Lifting the veil over the Forbidden City

FORBIDDEN CITY, TREASURES OF AN EMPEROR. Royal Museum, Edinburgh. until September 15. tel 0131 247 4219.

For some, the words "forbidden city" may conjure up images of somewhere dark and sinister. For the ordinary Chinese, the Forbidden City of Beijing was a mysterious place shrouded in ritual, remote and forbidden in the sense that it was the exclusive reserve of the Emperor and his court.

Begun in 1406, this city within a city was the seat of imperial power for 500 years. Hidden behind a 10 metre high wall was the palace, temples, libraries and ornate landscaped gardens spread over an area the size of about 11 football pitches.

Now, the Forbidden City has become a museum - China's biggest and most prestigious - and its treasures can be seen by everyone. This summer at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh are objects and works of art never before shown in the UK.

Treasures of an Emperor concentrates on the life and collections of Qianlong, the fourth Qing dynasty emperor, who ruled China from 1735 to 1796 (the time of King George II and George III) and lived in the Forbidden City all his adult life. Although his father succeeded to the throne ominously - the elimination of possible rivals included members of his own family - Qianlong is presented as a benign ruler, though he greatly extended the borders of the empire, and China's greatest patron of the arts.

During Qianlong's reign, China was the wealthiest nation in the world. The imperial court attracted craftsmen and artists from all over, including Giuseppe Castiglione, a favourite of the emperor, who declared that the Italian painter had "no rival in the art of portraiture". The imperial collections expanded through commissions of numerous paintings, bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy and jade objects: the stone was more precious to the Chinese than gold and Qianlong ate from a jade bowl with jade chopsticks and used a jade comb.

The emphasis of the Edinburgh exhibition is, however, on the paintings. Approximately half of those on show are attributed to Castiglione; all of them were produced on paper or silk scrolls in traditional Chinese style.

A huge painting dating from 1755 depicts a Banquet in the Garden of Ten Thousand Trees. It shows dozens of guests, mostly dressed in blue robes, kneeling as the emperor and his entourage make their entrance. In the background is a tented kitchen and tidy stacks of what could be bamboo cooking baskets. (A lack of information about the paintings is a flaw of this exhibition.) The last of 12 scrolls in an ambitious series showing Qianlong's first inspection tour - the paintings were started in 1764 and took six years to complete - features the return of the emperor and his party to the Forbidden City. The emperor is seated for all to see on a portable throne, carried by 16 minions. Trailing in the background, and carried by eight servants, is a large box with a tiny observation window, presumably containing the empress or another woman of the imperial household. Once again, visitors are not told.

Other paintings include Qianlong stag hunting with one of his 40 official mistresses. The emperor was the father of 27 children and there is a formal portrait of his first wife, who died of malaria, but no images of his second, who following an argument with her husband left the Forbidden City to become a nun.

Qianlong was something of an artist himself and several of his works feature in this exhibition. Most are copies, some were traced and one has had figures added by Castiglione. More successful is the jade handled fan that Qianlong decorated as a gift for his mother, the dowager empress, which is also on display at the Royal Museum.

Next month, various music and dance activities related to the collection are scheduled for children. Make Chinese Music (on September 7) offers a chance for 13-year-olds and older pupils to try the types of instruments used at Qianlong's court. Six to 12-year-olds can learn about Beijing opera, including martial arts movements and face painting, with the UK Chinese Ensemble on September 8. Students from the Edinburgh Chinese School will perform the Chinese Spring Dance in traditional costume at the museum on September 14. Admission to these events is free.

Deedee Cuddihy

To book a place for Make Chinese Music or Sing Chinese Opera tel 0131 247

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