Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Door from the Imperial Palace of Beijing

Cabinet Door at the Imperial Palace of Beijing with design of Imperial Dragons
Chen Yuzhang
China, Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)
zitan (pterocarpus santalinus)
66” x 32 ½”

This cabinet door once protected the treasures of the Imperial Palace of Beijing. It was commissioned during the reign (1735-1796) of the Qianlong Emperor, who held power longer than any other ruler in Chinese history. Under Qianlong, there was a resurgence in Confucian culture and ideology.  He wanted to restore not only the ideas, but also the extensive art collections that were the pride of past dynasties such as the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368–1644). Works of architecture, painting, porcelain, and especially jade and ivory thrived under Qianlong.

This particular door was carved from a special type of wood called zitan, which can range in color from a purple-tinted red to jet-black. The Chinese considered zitan to be the most precious wood, and it was reserved for imperial use during the Qing dynasty due to its rarity. Zitan is extremely dense and the heaviest of six types of hardwood the Chinese used for furniture, with a close grain that aids intricate carving.

The front of the door features a design of the five-clawed Dragon surrounded by clouds. The five-clawed dragon was a symbol of imperial power and strength. Only the Emperor could be represented by a dragon with five claws; its use for anyone else would be considered treason. On the back of the door is an inscription carved in Chinese and Manchurian, which reads, “By Imperial Command during the 19th year in the reign of Qianlong [1755], Chen Youzhang carved this.” 

Clancy Taylor
History of Art and English, '16

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