The Last Emperor’s Collection Resources

All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection
  • Zhu Zhanji (Emperor Xuanzong, 1399–1435) Ten-Thousand-Year-Old Pine Tree(detail), 1431; Handscroll; ink on paper 33 x 453 cm

  • Hongli (Qianlong emperor, 1711–1799) Copying Huaisu’s "Thousand-Character Essay,” 1770; Handscroll; ink on paper 30.3 x 689.3 cm

Painting and Calligraphy from the Liaoning Provincial Museum


The Last Emperor’s Collection features more than twenty-four works of painting and calligraphy from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Since all once belonged to the imperial collection, the exhibition is a broad survey of imperial collecting and connoisseurship. It’s also the story of the tragic loss of these treasures under Puyi (1906-1967), the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, and their journey through the turbulent world of early twentieth century China.

Before the twentieth century, educated Chinese regarded calligraphy and painting not only as polite arts, but also as a mark of what it meant to be civilized. With the intrusion of the West in the nineteenth century, the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and the decades of war and revolution that followed, most aspects of traditional culture were called into question.

Also, modern, Western-style, visual media (graphics, photography, film) began to play a role in everyday life, changing people’s ways of seeing the world, particularly in urban areas. Traditional calligraphy and traditional painting didn’t vanish but they no longer occupied a central place in the lives of the elite. Perhaps a signpost in this new cultural landscape is the 1925 opening of the Forbidden City as a museum. It marked the transition of the imperial collection from a rarefied world of connoisseurship to the public realm of “Guobao” or “National Treasures.”

In order to better understand The Last Emperor’s Collection and its varied contexts, this web-companion discusses the following historical/cultural themes:

1. The Chinese Emperor as Link Between Heaven, Earth, and Humankind;
2. Late Imperial China—The Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911);
3. The “Three Emperors”;
4. Qianlong and the World of the Arts;
5. The Decline and Fall of the Qing Dynasty;
6. The Life and Times of Pu Yi (1906-1967), Last Emperor of China;
7. The Dispersal of the Imperial Painting and Calligraphy Collection;
8. Cultural Property and Cultural Heritage: To Whom Does the Artistic Past Belong?

These emphasize the multidisciplinary nature of historical understanding and underline the general need for students to consult documents, journals, diaries, artifacts, historic sites, works of art, quantitative data, and other evidence from the past, and to do so imaginatively—taking into account the historical context in which these records were created. . .1

They are also relevant to basic concepts grouped under “History,” and “Civics, Citizenship, and Government” in New York State’s K-12 core curriculum for social studies:

History: Culture means the patterns of human behavior that includes ideas, beliefs, values, artifacts, and ways of making a living which any society transmits to succeeding generations to meet its fundamental needs.

Identity means awareness of one’s own values, attitudes, and capabilities as an individual and as a member of different groups.

Civics: Power refers to the ability of people to compel or influence the actions of others. “Legitimate power is called authority.”2

Finally, Standard 4 of the New York State Learning Standards for the Arts ties these varied threads together: Students will develop an understanding of the personal and cultural forces that shape artistic communication and how the arts in turn shape the diverse cultures of past and present society.3

1. From “Overview of Standards in Historical Thinking” from the National Standards for History Basic Edition, 1996



The Studio of Zhulu Hut

The Chinese Emperor as Link between Heaven, Earth, and Humankind

“I don’t like it here. I want to go home. I don’t like it here. I want to go home”. . . My father tried to soothe me by saying, “Don’t cry, don’t cry; it’ll soon be finished, it’ll soon be finished” (Three-year-old Pu Yi at his coronation on November, 1908).4

The very first emperor was named Ying Zheng, king of the powerful Qin state from 247-221 BCE. In 221 Qin completed the task of unifying China, ending the turbulent Warring States period (479-221 BCE). Ying Zheng took the title “huangdi” a word commonly translated into English as “emperor.”

“Huang” has connotations of “great,” “august,” or “magnificent”; “di” was the name of the high god worshipped as far back as the second millennium BCE. To emphasize that the Qin unification was unique, Ying Zheng also added “shi” (“beginning” or “first”) to his title. Thus he became “Qin shi huangdi”: the First Emperor of Qin. This was the beginning of imperial history. It was to end over two thousand years later with the brief reign of Puyi in the twentieth century.

Chinese emperors held total power over the organization of society and the universe, and space and time. . .The emperor imposed order on the world through inauguration ceremonies, the diffusion of the calendar, the bestowal of titles and names, the classification of the various cults and deities, the diplomas he granted them. . . .The Chinese emperors combined, in their persons, functions and aspects in which the profane and sacred were indistinguishable.5

By acceding to office the emperor became more than human—or, conversely, if he revealed human traits, those traits must accord with the accepted historiographical patterns of imperial behavior. In becoming emperor [he]. . .became the symbolic center of the known world, the mediator between heaven and earth. . .Almost every detail of his life emphasized his uniqueness and superiority to lesser mortals.6

This “uniqueness and superiority” was always at odds with the sovereign’s human side—very few rulers lived up to either the symbolic or practical demands of the office. According to the Song dynasty Confucian thinker Fan Zuyu (1041-1098),

one thing is definite: wise rulers were few and ordinary ones many. This is why periods of good government were short and periods of disorder long. . .Some rulers such as Jie, the last ruler of the Xia dynasty or Zhou, last ruler of the [succeeding] Shang dynasty [c. 1570-1045 BCE], could not be urged toward learning at all. They brought disorder to the state. . .When later generations speak of evil rulers, it is always these two that are held up as examples.7

Jie and Zhou were always mentioned in tandem, and condemned as bad last rulers. Puyi’s life was a study in frustration and powerlessness rather than the abuse of power. The last years of the dynasty and his brief reign as emperor were in sharp contrast to the first century-and-a-half of Qing rule.

4. W.J.F. Jenner (tr.).From Emperor to Citizen—The Autobiography of Aisin-Goro Pu Yi. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1987, p. 32.

5. Jacques Gernet. China and the Christian Impact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 105.

6. Jonathan D. Spence. Emperor of China—Self-portrait of K’ang-hsi. New York: Vintage Books, 1988, p. xii.

7. The existence or non-existence of the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BCE) is a matter of controversy. Text adapted from W.T. de Bary and Irene Bloom (eds.). Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 630-631.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection


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