THE Palace Museum (or the Forbidden City) was the imperial palace during China’s Ming and Qing dynasties. It now holds the biggest collection of China’s ancient works of art, including over 1,500 ancient timepieces, most of which are unique, one of a kind.
The Fengxian Palace, located on the eastern side of the Palace Museum, was originally the place where the Ming and Qing emperors offered sacrifices to their ancestors. Now, as the clock hall of the museum, it displays more than 100 exquisite clocks and watches collected there. As a testament to their high quality, these dazzling, complex, and ancient timepieces are still functional to this day, keeping track of the march of time.
Since the establishment of the chime clock center in the Forbidden City during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662-1722), the ancient timepiece repair skill has been passed on for over three centuries. It is the only intangible cultural heritage that has been passed on without break in the Forbidden City. In 2014, this skill was listed in the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China.
Chinese Emperors’ Fondness for Western Timepieces
Mechanical timepieces originated in Europe. Chinese emperors showed great interest since their introduction into China. Among them was the Ming Emperor Wanli (r. 1573-1620), who was their earliest royal collector.
On May 24, 2017, a visitor appreciates an exquisite clock displayed at the Forbidden City & Maritime Silk Road Exhibition in the Palace Museum.
In 1601, Italian missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in China and brought several gifts to Emperor Wanli, among which were a large clock and a small one. At that time, China mainly used water clocks and sundials to calculate time, which measured time through the flow of water and the movement of the shadow of the sun respectively. During the night, drums were beat at the start of each geng, or every two hours, to tell time. The two clocks Metteo Ricci brought attracted the attention of Emperor Wanli, who, amused at hearing the clock ticking and the seemingly automatic movement of its hands, rewarded Metteo richly. The two clocks were to be the first ones in the imperial collection.
The Qing emperors’ interest in clocks and watches multiplied as Western-originated ones were considered chic and had novelty value. Normally they were equipped with a variety of decorations, such as celestial bodies, chariots and horses, animals, flowers, and pavilions as gears. Once wound up, time would be told in different ways: either birds singing, flowers blossoming, chariots racing, or animals rolling eyes.
On May 31, 2016, Wang Jin is repairing a complex, exquisite old clock.
These novel designs, pleasant music, and the associated auspicious meanings pleased the residents of the palace. As a result, Western clocks became a fashion for the royals, who sought out ways to collect all kinds of rare ones. Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) was a perfect example who spared no effort to collect all kinds of fancy clocks and watches. He even ordered Guangdong customs officials to buy Western products at great expense.
On finding out that the Chinese emperors loved chic watches and clocks, foreign missions and missionaries all came to China with exquisite ones and presented them to the emperors in exchange for their interests in China. European watchmakers also saw the huge market in China. They seized the opportunity to make clocks with Chinese-style decorations to trade with Chinese enthusiasts. Gradually, the timepiece collection of the imperial palace grew, and each was exemplarily crafted.
Clock Making in the Qing Dynasty
The current collection of clocks in the Forbidden City does not originate entirely from Europe. In fact, a large portion was locally produced.
In 1648, the Qing imperial palace began making copies of Western clocks and doing simple repairs. Emperor Kangxi was diligent and studious, and had a strong interest in Western science. Totally fascinated by those clocks, an embodiment of modern science and technology in his eyes, Kangxi set up a chime clock center as an institution for the collection, manufacture and maintenance of royal timepieces.
During his grandson Emperor Qianlong’s reign, the chime clock center was changed into the clock-making office, responsible for the making of geng clocks and chime clocks among others. The geng clock is a combination of the Chinese way of time telling in different seasons at night with the Western way.
The surface of these clocks and watches is usually high quality timber dotted with enamel or golden lacquer to make it appear solemn and dignified. They were always made in the shape of traditional Chinese architecture, with themes based on blessings, forming a unique royal style.
All clocks in the Palace Museum were multifunctional: they were timekeepers, furniture, and decorations. For example, there is a clock designed for the emperor to lean on when tired, which, on tapping, would play music. Another example is a shelf clock, a paradigm of the combination of classic Chinese furniture with a clock. The clothes rack clock was used to hang the emperor’s hats, and the dresser clock has a mirror and space for the imperial concubines to put their cosmetics in.
Renowned timepiece repairer Wang Jin repairs the movement of an old music watch.
There are also some clocks remodeled from Western ones as per the emperor’s instructions. The retrofitting of clocks was one major task of the clock-making office as some were damaged over long use and needed repairs, and some needed new looks or new mobile units. With the emperor’s instructions, the office made big or small changes accordingly, while some changes were made only to meet the emperor’s taste.
A Craft Passed Down Generations
The clock-making office ceased to exist when the Qing Dynasty fell, but this ancient craft has been inherited and passed down to date.
Photos need to be taken first of the clock to be repaired before making a repair plan. Then, the accumulated dust is carefully removed, by vacuuming if necessary before disassembly. The clock is stopped and in the initial stages, the rust, if present, is removed followed by cleaning with solvent to remove the stains and blemishes accumulated over time.
Precision is what is abundantly required during the whole process, as most of the internal parts range between small and utterly miniscule in size. A missing or slightly damaged gear or a chain would lead to malfunction. Sometimes a missing part is as small as a sesame seed, shorter than a millimeter. Unlike modern clocks where a broken part could just be replaced with a new one, most of the times, the parts need to be repaired, as replacement is nearly impossible.
After all those procedures are done, the clock needs to be reassembled, and goes through trial runs. But if it still doesn’t work, it needs to be meticulously disassembled again, and the problem is attempted to be identified again. This is a painstaking and time-consuming job. More often than not, months or even years are spent repairing just one clock.
These exquisite clocks in the Forbidden City not only serve as exquisite decoration pieces, but can also perform their intended functions as well. The most difficult part is not the movement but the adornments, as a small spinning umbrella may have over 1,000 parts, not to mention the other complex figures. Therefore, modern technologies are also applied in addition to traditional skills to deal with all kinds of problems, to make them not only to keep good time, but also give a wonderful, smooth performance.
Besides, as each clock in the Palace Museum is handmade with no design drawing, each has its own unique internal structure and complications, inapplicable to others. To the repairers, they have a rule: adding is strictly prohibited as it would not only misrepresent history, but also tarnish the overall identity of the clock.
And as almost all of these ancient clocks belong to the royal collection, information about their history is rare, which causes obstacles for researchers and inheritors. In order to solve this problem, horological experts came up with a new way. They set up a file for each clock, and assigned them each a unique identification number and card for tracking their known history. There are plans to put a QR code beside each one for visitors to scan with their smart phones to view detailed multimedia information about them.
The clock repairing skills of the Qing Dynasty have been handed down to the fourth generation of repairers in the Palace Museum. The museum has organized training courses, in the hope of cultivating more professionals for timepiece repair at different museums in China, and books and manuals have also been written up to share the invaluable skills with future generations.
(Compiled by China Today)