Hong Kong Palace Museum: How to celebrate Lunar New Year like an Emperor

Written by Rebecca CairnsKristie Lu Stout, CNN

It is the Lunar New Year. Dressed in their best ceremonial clothes, an 18th-century family sits down to dine at a lavish banquet in a house decorated with beautiful signs.

The event will sound familiar to many families, in China and around the world, enjoying their games, traditions and symbolic food during the holiday, which began Sunday. But there are important differences: This hotpot is richly decorated in cloisonné enamel, signs are inlaid with turquoise, jade, and rubies, and the ancestral fashion choice is a silk robe with dragon motifs hand-stitched with gold thread. It’s a Lunar New Year fit for a king.

“It’s a symphony of ideas,” said Daisy Wang, deputy director of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, where Qing-era treasures are displayed in a second-floor room that overlooks daily life in Beijing’s palace.

“You have to imagine what the Emperor and his family would feel, what they would taste, what they would touch, what they would smell,” Wang added. “We must use all our senses to imagine what happened 300 years ago, inside the Forbidden City.”

The $450 million building opened last summer and features a rotating collection of more than 900 treasures on loan from Beijing’s Forbidden City, from rare artifacts to delicate sculptures. The museum is marking its first Lunar New Year by inviting visitors to see how one of China’s longest-serving rulers celebrated the event, through beautiful exhibits.

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Decoding the past

The fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty, the Qianlong Emperor, was “one of the most powerful rulers in the world in the 18th century,” Wang said. “He ruled over a large area, with about 300 million people.”

His reign, from 1735 to 1796, was also marked by the prosperity of arts and crafts in the country. Known to be erudite and cultured, he published more than 40,000 poems during his lifetime, and amassed a large collection of antiquities and royal commissions during his six-decade reign.

Everywhere you look at the Palace Museum’s exhibits, the emperor’s penchant for luxury is on display, from the wooden hangings with jade floral motifs to the gold pendants. gourd decorations. The latter, encrusted with precious stones and bearing the Chinese characters for “luck,” are among more than 60 gourd ornaments commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor to decorate the Forbidden City during the Spring Festival in 1746 alone.

Other New Year-related items on display at the show include a pair of gold-plated necklaces.

Other New Year-related items on display at the show include a pair of gold-plated necklaces. Credit: CNN

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As with most paintings, it has “secret meanings,” Wang said. A symbol of fertility, bottles, or “hulu,” whose name sounds similar to the Chinese words for “good” and “wealth,” he added.

The king wasn’t just donning works of art, though: his extravagant taste extended to his wardrobe. “(He) never gave (only) one outfit,” Wang said. “It always had to be two, four, six.”

Known to change up to seven times a day, the standout piece on display is a gown decorated with hand-stitched dragons that fly amidst silly, gilded clouds.

This dragon robe was one of the best robes of the Qianlong Emperor.

This dragon robe was one of the best robes of the Qianlong Emperor. Credit: CNN

Common customs

With a taste of the great feasts, which often included hotpot, dumplings and roast duck, the Emperor’s meals – and the dishes and utensils used – will be familiar to many. According to Wang, Qianlong loved hotpot so much that he ate 200 servings of it in one year, which some believe contributed to his long life (he died in his late 80s).

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The Lunar New Year feast was very important to the King because it would be one of the few times he was allowed to dine in the same room with family and friends. “Due to security concerns, he always ate alone,” Wang said.

The most famous hotpot is used by the emperor of Qianlong.  Although beautifully decorated using the cloisonné technique, its copper interior makes it completely functional.

The most famous hotpot is used by the emperor of Qianlong. Although beautifully decorated using the cloisonné technique, its copper interior makes it completely functional. Credit: CNN

The royal objects he used, apart from being carved and adorned with precious stones, also reveal how many customs have remained the same.

“One thing that surprised me is how the way he celebrated the Lunar New Year is similar to our way of celebrating today.

“I hope that visitors will come and connect these old things with their lives.”

Watch the video above for an inside look at the Lunar New Year items on display at the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

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