Posts Tagged ‘imperial palace’

The surviving moat & outer stone walls of the Edo castle complex.

While in Tokyo a few weeks ago, I finally visited & explored the former site of Edo Castle, the seat of power of the Tokugawa shogunate, today occupied by the Imperial Palace, and in particular the Eastern Imperial Gardens. Somehow I had had it in my mind that the Imperial Household had taken over portions of the castle, keeping them still-standing, or had at least built the Palace right over the former site of the shogun’s castle. I guess I should have realized the first wasn’t true, since I just read in Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy about how Edo Castle burned down in 1873, and the Imperial family relocated to the Akasaka Temporary Palace (today the Meiji Kinenkan, it would seem) until 1888, when the new Imperial Palace was completed. So, yeah, the palace that stands today is entirely a Meiji (or later) creation, not simply occupying the old shogunal castle. Not only that, but the Palace is not even built over the former site of the castle’s central areas, but is instead off to one side, with the former site of the castle’s honmaru (chief bailey) now converted into the Imperial Palace East Gardens, and easily accessible to the public. Though there is nearly nothing at all left to see today of the castle buildings, mostly just empty space, in a way, it’s arguably preferable that the Palace was not built atop the same castle site, since at least this way it’s publicly accessible (the in-use Palace buildings, of course, are not).

I found the tenshu dai – the surviving foundations of where the castle’s tower keep stood until 1657 – to be surprisingly small. Sure, it may look fairly sizable in this photo, but notice that it tapers – once you get to the top, and look at how far you can walk in any direction before you fall off, you realize the actual building that once stood here must have been pretty small. I realize that this was a multi-storeyed tower, and essentially chiefly just a visually impressive symbol and guardhouse – though the tenshu is the most iconic aspect of Japanese castles, in fact it did not house any residential or administrative functions; it was not, really at all, the chief structure of the castle’s operations. But, even so, it is surprising to me to see just how small it is, smaller than the front yard at my childhood home.

Right: It’s difficult to tell from the photo the size of the honmaru, but this is it. This space of green grass, plus the next one over there in the background.

The honmaru, too, was surprisingly small. Okay, perhaps it can be easy to let our romanticized idea of the greatness of the shogunate (or of any regime, any state) blow our expectations out of proportion. But, even so, it seems quite small – what today is no more than an empty space of green is not so much larger than my backyard back home. And this relatively small area is supposed to have contained not only the entire Ôoku, but three audience chambers, a kitchen, and numerous connecting corridors. To look at the map given on the plaque displayed on-site, you’d think it was so much larger… It’s difficult, really, to properly imagine these buildings, with them being so absent. And yet, at the same time, at a site like Shuri Castle, which I visited a couple weeks later, and which comes to mind, as one walks through all these reconstructed rooms and buildings, it’s difficult, by contrast, to get a sense of the total amount of space, as you do by looking at this empty green space.

As the next chapter I’m working on takes place right here – it concerns the reception of Ryukyuan ambassadors in shogunal audience – and believing that Edo Castle still in a sense stands, because it’s become the Imperial Palace, it comes as something of a weird, interesting realization, to realize that it really doesn’t. Edo castle is gone, burned down in the 1870s and never rebuilt, and the Imperial Palace, though I know very little about what it actually looks like (there are apparently tours you can book; but surprisingly little scholarship on its architecture or decor), is an entirely separate set of structures, not even on the same site, but located in a different part of the grounds, and surely constructed with a much more Meiji than Edo aesthetic.

I am also surprised at the extent to which this feels like so many other castle sites I’ve been to. This is supposed to be the East Imperial Gardens. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that they haven’t changed it over too much, that there are still identifiable spaces, empty though they may be, that can be pointed out as being the former site of this and that building, but it’s just that I thought they would have reformatted the grounds somehow, making them more thoroughly into “gardens,” rather than what we have, a lot of empty lawn, surrounded by bits of relatively natural-looking forest.

Two brief CG recreations of what Edo castle might have looked like, by YouTube user secondcoafujie.

