By Jia Zhuoxuan
The Palace Museum in Beijing, located within the imperial palace of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644- 1911) dynasties, has become an internet celebrity of sorts in recent years, amassing a growing number of fans, especially young people, with innovative cultural products. From mini-cartoons retrofitted from figure paintings in the royal collection to the documentary film Masters in Forbidden City and TV programs National Treasures and New Products Available Forbidden City, not to mention a long list of souvenirs, the museum has been stirring sensations over and over again.
For Chinese New Year 2019 the museum is regaling visitors with a truly immersive experience of the traditional holiday as it was centuries ago.
‘Back to the Qing’
With red couplets and paintings of Door Gods on gates, smaller lanterns hung from eaves and two towering lamps in front of the Qianqing (Heavenly Purity) Hall, visitors feel whisked back to the Qing Dynasty.
This Spring Festival, the Palace Museum set up the exhibition “Celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year and Ushering in Auspiciousness,” which features displays of time-honored artifacts and interactive tours museum, highlight the New Year customs of the Qing royal family including activities to pray for blessings in the coming year, honoring ancestors and parents, dining with members of the royal family clan, handling state affairs, showing appreciation for righteous officials and enjoying recreation.
The exhibition has already attracted flocks of visitors. Zhang Yan and her daughter from nearby Hebei Province are two of them. “I saw news of this exhibition on TV and think it is great,” exclaimed Zhang. “So, I brought my daughter during winter break.” She hopes that her daughter, a primary school student, will develop affection for traditional Chinese culture during this visit.
“I am profoundly interested in traditional Chinese culture and history,” declared Ding Xiaoming, a college junior. “This exhibition features many items that are being shown to the public for the first time. That is what brought me here.” With attention drawn during the period from January 8 to April 7. The exhibits, all from the royal collection at the to a porcelain cup from the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), she discussed the item with her classmates and searched for more information on her mobile phone.
The exhibition recreates the “pen-initiating” scene in Yangxin (Mental Cultivation) Hall—the emperor performed his first writing of the New Year, a wellwishes message written with a brush with a grip carved with the characters for “evergreen.” Also on display are replicas of some musical instruments used by the royal band.
“I am most drawn to the golden grail from which the emperor drank during New Year prayer,” revealed guide Wang Shan. “Its name indicates wishes for lasting rule of the Qing regime.” She became a fan of the Palace Museum and its collections after watching the show National Treasures. She now works as a volunteer guide at the museum.
One section of the exhibition is dedicated to objects used in the palace during the holiday such as New Year themed paintings and lanterns and the Fu (happiness) character as written by five Qing emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong, Jiaqing and Daoguang. Another section shows recreational activities of the royal family during the holiday. The painting Ice Games , which has seldom been displayed for the public, depicts Emperor Qianlong watching ice sports on frozen Taiye Lake on the eighth day of the first lunar month.
With nearly 1,000 antiques on display, the exhibition is the largest in the history of the Palace Museum. By reconstructing the New Year pageantry of the Qing rulers with innovative means, the museum welcomes visitors to an attraction rich in festive flair.
Digital Technology Enhancing the Experience
The exhibition includes a digital section which has been warmly received. At the entrance, cartoon-character Door Gods greet visitors with a grimace from behind the red curtain. In the subsection called Park of Icy Fun, people can wave their hands in front a giant screen projecting a painting of New Year celebrations by Emperor Qianlong and his family to see snow falling from the sky in the picture. The faster they wave, the heavier the snow becomes. And children in the painting make snow sculptures with it.
Another sub-section is lined with floor screens and reflection devices to create the digital illusion of setting off fireworks and lighting lanterns. The sight is based on ancient paintings in the museum.
By harnessing hi-tech means the digital exhibition brings visitors “into” scenes of traditional New Year celebrations featuring activities such as playing ice sports, watching winter flowers, lighting lanterns and fireworks and performing rituals to pray for good luck. It is a totally new experience.
