The Imperial Court

China was ruled by emperors for thousands of years, and artistic creation thrived under court patronage. Imperial kilns produced the finest porcelains. Court weavers and needleworkers fashioned elaborate garments covered in meaningful motifs. Metalwork finials inlaid with rare kingfisher feathers once adorned the imperial throne. Fragments attest to the former splendor of Emperor Yongle’s Porcelain Pagoda, a tribute to his parents. The Empress Dowager Cixi  was passionate about Peking Opera, here represented by a colorful, detailed diorama.

The Porcelain Tower, oil on canvas painting

The Porcelain Tower

China, Qing Dynasty, 19th century
Oil on canvas
DBC 11053.1

The Porcelain Tower was a nine-story pagoda constructed in Nanjing on the banks of the Yangtze River. The Ming Emperor Yongle (1402–1424) commissioned the Bao’ensi or Temple of Gratitude in memory of his deceased parents, an act of Confucian filial piety. The walls of the pagoda were of glazed white porcelain which glittered in the sun. It was the most complex porcelain construction of its time. In 1853, Taiping rebels took control of the city, and, in an act of Christian zealotry, destroyed much of its Buddhist art. The tower was completely destroyed by 1856.

Glazed Brick

Tower Fragment and Brick

China, Ming Dynasty, 15th century
Glazed terracotta
DBC 10830.1, 10831.1

This brick and fragment of porcelain from the Porcelain Tower were retrieved in 1856 from the rubble of the demolished tower by a member of the Smith family from Smithtown, New York.

Votive Brick with Seated Buddha, painted stone

Votive Brick with Seated Buddha

China, Northern Wei, 386–534 CE
Painted stone
DBC 11174.1

Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is carved in relief. His right hand is in the do-not-fear gesture, the left hand in the giving mudra. The elongated proportions of the face and cascading drapery reflect the early style of Chinese Buddhist sculpture.

Pair of lanterns


China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Cloisonné enamel and metal
DBC 11281.1/2

A foreign technique, cloisonné, is made by soldering metal cloisons or fences to a metal base and filling the spaces with vitreous enamels. The fences keep the colors from running together. A cylindrical flaring stand decorated with dragons, flowers, and auspicious symbols is topped with a pagoda-form lantern hung with bells.

Throne Screen Finials, gilt metal with kingfisher feathers, Summer Palace

Throne Screen Finials

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Gilt metal with kingfisher feathers
DBC 10727.1/2

These stunning finials are purported to have been removed from one of the throne screens at theSummer Palace which was looted and utterly destroyed by British and French troops in 1860 at the end of the Second Opium War. Each depicts the head of a horned dragon with bats and smaller dragons. The iridescent blue feathers of the tiny, rare kingfisher bird were used to decorate headdresses and hair ornaments for the exclusive use of court women. It is an expensive and technically demanding production.

Man’s Fur-lined Surcoat

Man’s Fur-lined Surcoat

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Silk, fur
DBC 10645.1

Only the wealthiest officials could afford surcoats like this, whose survival is remarkable. The navy blue silk is woven with roundels of stylized foliage and archaic scrolls. The black trim is embroidered with double gourds, narcissus, and wan symbols.

Informal Robe (Jifu)

China, Qing Dynasty
DBC 11272.1

The blue-ground silk gauze has a woven and embroidered design of nine five-clawed dragons chasing flaming pearls among clouds. Dragons are revered as divine mythical creatures in China, symbols of the emperor, who, through performing rituals, invoked the dragon to bring the spring rains. The flaming pearl signifies the jewel in the lotus in Buddhism and grants all wishes. China was ruled by the Manchus during the Qing dynasty. The emphasis on horse riding in their culture resulted in using horse-hoof-shaped cuffs on their robes. Stylized waves and mountains adorn the lower section.

Tall Court Hat, leather, woven bamboo, lacquer, metal,

Tall Court Hat

China, Liao Dynasty, 916–1125 CE
Leather, woven bamboo, lacquer, metal
DBC 10130.1

After the fall of the Tang dynasty, the Khitan established the Liao dynasty in northeastern China. This rare and important hat would have been worn by an official during a ceremony at court.

Standing Figure, wood painted with lacquer

Standing Female Figure

China, Warring States Period, 481–221 BCE
Wood painted with lacquer
DBC 11224.1

This figure would have been part of a group of attendants buried to serve the deceased in the afterlife. She stands in a respectful pose. Her garment is decorated with swirling cloud designs. Materials like these decompose easily which makes this an amazing survivor.

Buddhist Temple Wall Painting

China, Yuan/Ming Dynasty, 14th century
Stucco plaster and paint
DBC 10402.1

This painting was removed from the wall of a monastery, most likely the Lower Guangsheng Monastery. It depicts a Buddhist priest flanked by female attendants, all on scrolling clouds. A parasol over his head and streaming banners indicate his importance.

Roof Tile shape of a dragon horse with rider

Roof Tile

China, Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644
Glazed earthenware
DBC 11222.1

This large hip-roof tile in the shape of a dragon horse with rider is glazed in brilliant green and brown. Its placement where the roof ridge and two gable ridges join prevented rainwater from seeping into the roof. Thus it served ornamental and practical purposes.

Diorama of a Chinese Opera Stage

Diorama of a Chinese Opera Stage

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Cut and woven bamboo, gesso, polychrome
DBC 11081.1

This detailed, colorful view of a Peking opera stage includes numerous figures dressed in elaborate costumes singing and acting. It is a tour de force of theatrical action, including foo dogs, lanterns, banners, and architectural details. A scene from The Drunken Concubine, the story of the concubine Yang, who waited in vain for the emperor in the One Hundred Flower Pavilion and became hopelessly intoxicated, is the focus of the performance. The diorama is purported to have belonged to the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), an avid patron of Peking opera. After years of neglect, it was painstakingly restored by David Billings.

Curtains from the Peking Opera (reproduction, detail)

China, Qing Dynasty
Embroidered satin
Courtesy of a private collection

These are details from a pair of curtains which may have come from the theater in the Forbidden City. The female figure holds a vessel upside down from which fruits or flowers cascade. Her hair is elegantly coiffed, her face made up and her silk garment elaborately embroidered with flowers. Her dynamic pose suggests dancing and welcomes the viewer to the performance, setting the ideal tone for the opera stage.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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