In October 2014, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts debuted Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing. This is the first time the VMFA has displayed Chinese art directly from China and it is an exciting case of cultural exchange between Beijing and Richmond. The William & Mary Confucius Institute could hardly resist this rare opportunity to view treasured Chinese cultural items here in America, so they arranged and sponsored a field trip for W&M students and Williamsburg residents to see the exhibit.
In preparation for the trip, WMCI held an event called China Night: My Chinese Collections on Friday, November 14, the evening before. This event was a more informal and personal display in which students and community members showcased souvenirs from their own trips to China and told the stories behind their significance.
Mr. Roy Snyder provided an interesting perspective by describing his two trips to China - one in 1976 the month after Chairman Mao passed away, and again twenty-five years later. Among the items he brought for display were the Mao-suit jacket that he wore throughout his first trip to China and a picture of a flag he waved at a march in opposition to the Gang of Four. He described the differences he saw in China between his two trips, such as how the bund in Shanghai was merely a simple walkway in the 70’s but had transformed into a grand promenade by the early 2000s. His stories demonstrated how quickly China has changed and grown in the past half-century.
Next, Henry Woodburn (’15) and Gillie Cuda (’17) showed souvenirs and gifts from recent study abroad experiences. Ms. Gillian Dawson shared two sets of porcelain figurines that had been in her family since she was born, and Ms. Christine Born shared various items including a silver brush and ornate incense burner that belonged to her mother who grew up in Hong Kong. Lastly, Ms. Yvonne Palmer shared a painted fan and a box of porcelain snuff bottles from her trips to antique stores in America. At the end of the event, participants enjoyed reminiscing of China while enjoying soda and pizza. It was a delight for multiple generations to share their experiences with China.
The next morning, many of those present at Friday’s China Night met up again, and were joined by fellow students, faculty, staff, and community members, as well as Professor Xin Wu’s Chinese Art History class to take two buses to the Forbidden City exhibit at the VMFA. Nearly 100 people in total participated in the trip, filling two buses provided by the Confucius Institute.
The exhibit itself filled most of the museum’s basement. Room after room of the exhibit contained furniture, trinkets, paintings, and items from the every-day life of royal families from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Lavish robes worn by the emperor or empress were paired with period portraits, showing just how the items would have been worn. The combination of actual artifacts and artistic depictions brought the pieces to life in a way that the robes or paintings alone could not have.
In another room, a massive painting of a horse hung on one wall. It was done by Castigliare, a Jesuit missionary, who brought Western art techniques to China and became an artist employed by the imperial court. Another room was dedicated to religious images that filled the court of the devout Emperor Qianlong. Lastly, visitors passed through a gift shop, where they could buy replica porcelain jewelry or other souvenirs.
The large turnout for China Night and this trip showed a growing interest in Chinese culture within the Williamsburg community. WMCI was very proud and delighted to provide the two outlets for students and community members to satiate their growing interest in China.