Oakland Museum of California was one of three sites in the United States selected by the Chinese government to host Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors from China's Imperial Palace , a major exhibition of art objects and imperial possessions never before exhibited in North America and many of which were previously entombed in storage vaults and unseen in China. On display now through January 24, 2001 at the Oakland Museum, the exhibition is a rare glimpse of the opulence and heritage of the Chinese Imperial Court under the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911.

Before the exhibition, Chinese artifacts on display in the U.S. were mainly archaeological in nature or from Taiwan's National Palace Museum, whose collection of imperial Chinese artifacts, seized from the Beijing palace by fleeing nationalists, was until now considered the best.

Dr. Janet Baker, former curator at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Southern California and now Curator of Asian Art at the Phoenix Art Museum, was one of the key players in bringing the exhibit to the United States. She has traveled and lived in China over the past two decades to study imperial treasures.

This exhibit is unique in that the artifacts are one of a kind, Baker said.

Located in the heart of Beijing near Tiananmen Square, the 180-acre imperial court encircled by a moat and a 32-foot wall was for centuries a mysterious and secretive place. Popularly known as the Forbidden City, it was built during the Ming Dynasty in the early 1400s. A sequence of palaces containing 999 buildings and 9,999 rooms, with courtyards and fortified walls, makes the Forbidden City the largest palatial complex in the world. (The number nine in Chinese represents longevity.)

Today, most of the palace is still off limits. Because of limited resources, buildings that housed the imperial householdartisans, guards, concubines and eunuchsare locked and untended. Only in the last decade, as China's relations with the West have improved, have portions of the Forbidden City collection been lent to smaller exhibitions, starting in Paris and Amsterdam.

Historically, only the members of the imperial household and invited guests were allowed into the Forbidden City, but the works of art and cultural artifacts indicate an early exchange of cultural and intellectual endeavors. For example, from Europe came a gilt copper manual calculator that uses cogwheels to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi. After missionaries introduced it to Kangxi, he mastered its use.

The Qing Dynasty Emperors represent a pinnacle of achievement in the history of China. Their long period of rule (1644-1911) encompassed several outstanding emperors, most notably Kangxi (1662-1722) and his grandson Qianlong (1736-1795), whose long reigns marked great eras in the expansion of the Chinese empire, the patronage of the arts and interaction with European diplomats and missionaries. Intellectual and scientific developments flourished during these periods of economic and political stability.

The Emperor Kangxi is justly regarded as the Louis XIV or Sun King of China, being highly educated and accomplished in the arts and sciences, and possessing enormous intellectual curiosity. In court, the presence of a few privileged foreign scientists and mathematicians was tolerated so as to satisfy the Emperor's thirst for knowledge.

In turn, this great dynasty was adept at balancing military might and diplomatic skills. During these years, Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama were patronized by China.

By the late Qing Dynasty, the empire was besieged by threats from both within and outside its borders. The twilight rule of the Last Emperor Xuantong (Puyi), immortalized in Bertolucci's Oscar-winning film, was a tragic one in terms of China's position in world affairs as well as domestic upheavals. It marked the conclusion of thousands of years of imperial rule and the beginnings of revolution in the modern age. However, within the walls of the forbidden city, the Last Emperor had a sheltered childhood. Puyi, who ascended to the throne at age three, was given a bicycle by his British tutor, Reginald Johnston. He became an enthusiastic cyclist, riding around the closed world of the Imperial Palace, where he had gaps cut into the high thresholds so that he could ride through doorways unimpeded. He also cherished a cricket cage for his pet crickets and an ornate music box.

Such was the life of privileged royalty. Yet, to the modern viewer, the sense of luxury is tempered with the human quality of personal artifacts.

A representative model of the Forbidden City's layout gives visitors a perspective of the overwhelming scale of imperial life during China's dynastic era. Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors from China's Imperial Palace showcases over 350 artifacts, including works of gold, silver, gems, jade, precious woods, silks and inlaid metals. Also on display are paintings and portraits of the emperors and their courtiers, ceramics, ceremonial furniture and ornate embroidered robes and jewelry.

Many of the rare objects on view are contents of the throne room, or Hall of Supreme Harmony, where great affairs of state were conducted and foreign dignitaries were received. Visitors to the exhibition will enter a world of ceremony and ritual, birth and death, banquets and processions, all revolving around the Emperor, who served as Supreme Authority in an unquestionable family hierarchy and sanctified power structure. The works on view are organized around eight themes dealing with the public and private life of the emperors, empresses, court officials and concubines. These include: Affairs of StateThe Throne Room; The Emperor as a ScholarThe Study Room; The Imperial Dining Room; The Emperor's Bedroom; Imperial Dress; Religion in the Forbidden City; Arms and Armor of the Emperor; and The Emperor at Leisure.

Greg Chew, DAE Interactive Marketing's creative director who is working with the Oakland Museum on this historic exhibit, hopes that the well-publicized Last Emperor Puyi will help draw the younger crowd to Secret World of the Forbidden City .

The displays are right out of the pages of an emperor's life. The exhibit is themed like the Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood, exclaimed Chew. But, instead of Peter Fonda's motorcycle or Elvis' guitar, we have Puyi's bicycle.

The exhibition's goal is to reflect people rather than mere objects.

We have identified subject matter to reflect the diverse population of California and of the Bay Area, said Dr. Dennis Power, executive director of the Oakland Museum of California, of California's large Asian population. It is a precursor of things to come. No longer will there be just art exhibits, but a reflection of California's people.




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