The Ajuda National Palace (Global Times/Zheng Hong)
"Actually, we have a more than 500-year-old friendship with Portugal," Zheng Hong, a scholar at Beijing's Palace Museum, told the Global Times on Tuesday, talking about why it made perfect sense to hold the museum's newest exhibition The Forbidden City and The Maritime Silk Road in Lisbon, Portugal.
The exhibition, which Zheng is also curating, kicked off at Lisbon's Ajuda National Palace on Tuesday, with numerous art historians from Portugal and China taking part in the opening ceremony.
The Maritime Silk Road opened imperial China's gates to the outside world. During the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties, Chinese specialties such as porcelains, tea and silk were shipped from the empire's eastern and southern ports to nations across the globe. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, China's foreign trade and cultural exchanges became even more frequent.
"We've been connected to European countries like Portugal and Spain since the 15th century, when navigation techniques were just becoming mature in those countries. From the 16th to the 18th century, China's products starting to occupy a place in foreign markets," Zheng told the Global Times in an email interview on Tuesday.
After new routes were opened during the Ming Dynasty, trade between China and other countries increased in frequency. With the tributary systems of the Ming and Qing courts adopting a diplomatic policy of "giving generously and receiving lightly," a large amount of gifts were transported overseas via the Maritime Silk Road. At the same time, the court also maintained a large reserve of gifts at home to be given to visiting envoys and missionaries from other countries. Those gifts, such as tea and silk, represent the peak of the era's craftsmanship, and were seen as "new trends" in Europe, especially among the wealthy.
"A large amount of Chinese ceramics were purchased by European aristocracy. Some of them even built houses specifically to display their ceramic collections and study how they were made," Zheng noted.
These relics that were exported overseas make up the first part of the exhibition: Sailing to Distant Shores.
"We can see many Chinese porcelains that were painted [by Chinese artists] with Western designs, which shows how well our products were selling [in the West]," emphasized Zheng.
Chinese porcelains at The Forbidden City and The Maritime Silk Road exhibition at the Ajuda National Palace in Lisbon, Portugal. (Global Times/Zheng Hong)
Of course the Maritime Silk Road was a two way street. As goods and culture flowed out of China, so too did the goods and culture of the West make its way into China.
The second section of the exhibition, Western World in China, mainly focuses on the influence Western art and knowledge had on China, especially when it came to the royal court.
"Western missionaries, mostly Jesuit, went to China to promote Christianity during the late Ming and the early Qing dynasties," Zheng explained.
"They spearheaded far-reaching China-Western cultural exchanges."
According to Zheng, these missionaries not only introduced scientific instruments from Europe, but also brought Western art styles to the Chinese court.
"We show surveying instruments. And since the Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722) is well-known for being particularly keen about Western science, we have also included the desk he used to study at!" Zheng noted.
Another interesting item in the collection is a snuff box.
"According to historical documents, an envoy of Portugal gifted the Kangxi Emperor with this snuff box, which made him very happy," Zheng said, noting that the only tobacco the emperor ever partook of was snuff. Due to the scarcity of snuff in China, it was something of a luxury in which ministers took pride in possessing.
Snuff was once called shinahu in Chinese, which is based on the English pronunciation of "snuff." This name was later switched to biyan (Lit: nose tobacco) by the Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735) since he felt that this better described the product.
While the exchange of craftsmanship techniques and scientific knowledge was an important part of China-Western cultural exchanges, for Zheng, the impact these exchanges had on art was even more significant. These changes can be seen in the third part of the exhibition, Mutual Learning and Influence.
"The Chinese court began importing the raw materials used for the production of Western artworks and assimilated the forms, motifs and painting techniques from West," said Zheng, emphasizing that cloisonné was one of the most important handicrafts China learned from foreign countries.
"When a cloisonné gift came from the West, the Kangxi Emperor established a workshop in the court to produce these enamelwares. However, it wasn't until the reign of the Qianlong Emperor [Kangxi's grandson] that the production of cloisonné in China reached its peak," Zheng said.