It is a weird feeling to be standing here on this empty patch of grass – as empty as if it were Central Park’s Great Lawn – imagining that it was right on this spot that the Ôoku, the audience halls, and certain administrative buildings once stood, and where *so much* went on. The list of prominent figures who had walked this space, right here, right on this spot, at one time or another only 150-300 years ago, includes all sorts of super big-name functionaries, from Arai Hakuseki and Matsudaira Sadanobu to Tanuma Okitsugu and Ii Naosuke, not to mention every shogun, and indeed just about every top-ranking daimyô. Korean, Dutch, and Ryukyuan emissaries were received in these audience halls, and every major Ôoku figure – wives and concubines of the shoguns – from Kasuga no Tsubone to Atsuhime/Tenshôin would have spent a good proportion of their lives within these walls. Yet, still, impactful as that idea is, it’s still very difficult to even feel “imagine who walked these halls,” because the halls, the walls, the very floors, are no longer there at all.

I hope next time I’m in Tokyo to remember to book an Imperial Palace tour. I haven’t even done that in Kyoto, either. I did, however, visit the Sannomaru Shôzôkan, the Imperial Collections Museum. It’s a very small gallery, displaying only one temporary special exhibit at a time, but the Imperial collections are, as might be expected, pretty incredible. This summer, up through Sept 28, they were showing a number of scroll paintings by Tanaka Yûbi, depicting events and accomplishments in the lives of Iwakura Tomomi and Sanjô Shigetomi, two very prominent Meiji figures. Because the works are relatively new (only about 100-120 years old), and because they’ve been in the Imperial Collections, being well-cared for all that time, these scrolls were in stunningly good condition, with just gorgeous, beautiful bold colors. I wish I could have taken photos. There is a catalog, however, and much more easily obtainable than those at the Reimeikan or Shôkoshûseikan – a rest area in the gardens / park, just outside the museum, had quite a few catalogs for sale, and in fact, on sale, at reduced prices, so I picked up quite a few of them, along with historical maps of the castle grounds.

The Higashi Gyôen (East Imperial Gardens) are closed on Mondays and Fridays, but are otherwise open to the public during the days, for free, no reservation or Imperial/Kunaichô registration required. Simply enter via any of several of the castle/palace gates.

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Sometimes I find myself quite well-informed about certain exhibitions I wish to go to; other times, I’m afraid I don’t quite do my research. When I visited Boston just past Christmas, I had hoped to go to the Peabody Essex Museum, but missed out. I knew they were having some show of treasures from the Forbidden Palace, but I basically figured it was just another paintings / ceramics / etc. show, and it wasn’t the end of the world if I missed it. Which I did, on account of the snowpocalypse, as they’re calling it. I was home in New York for a week earlier this month, saw that the Metropolitan was now having some show of treasures from the Forbidden City – didn’t make the connection – but boy oh boy am I glad that I took the time and made sure to see the exhibit.

It turns out that The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City is a stunning, breathtaking, incredible exhibit, just about as close as one imagines they could ever get to actually transporting the Forbidden City into the inside of the Metropolitan Museum. Hardly just a show of paintings, ceramics, and other relatively easily transported treasures, this show included window trimmings and door frames, actual thrones that the Qianlong Emperor himself (presumably) actually sat on, and all kinds of other things that I never expected would ever leave their place, let alone leave Beijing, let alone leave China.

The exhibition focuses exclusively on the “Qianlong Gardens,” completed around 1776, at the orders of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96), an emperor particularly known for his love of art, and for his embrace of Western ideas and influences. It was under the Qianlong Emperor that a great many treasures of painting entered the Imperial collection, and that the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione was welcomed into the Court and commissioned to create a great many Western-style, relatively realistic, oil paintings of the emperor and of other subjects. A great many of the most famous Chinese paintings today bear the seal of the Qianlong Emperor.

The “garden,” really a sub-palace all its own, consisting of 27 buildings and pavilions, was intended to be Qianlong’s retirement palace. But he never retired, abdicating three years before his death, and continuing to wield power during that time. As the Emperor had a separate Summer Palace, the buildings of this retirement palace are grouped very close together, for greater warmth in the winter months.

