The Hong Kong Museum of History is currently hosting a thematic exhibition that offers visitors a glimpse of the precious birthday gifts bestowed upon emperors and empress dowagers in the Qing dynasty, featuring artefacts from Beijing’s Palace Museum collection.
Every treasure has a personal touch and a unique story behind it.
Labor of love
Wong Nai-kwan, the museum’s assistant curator, said people today often think about making DIY gifts for their loved ones, but this was actually a common tradition in ancient China.
“Even emperors who deal with a host of state affairs every day would make the effort to draw or write something for their parents or elderly relatives in the royal family,” Wong said.
Boundless Longevity is an example of a personalized imperial gift.
Emperor Kangxi, who ruled from 1661 to 1722, making him one of the longest-reigning emperors in history, wrote the four characters “Wanshou wujiang (萬壽無疆)”, which means “boundless longevity”, on a plaque and presented it as a birthday gift for his grandmother Empress Dowager Xiaozhuangwen.
There are 16 golden dragons delicately embroidered along the edges of the plaque, and 12 of the mythical creatures on the top and bottom of the plaque representing the 12 months of the year, with the other four on the left and right representing the four seasons.
“After his father Emperor Shunzhi died, the Empress Dowager handpicked Kangxi among the young princes to succeed to the throne. Thus, the emperor held a deep respect for his grandmother,” Wong said.
Using his own brand of statesmanship and implementing reforms with iron-fisted resolve, Kangxi ushered in more than a century of peace and prosperity in the Middle Kingdom, which culminated in the reign of his grandson Qianlong, when Qing’s territory and population reached the zenith.
Another featured exhibit is Poetry in Celebration of Emperor Kangxi’s Birthday.
The poems were written by Prince Yinzhen, later known as Emperor Yongzheng, having succeeded Kangxi.
The poems were composed by Yongzheng himself, displaying his neat and tidy calligraphy.
Yongzheng’s son, Qianlong, followed in his father’s footsteps with a flair for calligraphy.
When Emperor Qianlong was still Prince Hongli, he copied Buddhist scriptures in celebration of his father’s 60th birthday.
But due to the sudden death of Emperor Yongzheng, Qianlong was unable to send it as a birthday gift.
Instead, he decided to present the scriptures as an offering at a ritual marking the 100th day of his father’s death.
The gift has been named Dharani Sutra and is also on display in the museum.
Another highlight of the exhibition is a famous painting scroll entitled Birthday Celebration of Empress Dowager Chongqing.
The scroll is a record of the grand celebration held by Emperor Qianlong for his mother’s 60th birthday, depicting a three-storey grand opera theater Qianlong built for his mother to enjoy performances.
Visitors can view the scroll on a touchscreen television.
The exhibition showcases more than 200 priceless artefacts, paintings, calligraphy works and musical instruments.
They bring to life ancient birthday celebration rituals of the Qing monarchy, and the rich culture immersed in them.
The exhibition will run until Oct. 9.
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A peep into the treasures and lives of Qing emperors