I was eager to see the Minneapolis Institute of Art exhibit, Power and Beauty in the Qing Dynasty, China’s last. This exhibit consists of a series of 10 rooms with a thematic progression. As is described in the brochure, each room evokes an aspect of life within China’s Imperial palace during the Qing dynasty, which ruled for more than 250 years, until 1911. It was a golden age of art and on view were items that revealed the splendor of royal gatherings, mystic teachings, and the sacred rhythms of nature
I fell in love with China when I first traveled there in the mid-nineties. It was about a year or so before Feng Shui came into my life! The beauty of the people, their culture and history and their stunning art captivated me. So when I received notice of this exhibit in collaboration with renowned international theatre and opera director, Robert Wilson, I was intrigued!
The exhibit brilliantly uses the ancient Chinese philosophy of duality, symbolized by Yin and Yang throughout. Ushered into the first room of the exhibit, you are plunged into darkness. It was a bit disorienting. In that Yin of darkness, we were invited to meditate. If you looked carefully upon exiting, you became aware of a single black vase in the shadow.
From the emptiness of this darkened room, containing the scarcity of a single vase, you transition to a display of abundance. On view in the second room are Qing dynasty treasures: jade statues, delicately painted plates and bowls, rhinoceros tusks intricately carved into vases, cloisonné candlesticks and exquisite cinnabar boxes. The Five Elements come into play on the white walls filled with more images of stunning treasures, invoking the discernment and refinement of the Metal Element.
The rigid order and hierarchy of the emperor, as he presided over the courts and the people, is next presented in a display of eight gorgeous robes, arrayed according to rank.The walls are thatched with straw. Brown in color and layered horizontally suggest the Earth Element, which denotes industry and practicality. This is in powerful contrast with the authority and wealth depicted in the elaborately embroidered silk robes, embodying the Metal Element.
Moving from Emperor to common man. the next room holds a single tiny bronze human figure. The very dark blue walls, suggest the Water Element. The Water Element is represented by fluidity and flow; it is the storehouse of vital essence. The display suggests the people, the common man, will ultimately prevail.
The next area compels you to enter, although with a modicum of hesitancy. A huge red dragon covering all four red walls is intimidating. Red has the highest vibrational energy of all the colors, making this is the most Yang of all the rooms. The centerpiece of this space, sitting below the dragon’s head, is the imperial throne, reminding us of the Emperor’s unmitigated power. This room embodies fearsome authority.
The adjoining room was my favorite. Reflective light on the walls, suggesting the Metal Element, is the backdrop to five Buddhist statues elevated on pedestals. The room was filled with Buddhist chanting, which inspires feelings of devotion and religious awe. I was transported back to my times in Tibet, where I have had the privilege of sitting in many temples listening to Buddhist chanting. I was mesmerized then and was mesmerized here.
Transitioning to the seventh room, I noticed the floor felt different; it was suggestive of walking on a dirt road. The ground beneath one’s feet constitutes the Earth Element. It is our connection with the universe. Three Taoist paintings featuring supreme deities are the focal point in this room. Taoist belief is aligned with the Feng Shui principle, everything is energy. Taoism believes that all life is energy, energy is in constant motion, life is a transformative process, nourished by the shifting from one quality of energy to another.
The next area was devoted to women of the Qing dynasty. Not surprising, women in Imperial society did not enjoy the status afforded to men. The walls, covered with large pieces of scrunched up foil, produced shiny reflection, suggestive of the Metal Element. Furniture items, including a four-poster bed, beautiful robes and elaborate headdresses gave insights into a women’s life out of public view. I thought the most fascinating and disturbing item on display was the pair of tiny shoes that represent the popular way the Chinese displayed status in that time. Because wealthy women did not need their feet to work, they had them bound. Foot binding became a symbol of beauty in Chinese culture until it was outlawed in 1912, following the end of the Qing dynasty. I wonder if the expression, beauty feels no pain, originated in this period.
The item I most admire in the MIA is the massive jade carved “mountain!” When I first
visited the museum in the early 1970’s, I was captivated by it and it remains my favorite. During this exhibit, it has been appropriately relocated to the “Mountain” room. China’s mountains are considered divine realms and the walls in this room are covered with mountainscapes, an Earth Element.
The final room, with its white floor and glowing walls is a Yang room; it’s color, and the presence of a single white Qing Imperial jade vase, embodies the refined, discriminating Metal Element. The tour, which begins in darkness (Yin), ends in lightness (Yang).
This exhibit is both theatrical and traditional. It was delightful, from my Feng Shui perspective, to observe how Yin and Yang and the Five Elements were integrated. The surprise blending of four of our senses – sight, smell, hearing and touch – further enhanced this unique experience. It was a creative opportunity to immerse in and appreciate the power and beauty of the MIA’s collections from the Qing Dynasty.