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Emperor Qianlong's southern belle

By Zhao Xu | China Daily | Updated: 2017-09-16 07:34
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Emperor Qianlong. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Qianlong has been billed as a lady killer, but when he headed to his favorite retreat he had very serious regal duties on his mind.

When Emperor Qianlong arrived in Hangzhou for the first time in 1751 at the end of a journey lasting as long as four months, he was already 40, and it heralded the start of a relationship with the city that would play an important role in the second half of his life.

In fact over the next 33 years he would undertake the 1,500-kilometer journey from Beijing six times. These days, when we can be blase even about having breakfast in Beijing and dinner in Berlin the same day, it is easy for us to underestimate Qianlong's undertaking. However, given the logistics and physical rigors of such a journey - he was 73 when he made the last one - it is clear that Hangzhou held a special place for Qianlong, the longest-living - and reigning - emperor of Qing (1644-1911), China's last feudal dynasty.

The trips he made in those 36 years are known today as the "journeys to Jiangnan". The term Jiangnan means south of the Yangtze River and refers to large tracts of land covering what are now Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. Jiangnan was long China's hothouse, culturally and commercially, with its talented people filling the cabinet and taxes the royal coffer.

Hangzhou (also known as Lin'an when it served as the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty between 1129 and 1279), with its superb natural scenery and strong literary tradition, was the best place that Jiangnan had to offer. On every "journey to the south", Emperor Qianlong stopped in Hangzhou. In fact, five times, Hangzhou was the southernmost spot he reached before embarking on the return trip.

"Nowhere else beckoned him in the same way that Hangzhou did," says Ma Shengnan of the Palace Museum in Beijing. Ma is the curator of an exhibition now on at the Zhejiang Museum in Hangzhou. The exhibition, titled Ruler of a Golden Age, seeks to reestablish the link between the emperor and the city of his love, through more than 200 objects ranging from beautifully crafted jade, porcelain and lacquerware to works of painting and calligraphy commissioned or that he executed himself.

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