In a perfect world

25th November 2005 at 00:00
In Chinese tradition, painting is one of the highest forms of expression.

Annie Harris looks at the representation of an idealised woman, surrounded by symbols of the most desirable virtues

In this exquisite painting, "Distant Thoughts among Antiquities", we see a young woman in a delicate reverie, elegantly seated among the most beautiful objects. She might be contemplating the miniature bamboo plant on the table in the bottom right-hand corner. (In Chinese painting, since bamboo is both supple and strong, it symbolises reliability, courage, good breeding, and, because it is evergreen, longevity.) She seems delightfully unaware that her sleeve is caught up on the back of the chair, providing a tantalising glimpse of her arm. She holds a jade-green silk handkerchief.

Everything in the painting contributes to the impression of luxurious refinement: the incredibly fine and detailed painting of the embroidery on her gown, the flowers in her hair, her earring, the mother-of-pearl inlay on the table and the markings on the bamboo chair, as well as the delicate bindings of the books behind.

The sense of opulence is harmoniously constrained by the geometry of the furniture. Ornately carved shelves with wonderful objects on them, while adding to the effect of cultivated refinement, seem, perhaps unintentionally on the part of the artist, to bear in on the young woman, constricting her in wistful isolation and emphasising her inactivity, solitude and sense of longing.

This picture is one of a series of "Twelve Beauties at Leisure" painted on silk by anonymous artists for Prince Yinzhen, who was later to become the Yongzheng emperor, second of the three Qing emperors represented in the exhibition at the Royal Academy, China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795. For thousands of years, painting in China was considered, with calligraphy, to be one of the highest forms of expression. To demonstrate the esteem in which these pursuits were held, you will see in the exhibition exquisitely made and highly decorated examples of artists' and calligraphers' tools.

The young prince had the wonderful paintings incorporated into a 12-panelled screen and placed around the couch in his private study (the Deep Willows Reading Hall), where he could contemplate them at leisure.

Some of the paintings contain calligraphy, possibly by the prince's own hand, and, significantly, he also wrote 12 poems about his Deep Willows Reading Hall. Each painting shows, not a concubine, as was previously suspected, but an idealised woman, beautiful and highly accomplished. One beauty is "murmuring to herself while reading", with the following poem in calligraphy in the background: "Small mouth like a cherry, waist as slender as a willowSitting relaxed in a spring breeze, a moment of laziness."

Another is doing needlework, a highly regarded feminine accomplishment, by candlelight.

The pictures, dating from between 1709 and 1723, were carefully stored away after the prince became emperor, and were not rediscovered until the 1950s.

It is extraordinary to think that, at the time when they were commissioned, no one other than members of the imperial family and their servants - with only a few exceptions - was allowed access to the emperor's private quarters in the Imperial Palace, or those of Prince Yinzhen in his palace (Garden of Perfect Brightness). Yet, nearly 300 years later, we the public are free to peer into a corner of this obsessively hidden and fascinating world. The revelation of things once concealed will be even more complete for visitors to the exhibition, because they will be able to see actual objects, almost identical to the ones on the shelves in this painting. Was the artist himself allowed into this luxurious boudoir?

But let us return to the young prince as he meditates on these fabulous paintings from his couch. Apart from desire for the beautiful young women, what thoughts might the paintings have inspired? First, it is important to note that the Qing rulers were not Chinese. They came from the far north-east frontiers of China and called themselves Manchus (from Manchuria). In 1644, the Manchus invaded China and toppled the declining Ming dynasty, taking up residence as the Qing emperors in the northern capital city of Beijing, in the great Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City.

The Qing emperors spent much of their time consolidating and extending their territories and while they deeply admired - and for political reasons wished to emulate - the time-honoured cultural, artistic and intellectual achievements of the Chinese, they also sought to maintain Manchu traditions. For this reason, the wearing of Chinese fashion was forbidden to them and their court. The women represented in the 12 paintings are disobeying this rule. Why might the young prince have commissioned paintings of women in Chinese rather than Manchu dress for his private study? Perhaps they can be seen as allegorical embodiments of exquisite Chinese culture, representing to the young prince ideas of love and longing, cultivation and accomplishment. He could perhaps have imagined the Manchus contributing a robust energy to the refinements of Chinese culture.

Just as in Western art, where images of beautiful women were employed to embody abstractions such as Justice or Virtue, so in Chinese art and poetry images of women often carried allegorical meaning through the symbolic objects that accompanied them. They were painted to represent desirable attributes, such as fertility, accomplishment, happiness, or love; their beautiful slender figures very often bore a heavy symbolic load.

Further reading China: The Three Emperors: Teachers' and Students' Guide: Introduction to the Exhibition, Royal Academy pound;3.95; also Illustrated Junior Guide pound;1.95

Art in China by Craig Clunas. Oxford pound;12.99

The Forbidden City by Frances Wood. British Museum pound;8.99

The Forbidden City, Heart of Imperial China by Giles Beguin, Dominique Morel. Thames and Hudson pound;6.95

Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Liu Kwang-Ching (foreword), Patricia Buckley Ebrey Cambridge Illustrated Histories pound;19.99

l 'Woman Looking at Antiquities, from Twelve Beauties in the Yuanmingyuan, 1709-23' by anonymous court artists. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 184.6cm x 97.7cm.

* China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795, is at the Royal Academy of Arts until April 17. Opening hours 10am - 6pm; late opening Friday and Saturday to 10pm.

Booking line for schools Tel: 020 7300 5995


Art and design


As a precursor to attending the exhibition, visit The Palace Museum website, where "Twelve Beauties at Leisure" can be seen.

Find this painting and identify the antique objects shown in it from the list on the website. Explore the other 11 paintings, taking particular note of auspicious objects symbolising good luck, happiness, wealth, fertility and so on. As well as paintings of women, you could also view paintings by women at

KS 1-3

Make a painting of yourself seated in front of a table with some shelves behind, like the ones in this painting. Then, using a sharp pencil and a small paint brush, make miniature, detailed studies of your favourite objects, one for each shelf and some for the table. Allocate to each object an appropriate "good-luck" quality. Make a note of why you have chosen a particular object for a particular quality.

KS 3-5

Looking at this painting, what can we learn about the Manchus ideal of female beauty? How does it differ from our contemporary ideal and what does this say about our different cultures and times? Why are women so often chosen by artists to represent abstractions and ideals? Are there any modern examples where women are used, in advertising for example, to stand in for something ideal and desirable?

Research an example in Western art where the figure of a man is used allegorically. Using Google, search for "single-point perspective", "isometric perspective" and "system of perspective in Chinese art". Explore the different systems of perspective and how they came together in China over the period covered by this exhibition. Which sort of system is used in this painting?

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