Ziminzhong: Chinese Clocks

Gilt-metal-zimingzhong-elephant 12-The-Palace-Museum

In London, there is a major new exhibition featuring 23 mechanical clocks from China, zimingzhong, currently on loan from The Palace Museum. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through the 18th century, from the Chinese trading port of Guangzhou to the Forbidden City in the centre of Beijing. Translating to ‘bells that ring themselves’, zimingzhong are more than just clocks: they present an enchanting combination of a flamboyant aesthetic, timekeeping, music, and sometimes movement using mechanisms new to most people in 1700s China.

Wang Xudong, Director of The Palace Museum, commented on the theme of the exhibition, ‘In the 1580s, Western clocks entered China’s interior from its southern coast, and the country’s history of clock collection and manufacture began. The rich collection of timepieces in the Forbidden City serves not only as a medium of contact between China and the Western world, but also as a vehicle of cultural diversity: through a unique historical angle, it showcases over three centuries of communication, exchange, and integration between China and the wider world’.

Chinese Emperors’ Obsession with Clocks

The exhibition looks at successive emperors’ obsessive collecting of these remarkable clockwork instruments, the origins of the unique trade, as well as how the inner workings of the elaborate treasures that inspired British craftsmen and emperors alike actually worked. The journey begins with the ornate Pagoda Zimingzhong, a celebration of the technology and design possibilities of zimingzhong. The clock, over one metre tall, dates from the 1700s and was made in London during the Qing dynasty (1636-1911) in China. The complex moving mechanism is brought to life in an accompanying video showing how the nine delicate tiers slowly rise and fall. The Emperors and Zimingzhong section of the exhibition reveals the vital role of these clocks in facilitating early cultural exchanges.

Visitors can learn how some of the first zimingzhong to enter the Forbidden City were brought by missionaries in the early 1600s, seeking to ingratiate themselves in Chinese society by presenting beautiful automata to the emperor. Decades later, the Kangxi Emperor (r 1662-1722) began collecting the automata, which he christened ‘zimingzhong’, displaying them as ‘foreign curiosities’ and demonstrating his mastery of time, the heavens, and his divine right to rule. Lord Macartney, the first British Ambassador to the court noted in 1793 when he visited the Qianlong emperor (r 1736-1795) in the imperial audience hall at Yuanming Yuan, ‘At the end I observed a musical clock that played 12 old English tunes … On the dial appeared in large characters, “George Clarke, Clock and Watchmaker of Leadenhall Street, London”’.

English Clocks in China

One of the most popular London clockmakers at the Qing court was James Cox (died circa 1791), and he is also the best documented British clockmaker who participated in the Chinese market in the late 18th century. Cox’s association with the Qing court began in 1766, when he was commissioned by the East India Company to construct an elaborate pair of clockwork automata in the form of chariots that were to be given as a gift for the Qianlong Emperor. His musical clock of a crane carrying a pavilion is redolent of Chinese motifs – the choice of bird, the single branch of lingzhi (fungus of immortality) it carries in its beak, as well as the pair of peaches on the saddle-flap offering wishes for longevity. The delicate outer casing and beautiful decorations were almost certainly made in China. These British zimingzhong although designed for the Chinese market were made by craftsmen who had often never travelled to Asia and merely reflected British perceptions of Chinese culture in the 1700s. Europeans were fascinated by the exotic East and used a combination of elements from China, Japan, and India, such as pagodas, up-turned roofs, and roof ornaments, as well as a menageries of real and mythical beasts – elephants, dragons, and phoenixes.

On display in the ‘Design’ section is a selection of clocks that embody this attempt at a visual understanding of Chinese tastes, including Zimingzhong with turbaned figure. This piece mixes imagery associated, again, with China, Japan, and India to present a generalised European view of an imagined East, reflecting the ‘chinoiserie’ style. This not only highlights British people’s interest in China, but also their lack of cultural understanding of these faraway lands.

Clocks and the Trade Routes from London to the East

One theme that pervades the exhibition is trade, or exchange, and the important trade route from London to the East. This journey, which took up to a year, is traced in order to explore how the sought-after goods in Europe, which British merchants bought in the great trade ports of China, such as silk, tea, and porcelain, made their way back home. Whilst the demand for Chinese goods was high, British merchants were also keen to develop their own export trade and British-made luxury goods like zimingzhong provided the perfect opportunity to grow. This exchange of goods also led to the exchange of skills.

The ‘Mechanics’ section explores how automata and mechanical and musical clocks worked. One such clock in the exhibition features decorative lotus flowers that were created by using Chinese and European technology. When wound, a flock of miniature birds swim on a glistening pond as the potted lotus flowers open. The sumptuous decorative elements are powered by a mechanism made in China while the musical mechanism was made in Europe.

Artistic Skills and Techniques

The  ‘Making’ section explores the artistic skills and techniques needed to create these special clocks. On display together, for the first time, are the Temple zimingzhong made by key British maker, James Upjohn, in the 1760s that is displayed alongside his memoir, which provides rich insight into the work involved in creating its ornate figurines and delicate gold filigree. Four interactive mechanisms that illustrate technologies used to operate the clocks are also on display. Provided by Hong Kong Science Museum, these interactive elements allow visitors to look deeper into the complex inner workings of these delicate workings.

Although beautiful to behold, zimingzhong were not purely decorative. As timekeepers, they had a variety of uses, including organising the Imperial household and improving the timing of celestial events such as eclipses. The ability to predict changes in the night sky with greater accuracy helped reinforce the belief present in Chinese cosmology that the emperor represented the connection between heaven and earth. Accompanying the clocks is a publication, from 1809, written by Chaojun Xu and on loan from the Needham Research Institute, is the Illustrated Account of Zimingzhong. The document was used as a guide for converting the Roman numerals used on European clocks into the Chinese system of 12 double-hours (shi) and represents the increasing cultural exchanges between nations.

Sophisticated Music Technology

Part of the appeal of the elaborate clocks is the sophisticated music technology they showcased; these objects often played a selection of popular European or Chinese songs. Skilled programmers would convert written musical scores into mechanisms. Throughout the exhibition, an accompanying soundscape of the clocks’ melodies is heard, including an extract from the ‘Molihua’, or ‘Jasmine Flower’, a popular Chinese folk song.

Also on show are rare books and archival material from the Science Museum Group Collection, including Louis Le Comte’s account of his visit to China; a clock made by one of London’s leading clockmakers, George Graham; an analemmatic sundial made by the talented mathematical instrument maker, Thomas Tuttell; and a selection of hand tools from James Watt’s workshop. These objects aim to complement the stories represented by the zimingzhong, showcasing the complexity of the instrument and the clockmaking trades.

The final section explains why the zimingzhong trade began to decline. In 1796, Emperor Jiaqing ascended the throne and he believed zimingzhong to be a frivolous waste of money and, with his influence, the trade simply faded away. However, today, there are more than 1,500 of these clocks that are now cared for by the Palace Museum Conservation Hospital and are on permanent display in the Forbidden City. Zimingzhong now reveal a snapshot in time, allowing the viewer to not only enter imagined 18th-century lavish interiors of the Forbidden City, but also to contemplate the complex global trade and exchange created by these miraculous clocks.

On show until 2 June, 2024, Science Museum, London, sciencemuseum.org.uk