BOSTON — By the latter half of the 1700s the Emperor Qianglong of China ruled over one of most wealthy, powerful and brilliant countries in the world, in a time that Yale’s China scholar, Jonathan Spence, called “one of the richest centuries in China’s long history.”
The emperor presided over one of the world’s most spectacular civilizations. A contemporary, Voltaire, called China’s imperial organization “the best the world has ever seen.” Indeed, all Europe was in awe of China and its culture. “Chinoiserie” was all the rage, in furniture, in wall paper, in porcelain in the drawing rooms of Europe, and tea would soon become Britain’s national drink.
But amid this splendor the seeds of China’s destruction were already being sewn, symbolized for me by a clock.
Late last year an extraordinary exhibition made its way from Beijing to the Essex and Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass. The exhibit, "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City," is presently showing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City through May 1. The exhibition is made up of treasures from Qianglong’s private chambers, not seen in almost 90 years since Pu Yi, the last emperor, was chucked out of the palace.
In it one can see the flowering of Qiang Dynasty art, already being influence by European Jesuits, just as European art was being influenced by China.
But what struck my eye in the exhibit was a large and very ornate European-made clock. It seems that China, despite all the inventions it had given the world, such as gun powder, had not yet developed a mechanical clock. Chinese told time by water clocks, or sun dials, but not by the spinning of gears that moved hands around a dial.
The emperor had to have this new technology, and so he imported European clocks for his palace. It is the only machine in the exhibit, and it jars the eye with its stark roman numerals in a garden of flowing Chinese calligraphy.
Qianglong could not foresee that the arrival of a European mechanical clock into the inner chambers of the Forbidden City would be a Trojan Horse. For the West was expanding, and on the cusp of an industrial revolution, making machines that would conquer China and most of the world. The clock would soon enough be followed by rapid-fire rifles, advance artillery and warships-all more technologically advanced than anything made in China at that time.
The organization of empire, that Voltaire so admired, was showing signs of stress by the time Qianglong died in 1799, and the following century would see Europe pushing its way into China, at first driven by commerce, and then by territorial designs that would end up dividing China’s coast into “concessions” ruled by Britons, French, Germans, Japanese, all picking over the bones of a prostrate China. The awe that Europe had for China in the 18th century would turn to contempt in the 19th and 20th.
In the beginning China resisted. Qianglong wrote a letter to George III of England, saying that he had no need of trade with the West. “We have never valued ingenious articles,” the emperor wrote. “Nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures,” forgetting, for the moment, his beloved clocks.
By the end of the next century China would be desperate for the technology that was destroying it, but it was too late.
In the 19th and 20th centuries China was tearing itself apart in civil wars, culminating in the coming of the Communism — a foreign ideology born of German philosophers and implemented by Russian tyrants. China then began its darkest hour, with mass executions of class enemies, cockamamie social engineering that caused famine and mass starvation, culminating in the Cultural Revolution in which the revolution began to eat its young. When I first visited China, more than 40 years ago, it was a country of automatons, drab, colorless, impoverished and spiritually defeated.
It has become a cliche to wonder at the new China of today, but suffice it to say that rising China once again has the awe of the West. Its cities spring up from rice paddies modern and spectacular. Its trains run at super speed through gleaming stations. China is working on a space program while all of the above are in decline in our society. It has risen from an economy less than the smaller countries of Europe into the second biggest in the world.
Yes, China has its organizational problems, just as the Emperor Qianglong had. But then China was beginning its long decline, while today it’s in a state of rapid rise. And, yes, it has its human rights problems, but nowhere in the world have so many been lifted out of poverty so quickly. Economic power is hurrying eastward, just as two centuries ago it began to concentrate in the West.
Young people don’t bother with clocks and wristwatches any more. In the next century, or sooner, clocks will be in museums like the Emperor’s elaborate time piece. Young people use their cell phones, that can do a hundred things more than telling time or even making phone calls. And, of course, like so much of the world’s machines these days, they are made in China.