Goldfish set to make a splash at Forbidden City century later
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), several royal concubines resided at the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, or Yanxi Gong, in the eastern wing of the inner court of Beijing's Forbidden City-or Palace Museum, as it's known today.
Seemingly cursed, the palace was swallowed up by fire several times over the course of history. In 1909, Empress Dowager Longyu decided to construct a Western-style aquarium or "hall of water "to finally make a break with destiny. But two years later, before the building-the Lingzhao Veranda-could be completed, the Qing reign came to an end, with monarchy itself ending in China.
Although the former royals continued to live in the Forbidden City after the republican revolution until 1924, construction of the Lingzhao Veranda never resumed.
Perhaps it didn't matter. A new way was devised to realize the former royals' dream of viewing fish there. They used large barrels to raise goldfish in, which they called the "wooden sea".
A century later, and this "wooden sea" has made a welcome return to the Yanxi Gong.
For the monthlong exhibition Leisurely Bliss: Goldfish-Themed Artifacts from the Palace Museum Collection, which opened on Tuesday, about 200 goldfish in 42 species from around China will be put on display.
And 34 cultural relics have been selected from the former royal collection to display the Qing emperors' fondness for this auspicious tradition in Chinese culture.
"Goldfish bear the Chinese people's great expectations for a good life," says Da Weijia, curator of the exhibition and deputy director of the department of objects and decorative arts at the museum. "And in literati circles, goldfish also represent the pursuit of elegance and the need for private leisure time away from annoyances."
The Chinese word for goldfish, jinyu, may remind people of the common saying jin yu man tang ("the hall is full of gold and jade"), which signifies abundant wealth and offspring. Goldfish were first domesticated from wild crucian carp during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).
According to Da, keeping goldfish in gardens and villas became a trend among the royal family and nobles during the mid-Qing Dynasty. Since the reign of Yongzheng (1722-35), it developed into an annual routine for major goldfish ponds around Beijing to send the best fish from their newly-cultivated breeds to the imperial garden in the Forbidden City.
During its peak, there were 279 varieties of goldfish kept at the Forbidden City.
The artifacts in the exhibition hall will help usher visitors back to that golden age. As well as the fish tanks used by the emperors, an array of porcelain ware, silk items, snuff bottles and numerous other exhibits bearing goldfish motifs demonstrate the influence of the goldfish aesthetic on the daily lives of people in the royal court.
A water container with four red-glazed fish from the reign of Kangxi (1662-1722) is just one of the highlights at the exhibition showcasing the elegance of the era.
And an exquisite lacquered stationary case from the reign of Daoguang (1821-50) inlaid with goldfish represents people's hopes for prosperity. It was made by Lu Kuisheng, a renowned craftsman from Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.
Even shoes were designed in the shape of goldfish, and fish tails were also skillfully incorporated into belts for clothing.
"Using the goldfish as medium, these artisans managed to showcase their extraordinary skills and wisdom," Da says.
The ongoing exhibition is the second attempt by the Palace Museum to combine living creatures with related cultural relics in the same exhibition. In 2017, a "miniature zoo" was temporarily set up in the museum for an exhibition on sika deer.
The latest exhibition also serves to realize a dream which did not come true for the Qing rulers. In March, the Palace Museum received a 100-million yuan ($14.44 million) donation from Ng Teng Fong Charitable Foundation in Hong Kong to renovate the Yanxi Gong and complete the construction of the Lingzhao Veranda.
In the not too distant future, people will be able to watch the goldfish there again. Perhaps the fish will help turn it into a "pond with souls", just as its name, Lingzhao, suggests.