Political or inspirational

The imperial robes arrived in London on 19th November. When they came out of the crates every member of the installation team was stunned by their beauty. This was not the first time I saw them in the flesh, but each piece still filled me with profound admiration. The skill of the Chinese weavers and embroiderers was out of this world. One has to see them to believe that such craftsmanship was possible

     Packing at the Palace Museum and installation at the V&A

Journalists have expressed a great deal of interest in the way the robes were preserved. The garments look so pristine – they said. How are they stored in the Palace Museum?

Today we take it for granted that museum objects are kept in purpose-built storerooms, inside cupboards with environment control. But we must not forget that before the robes became historic objects they were clothes that were worn, not ‘art’ that was for display. The well-being of the robes was the duty of the Imperial Household Department staff. In days before the invention of air-conditioners and humidifiers the robes were protected from fluctuating temperature by sturdy wooden cupboards and chests. Insect-repelling incense was placed inside the furniture, and palace eunuchs regularly aired the clothes to prevent the build-up of mildew.  

     Details of robes

But what about the 1911 Revolution? What about the two world wars? What about the Cultural Revolution? The journalists persisted. I of course do not know what happened during those turbulent years. Yet the fact that the robes have not suffered damage must mean that they had somehow escaped the notice of the Japanese invaders and the little red guards.

A few sceptical journalists suspected the exhibition to be a government initiative, aimed at boosting Sino-British relationship. Whereas that is not true, I was still bewildered at the way some people distrust their government. It is as if anything organized by the government has something sinister behind it. I murmured to one of the robes: “tell me, if you were sent to the UK not at the request of the V&A but at the request of Downing Street, would that make you less pure or less inspiring?” The robe, very wisely, remained silent, as it has done for the past 300 years.

In China it is the other way round. Anything organized or supported by the government is seen as good. Perhaps the Chinese understand that the ability to trust is a faculty too precious to throw away without a good reason. Once it is gone it would be very difficult to re-build.