The solution to our equinox mystery


Go to Yongzheng's Screen of Twelve Beauties to see large size scans of this wonder. Above is a tiny reproduction of one of the twelve life-size paintings to whet your appetite, this one is entitled: Murmuring to Herself while Reading.

Yongli was Kangxi's younger son, and therefore a minor prince and not originally intended for emperorship. Thus he was free to spend his youth like Marcus Aurelius -- studying the classics, composing poetry, staging dramas, painting -- and generally polishing his cultural and connoisseur credentials. (And in the winter making snowmen -- in the shape of mythical Chinese beasts in classical poses, of course). Then the usual series of plots, counterplots, rebellions, arrests and poisonings have left him alone on the stage to claim the throne, thus giving China one of her greatest connoisseur emperors.

In his youth, he had commissioned many works of art, one of them being this series of twelve portraits of beautiful women with Yongli's favorite toys: his birds, his antiques, his poetry and paintings and even -- calligraphy in his own hand. (In this painting, the calligraphy on the wall is a well known, and still extant, piece by Mi Fu (1051-1107); and the book before her is from the imperial edition of the poems of Du Qiu; but the painting on the wall remains unidentified). When he became emperor these paintings were considered compromising and packed away. (They were not rediscovered till 1950's). At one point Emperor Yongzheng (as the once prince Yongli had become) had to write a memorial apologizing for their existence and explaining how they had really been intended as a serious work of art and not some sort of prurient eye-candy, Mencius forbid.

(Another human art universalism: Chinese art has the same problem with moralizing kill-joys as our own and Muslim art does. The moralizing kill-joys are invariably just the fellows who can't afford the art in question. The point is this: if I cannot have it, neither should you. Fie. Says a poor man, who can barely afford his one wife, to a rich man: thou shallt have but one wife at a time, says God).

Perhaps as a result of this cover-up, we know almost nothing about these paintings. All objects in them seem to have been real objects (most have been identified); were the women also real people? Or were they conceived as kind of muses -- allegories of connoisseurship?

Six of them are now on show at the Taipei National Palace Museum as part of the Yongzheng show.


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