Hong Kong Palace Museum: How to Celebrate the Lunar New Year Like an Emperor

written by Rebecca CairnsKristi Lou Stout, CNN

It’s the Lunar New Year. An 18th-century family, dressed in their finest ceremonial clothes, sits down to a lavish banquet in a room adorned with auspicious banners.

This scene will be familiar to many families across China and the world, as they enjoy their symbolic festivities, traditions and foods during the holiday period, which began on Sunday. But there are a few important differences: the hot pot dish is ornately decorated with cloisonné enamel, the markings are set in turquoise, jade, and ruby, and the patriarch’s choice of costume is a silk robe with dragon motifs hand-stitched in gold thread. It is a suitable Lunar New Year for the Emperor.

“It’s a symphony of the senses,” said Daisy Wang, deputy director of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, where these Qing Dynasty treasures are on display in a second-floor gallery focusing on daily life in Beijing’s imperial palace.

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

The $450 million building opened last summer and contains a rotating collection of more than 900 treasures on loan from Beijing’s Forbidden City, from rare porcelain to delicate scroll paintings. The museum celebrates its first Lunar New Year by inviting visitors to witness how one of China’s longest-reigning emperors celebrated the occasion, through the auspicious pieces on display.

Decipher the past

Wang said that the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong, was “one of the most powerful rulers on earth in the eighteenth century.” He was ruling over a vast region that probably had a population of more than 300 million people.”

His reign, from 1735 to 1796, was also marked by a flourishing of the arts and creativity in the country. Known as an erudite and erudite, he published more than 40,000 poems during his lifetime, and amassed an enormous collection of ancient and commissioned imperial art during his six-decade reign.

Everywhere you look in the Palace Museum’s exhibit, the emperor’s penchant for luxury is evident, from hanging panels featuring jade floral motifs to a pair of gold plates. Pumpkin decorations. The latter, decorated with semi-precious stones and featuring the Chinese characters for “great wealth,” is among more than 60 gourd-shaped decorations commissioned by Emperor Qianlong to decorate the Forbidden City during the Spring Festival in 1746 alone.

Some of the Lunar New Year-related items on display in the gallery include a pair of golden gourd motifs.

Some of the Lunar New Year-related items on display in the gallery include a pair of golden gourd motifs. credit: CNN

As with many works of art, they contain “hidden meanings,” Wang said. She added that the fertility symbol, or “hulu,” has a name similar to the Chinese words for “auspicious” and “wealth.”

The Emperor wasn’t just commissioning works of art, though: His extravagant taste extended to his wardrobe. “(He) never asked for (only) one piece of clothing,” Wang said. “It always had to be two, four, six.”

He has been known to change his clothes up to seven times a day, one of the standout garments on display at the fair is a robe adorned with intricately hand-stitched dragons flying between fluffy clouds and encased in golden thread.

This Royal Dragon Robe was one of the Qianlong Emperor's finest ceremonial garments.

This Royal Dragon Robe was one of the Qianlong Emperor’s finest ceremonial garments. credit: CNN

Familiar traditions

Savoring extensive banquets, often consisting of hotpot, dumplings, and roast duck, the emperor’s dining habits—and the serving dishes and utensils used—will be familiar to many. According to Wang, Qianlong loved hotpot so much that he ate 200 such meals in one year, which some believe contributed to his longevity (he died in his late 80s).

Lunar New Year’s feasts were special for the emperor because it would be one of the very few occasions he was allowed to eat in the same room with family and friends. “Because of safety concerns, he usually ate alone,” said Wang.

An expensive hot pot used by the Qianlong Emperor.  While it is beautifully decorated using the cloisonné technique, its brass interior makes it fully functional.

An expensive hot pot used by the Qianlong Emperor. While it is beautifully decorated using the cloisonné technique, its brass interior makes it fully functional. credit: CNN

The imperial items he used, besides being gilded and encrusted with jewels, reveal how many traditions have remained intact.

“One of the things that surprised me was how similar the way we celebrate the Lunar New Year is to our practice today.

“I hope that visitors will come to relate these ancient things to their own lives.”

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

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