Kangxi’s Travels

Emperor Kangxi (National Palace Museum)

The Kangxi Emperor (1654 – 1722) is the third emperor of the Qing dynasty (1636–1912) and the longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history, with an official 61 years on the throne from the age of 7, although his first 6 years were understandably a regency.

He is considered one of the greatest emperors, with territorial conquests and many years of stability and prosperity for the country.  He is also notable for commanding the creation of the monumental Kangxi Dictionary (Kangxi Zidian).

The Kangxi Emperor undertook six tours of Jiangnan, (South of the River) during his reign “to experience the waterways and also because I desire to understand the living conditions of the people.”

The Yellow River and the Grand Canal were vital to agriculture and trade, and also the Manchu Qing Dynasty was still consolidating its hold on the South.

Route of 2nd Tour

Kangxi commissioned a series of handscrolls to document his second Southern Inspection Tour in 1689, a journey of almost 2000 miles. The famous landscape painter Wang Hui (1632–1717) designed the 12 scrolls to record the sites and major events of the journey.  His full-size drafts had to be approved by the emperor before many artists contributed to the final paintings. Each scroll is 67.8 cm high; the total length of the set is over 200 metres, and includes more than 30,000 figures. They took more than 6 years to complete. Kangxi was so pleased with the finished scrolls that he gave Wang Hui the title Shanshui qinghui (Landscape Clear and Radiant).

Scroll 7 Kangxi worshipping at Mount Tai

The scrolls were carefully stored with imperial documents and portraits for nearly 200 years after Kangxi’s death, but the Western forces which invaded China in 1900 looted many art works, so some of the scrolls are now in Western collections.  Scrolls 1, 9, 10, 11 and 12 are in the Palace Museum (Beijing).  Scrolls 2 and 4 are in the Guimet Museum (Paris), scroll 3 is in the Metropolitan Museum (New York), and scroll 7 is in the Mactaggart Art Collection of the University of Alberta.  A section of 6 is on loan to the Phoenix Art Museum, and scroll 6 was reconstructed by Sotheby’s in 2020.  The whereabouts of 5 and 8 are not known.

Notable events depicted include worshipping at Mount Tai, one of the five sacred mountains.

The scrolls use a continuously changing perspective to depict different scenes and objects in the foreground, middle ground, and background, as if the viewer walks through the space or hovers above it.  Western influence was starting to be felt in Qing art, but vanishing-point perspective was not used in these scrolls.  One almost cinematic device is the use of mist to show a large distance travelled.

Scroll 7 mist

In 1988 David Hockney used scroll 7 to create a film entitled A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China.  Subtitling it Surface Is Illusion But So Is Depth, Hockney explains how the varying Chinese perspective in the scroll differs from formal Western perspective, and compares the varying spatial depictions of the Kangxi scroll with the later Qianlong Emperor’s (Kangxi’s grandson) Southern Inspection Tour scroll 4.  You can see the trailer and excerpts, but the whole film seems not to be available at the moment.