Upon entering the exhibition, we are presented with a pair of large vases to the left, with a photograph plastered on the walls to give the impression of looking out into a garden or bamboo grove; and to the right, a door frame or wall decoration, with, beyond it, a wall painting that employs Western-style linear perspective to great effect, giving the illusion of being led deeper into a larger space. The Qianlong Emperor loved these kinds of illusions, and one can see why. Naive though it may be by Western oil painting standards, or modern photography & digital media standards, in terms of its relative lack of realism, the illusion still works – the painting still does not fail to produce the effect it was intended to, and definitely impresses.

Above: A perspectival illusion wall painting from the Supreme Chamber for Cultivating Harmony. Image from Metropolitan Museum website; you can find images of other works from the show, with curators’ descriptions, by clicking here.

We are then presented with two portraits of the Qianlong Emperor, one of which is one of multiple versions of the famous portrait you see here. Seeing it on slides, in books, and here on the computer screen does not compare to the actual artwork. The details of the robes, chair, and face are unbelievable, the pigments are thick and bold, and there’s just something really impressive, and truly breath-taking (yes, I know my adjectival vocabulary is a bit limited) about the way the colors are employed. The way the red shows through the gold of the chair is really incredible, and helps the image seem more real and more three-dimensional…. At first this may seem an extremely traditional & Chinese painting, and it is of course both of those things; but having focused so much in recent semesters on the adaptation of elements of Western artistic techniques into East Asian neo-traditional arts, it becomes obvious to me those non-traditional elements which have been employed here. Individualized, realistic, detailed depiction of the face; the use of shading and shadow to imply roundness of form and volume; and of course, linear perspective.

It was really wonderful to get to examine these paintings so closely. I’ve seen exhibits where paintings are kept back in full display boxes designed for, for example, standing folding screens, blocking you from getting anywhere near close enough to really examine the piece and appreciate the details. That was not a problem here – the vitrines were nice and shallow, allowing you to get within inches of the surface of the painting, and allowing the details to really shine.

Among other objects I was amazed to see was a paper & wood model of one of the halls & gardens, presumably created as part of planning and preparation to build the palace originally, back in the 18th century. That such a thing still survives is fairly unexpected, but that it should leave the archives and come all the way to Boston and New York is astonishing.

In addition to the inclusion of a number of 18th century Chinese treasures from the Metropolitan’s own collection, the exhibition included a very short, but well-done, video virtual tour of one section of the Palace (the juanqinzhai), and some displays on conservation efforts. If you have ever studied Chinese architecture at all, even in an intro survey art history class, you’re probably familiar with the Qianlong Emperor’s indoor theatre, with the ceiling painted with blue sky and purple wisteria on a trellis to give the illusion of the summer sky, with linear perspective wall paintings giving the impression of a much larger space, and of hidden doors behind mirrors leading from one room to the next. It was fun to be reminded of this room, and to realize where it fits in to the wider story – where in the Forbidden City it is located, and which emperor (Qianlong) it was built for.

Conservation efforts have been ongoing since 2001, if not earlier, and have employed, to the greatest extent possible, expert craftsmen in various traditional specialties, who had to be sought out and recruited from all over the country. As we learn in the exhibition, it is in large part due to conservation efforts begun in 2001 that these objects have been removed from their original context to begin with, and are therefore a bit freer to travel, before being permanently reinstalled in the Palace.

Having spent a lot of time in Japan, I think I’ve gotten a fairly good sense of a lot of the basic aesthetics, forms, and elements of Japanese traditional architecture and interior design; but it would be a fallacy to think the Chinese to be fairly similar. While nowhere else in China could compare to a Palace, of course, still, I think this exhibition – in addition to being visually stunning – really helped me gain a better understanding of what sorts of ways the Chinese traditionally decorated: with paintings and works of calligraphy incorporated into intricately carved wooden frames, and the wonderfully ironic and schizophrenic way that the Emperor embraced both signs of extravagant wealth and luxury, and signs of the rustic, simple, spare lifestyle of the cultural/moral/intellectual elite scholar-literati.

The Emperor’s Private Paradise is showing at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, until May 1st. I strongly encourage you, if you have the chance, to make a visit. This is not just an exhibit – it’s an experience: as close as we might ever get in New York to the feeling of actually being inside the Imperial Palace.

All images are taken from Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons, and are used under a Creative Commons license, except where indicated otherwise.

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