The Qianlong Emperor developed his understanding of China’s antiquity through his long education in the Chinese classics. This had begun with his studies in the Princes’ School, where he and other princes were tutored by erudite scholars from the Hanlin academy who were masters of classical learning. This early education and the Emperor’s own adult ambition to emulate and outdo his imperial predecessors meshed with a personal passion for learning and for the arts. Through his education, the Emperor no doubt became conscious that a sign of a legitimate ruler was the possession of the bronzes of the ancient dynasties. Therefore, above and beyond his own personal enthusiasm for the arts, the Emperor must have had a keen interest in the power of collections of ancient artefacts as attributes of righteous rule. Together with military achievement and just administration, these possessions were evidence of a ruler’s virtue, a virtue that was necessary to sustain legitimacy.
Items collected typically by scholars, such as inkstones and seals, or rare natural objects, such as bizarrely shaped stones or wood fungi were admired and eulogised by the imperial collector. However, they were not in general intended to be exhibited and displayed, but were wrapped in silk cloths and kept in boxes. Their owner would only take them out to look at them and enjoy them alone or in the company of like-minded friends. This approach to the treatment and collecting of art differs greatly from European traditions, and can also be seen in the common Chinese term for a collection of paintings and calligraphy: ‘secret book-box’ (biji). The Chinese conception of collecting is highlighted most impressively in the small curio cabinets (duobaoge), boxes with a complicated construction, including many subdivisions and drawers, which the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736—95) had made to house the small valuables of his collection; many were made as elaborate birthday gifts for him.
Another lavish catalogue was devoted to the inkstones in the palace collection. As essential items of scholarly culture, these gave great value to the educated class from which officials were drawn, and had been collected with passionate enthusiasm and described in dozens of catalogues since as early as the Song era. The Emperor commissioned such a work in 1778: ‘The inkstones in the inner palace are too numerous by far…There is no catalogue bringing them together, which means that their tradition could be lost. That would be deplorable!’ He instructed the Grand Secretary Yu Minzhong (1714—1780) and several other high-ranking civil servants from the imperial secretariat to select the 200 inkstones of the highest quality from the palace collection and produce a catalogue with illustrations and explanatory notes. In it, all the surfaces of the inkstones which bear inscriptions are documented in a total of 464 detailed and accurate drawings. The Emperor even commissioned a second set of illustrations in the Western manner from Men Yingzhao (fl. 1778—82). The stones are arranged chronologically and by material, and an appendix lists the imitations of ancient inkstones commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor. The catalogue is the most comprehensive in history, and its illustrations and explanatory notes are of the highest quality.