Clockwork wonders tell tale of cultural exchange

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An exhibition in London's Science Museum demonstrates how modern timepieces were exported to China through elaborate Western craftsmanship. [Photo/Xinhua]

Some of the most elaborate and culturally important artifacts from Beijing's Palace Museum have gone on display at London's Science Museum for the first time, as part of an exhibition looking at the art of clockmaking, and the way it brought two distant cultures together.

The exhibition, entitled Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China's Forbidden City, contains 23 examples of how 18th-century technology from the United Kingdom found an enthusiastic home in China, and how the meeting of cultures produced some spectacularly complex and decorative pieces of what was then cutting-edge technology.

The media release for the exhibition says how these "opulent constructions … combined timekeeping, music, and movement in a triumph of artistry and spectacle", and offer an insight into the two cultures' early perceptions of one another.

Translated as "bells that ring themselves", zimingzhong pieces are a fusion of Britain's world-leading clockmaking technology and the artistic tastes of imperial China, with many pieces incorporating elements of Japan and India in a hybrid estimation of the tastes of a distant continent that the craftsmen responsible had never visited.

Some of the first zimingzhong to find their way to China were taken by Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary in the early 1600s. His 1616 publication On the Christian Expedition among the Chinese was a hugely popular success, translated into numerous languages for a European audience keen to learn about China, and mention of the popularity of what the locals referred to as "foreign curiosities" encouraged the taking of such pieces to win favor in China in the years that followed.

Jane Desborough, keeper of Science Collections at the Science Museum, said it was a thrill to have such culturally and technologically significant pieces on display.

"The exhibition is part of our global work," she explained. "We recently had another of our exhibitions, about COVID, Injecting Hope, on at the Guangdong Science Center, which is the world's biggest science museum, so we are very keen to collaborate with China in particular."

Start of the story

Although it was Ricci who introduced modern clock technology to China, it is in fact China itself where the roots of mechanized timekeeping can be found.

"Clocks were invented in China in 1088 by Su Song with his waterwheel, but that technology and knowledge seems to have been lost over time, so when clocks arrived with Ricci, and in subsequent years, they appeared new and novel, and the Qing Dynasty emperors became really interested in clockwork objects and zimingzhong," said Desborough.

Britain became a world leader in clock technology in the 1600s, most famously through the work of Thomas Tompion, one of whose clocks sold at auction in 2015 for 4.5 million pounds ($5.7 million), and later Robert Harrison, whose ultra-precise marine chronometer transformed the accuracy of navigation.

"In the 18th century, the British realized the emperors had a real interest in and taste for zimingzhong, so they started to design pieces in a way that they hoped would appeal to them," Desborough explained.

But artisans making pieces they hoped would match the tastes of people they had never met, in countries they had never seen, made for some imaginative, if not entirely accurate designs, which only serve to add to the elaborate nature of the zimingzhong in the exhibition.

"They had an imagined view of the East, what they were creating was what they thought would appeal, and that was very different from reality," Desborough said.

The exhibition quotes a poem by Emperor Qianlong in 1784 about his admiration for the new technology: "Precious and unique treasures come from foreign boats, More delicately made than the Palace Lotus time-piece. It does not rely on water or fire, Seconds and minutes tick by automatically. It is truly heavenly made, And reports the time by the sound."

The exhibition, entitled Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China's Forbidden City, in London's Science Museum ends in June. [Photo/Xinhua]

Snapshot in time

In addition to their aesthetic values, and mirroring their makers' somewhat imprecise impressions of Asia, the exhibition explains the symbolic importance of owning such treasures, as, in the words of the exhibition notes, "displaying 'exotic' items from a generalized 'West' showed that (the emperors) had power and influence around the world".

But they were not only ornaments to demonstrate social status. Historically, astronomers were vital members of the imperial court because of their ability to interpret the stars, providing the emperor with knowledge that reinforced his status as someone connected to the heavens.

"The ability to use clocks and mathematical instruments was very important," said Desborough. "To predict things like eclipses meant the emperor was seen as someone who unified heaven and Earth. They also seemed to find their moving parts very entertaining, and used the clocks as timepieces to organize their days. They were really interested in them."

Notebooks and documents from the craftsmen involved in making the clocks are also a revealing snapshot in time.

"We're very lucky to have these surviving records, as they give us a real insight into how people thought at the time," Desborough added.

Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, said it had been "a dream … for many years" to host the exhibition, since he had first seen the zimingzhong at the Hong Kong Science Museum, and in Beijing.

"The fusion of art and science, technology and design was utterly enchanting, and that first meeting provided the inspiration to have our own exhibition," he added.

Splendid history

Another sign of close ties with China is that the Science Museum recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the China National Space Administration, which it hopes will result in some Chinese space program artifacts being added to its already extensive space collection.

Speaking at the exhibition's opening ceremony, Chinese Ambassador to the UK Zheng Zeguang said the pieces were a demonstration of the "splendid history of science and culture" of both countries, which had made important contributions to the progress of human civilization.

"Both sides have benefited tremendously from such exchanges in terms of enhancing mutual understanding and boosting their respective scientific and cultural development," he continued.

The exhibition pieces, he said, are "the crystallization of scientific and artistic exchanges between the East and the West", and their styles "borrowed from, blended with, and complemented each other".

They would continue to inspire contemporary scientists and artisans, he added, and "they will also spur more institutions of the two countries to engage in exchanges and cooperation".

There is no set ticket price to enter the exhibition, but people are asked to pay what they can afford, and Desborough said she hoped visitors will take away not only an appreciation of the artistry and effort involved in making such fine pieces, but also an increased awareness of the times in which they were made, and the relationship between their countries of origin and destination.

"The exhibition covers three centuries of meetings between China and Britain, which was a very special time in the history of both countries," she said. "There was a real exchange of goods, technology and culture going on in that time, so I hope people will take that knowledge away with them."

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