“What foods did the royal family eat during the Spring Festival?” “What ice sports did they play?” A crowd of visitors threw questions one after another at robotic guide Xiao Du and received witty answers. Xiao Du led them through the exhibition while elaborating on the customs and culture of Spring Festival, explaining what it was like to live like a king during this holiday.
To bring its collection “alive,” the Palace Museum implemented numerous innovations in recent years to build a digital version of itself. Its apps, for instance, bring the museum, its exhibits, and the culture and stories behind them to everyone connected to the internet. The V Forbidden City program aims to offer an onsite experience to the public via VR technologies.
Curator Shan Jixiang believes that the museum must stay in touch with the public and evolve if it wants to attract broader attention and optimally disseminate traditional culture. “We should provide public education that is fun and accurate to spread and rejuvenate traditional culture,” he said.
Creative Cultural Products
Making traditional culture fashionable and relevant in modern days is a mission that the Palace Museum has long maintained. In the past years it has launched successful explorations in developing creative cultural products that appeal to the younger generation and expanding commercial operations via the mobile internet.
Inspired by a souvenir sold at the Taipei Palace Museum featuring a reproduction of a written message by Emperor Kangxi, Shan Jixiang saw huge market potential for creative cultural products. Over the following years, Beijing’s Palace Museum began to establish a platform and open-source, interactive industrial chain to develop creative cultural products. Already brought to market are a suitcase tag marked “the same authority as the presence of the king,” a refrigerator magnet with characters meaning “imperial kitchen” and a folding fan inscribed with “the king is a real man.” They have all been smash hits with consumers and invigorated the museum that was once widely perceived as archaic and static. The Palace Museum has since ventured into a wide range of sectors and cooperated with more brands to produce a growing variety of products. It has also opened online marketing channels and even produced computer games.
“The museum’s souvenirs merge tradition and fashion to celebrate the festive season,” noted a woman shopping in the souvenir shop. “They bring traditional culture closer to our lives.” She called herself an aficionado of the museum’s creative cultural products and a frequent shopper at the store.
On the shelf of the shop are a good variety of products including New Year gift packages, mobile phone trinkets, cushions and perfume. The museum rolled out nearly 100 new products for the Chinese New Year all based on its collections and traditional Chinese culture. According to museum staff, young buyers especially love the palace-style account book, calendar and red envelop (for gift money) among others.
“Bringing our cultural heritage into people’s daily lives is the mission and obligation of the museum,” said Shan. The Palace Museum has so far developed about 12,000 creative cultural products with annual sales exceeding 1 billion yuan.
The 600-year-old Forbidden City has been a top tourist destination for decades. It is now gaining new appeal to the public thanks to incessant innovation by the Palace Museum staff.
In 2014, the museum released a group of online animated pictures named “Yongzheng: I Am Cute.” Afterwards, more similar pictures and emojis were released that poked fun at emperors, empresses, senior officials and palace maids as portrayed in ancient paintings. They immediately made the museum an internet celebrity.
Shan, who fashions himself the doorkeeper of the museum, wants to spread the culture of the Forbidden City in more ways and by more means. For instance, the 2016 documentary Masters in Forbidden City turned the spotlight on staff members who preserve and repair artifacts in the imperial collections. The TV program National Treasures scored high ratings among both broadcast and online viewers, and New Products Available · Forbidden City was also well received.
All these efforts have constructed a new public image for the Palace Museum and the Forbidden City. The formerly exclusive royal residence is now the opposite of an out-ofbounds area for average people. It is adapting to new times and reaching out to the public. “The Forbidden City offers the world’s largest and best-preserved ancient palace complex and 1.86 million antiques,” noted Shan. “These cultural resources should become part of people’s lives. We should make antiques trendy.”
Next year the Forbidden City will celebrate its 600th birthday. “Handing down a grandiose Forbidden City to posterity for the next 600 years” is the wish of its gatekeeper Shan Jixiang.