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ZIMINGZHONG 凝时聚珍: CLOCKWORK TREASURES FROM CHINA’S FORBIDDEN CITY OPENS AT THE SCIENCE MUSEUM

  • A major new exhibition featuring over 20 glorious clockwork treasures beloved by Chinese emperors, and loaned from The Palace Museum in Beijing, opens today at the Science Museum in London;
  • Displayed exclusively together in the UK for the first time, visitors can feast their eyes on these opulent constructions which combine timekeeping, music and movement in a triumph of artistry and spectacle; 
  • Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City takes visitors on a unique journey through the 18th century to explore the technical expertise, creativity and international trade behind these centuries-old zimingzhong clocks;
  • Visitors are invited to pay what they can to see the exhibition and join in a special edition of the museum’s free adults-only, after-hours event, Chinese New Year Lates, taking place on 1 February from 18.30.
Gallery view of Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City
L-R: Visitors looking at the 铜镀金象驮水法表 Gilt-metal zimingzhong with rich decoration in Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City at the Science Museum © Science Museum Group; Gallery view of Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City at the Science Museum © Science Museum Group.

Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍 : Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City
1 February – 2 June 2024
Ticketed; Pay what you can (minimum £1 per person)
https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/zimingzhong

A major new exhibition featuring 23 resplendent mechanical clocks, called zimingzhong, on loan from The Palace Museum in Beijing and never before displayed together in the UK, opens today at the Science Museum. Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City takes visitors on a journey through the 18th century, from the Chinese trading port of Guangzhou and onto the home of the emperors in the Forbidden City, the UNESCO-listed site in the centre of Beijing.

The exhibition shines a light on the emperors’ obsessive collection of these remarkable clockwork instruments, the origins of the unique trade, and the inner workings of the elaborate treasures that inspired British craftsmen and emperors alike. 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.

Visitors begin their journey with the ornate Pagoda Zimingzhong, a celebration of the technology and design possibilities of zimingzhong. The unique piece, over 1m tall, dates from the 1700s and was made in London during the Qing Dynasty in China. The complex moving mechanism is brought to life in an accompanying video which shows the nine delicate tiers slowly rise and fall.

The Emperors and Zimingzhong section reveals the vital role of zimingzhong 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 (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.

Gallery views of Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City
L-R: Visitor in Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City at the Science Museum © Science Museum Group; Visitor looking at the 铜镀金仙鹤驮亭式表 Zimingzhong with parts from China and Britain in Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City at the Science Museum © Science Museum Group.

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group, said: 'The flamboyant combination of design flair and mechanical precision exemplified in these three-hundred-year-old time pieces must be seen to be believed. We are deeply grateful to The Palace Museum in Beijing for entrusting us with these rare treasures from the Forbidden City.' 

The clocks’ journey from London to the southern Chinese coast is revealed in the Trade section. Visitors can follow the trade route which took up to a year and discover the sought-after goods which British merchants bought when they reached the coast including silk, tea and porcelain. Within this section, visitors can also see a preserved porcelain tea bowl and saucer set which sank on a merchant ship in 1752 and was found centuries later at the bottom of the South China Sea.  

Whilst the demand for Chinese goods was high, British merchants were keen to develop their own export trade and British-made luxury goods like zimingzhong provided the perfect opportunity to do so. This exchange of goods led to the exchange of skills. In the Mechanics section of the exhibition visitors can marvel at luxurious pieces like the Zimingzhong with mechanical lotus flowers, which was constructed using Chinese and European technology. When wound, a flock of miniature birds swim on a glistening pond as potted lotus flowers open. The sumptuous decorative elements are powered by a mechanism made in China while the musical mechanism was made in Europe.

The Making section of the exhibition explores the artistic skills and techniques needed to create zimingzhong. On display together for the first time are the Temple zimingzhong made by key British maker, James Upjohn, in the 1760s and 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 zimingzhong are also on display. Provided by Hong Kong Science Museum, these interactives allow visitors to delve into the complex inner workings of these delicate clocks.

British zimingzhong were designed for the Chinese market by craftsmen who had often never travelled to Asia and reflect British perceptions of Chinese culture in the 1700s. On display in the Design section visitors can see a selection of zimingzhong that embody this attempt at a visual understanding of Chinese tastes, including the Zimingzhong with Turbaned Figure. This piece mixes imagery associated with China, Japan and India to present a generalised European view of an imagined East, reflecting the ‘chinoiserie’ style that was popular in Britain at the time. It highlights British people’s interest in China but also their lack of cultural understanding.  

Although beautiful to behold, zimingzhong weren’t 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, titled 自鸣钟表图说 (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, 时 (shi) and represents the increasing cultural exchanges between nations.

Jane Desborough, Keeper of Science Collections at the Science Museum, said: ‘I hope visitors enjoy exploring these intriguing and detailed works of art and can also marvel at the technological skill and mechanisms behind each zimingzhong. Timepieces like Zimingzhong with a crane carrying a pavilion represent a very special meeting of cultures and technology – its intricate mechanism was made by British maker and retailer, James Cox, but the delicate outer casing and beautiful decorations were almost certainly made in China.’  

Gallery view of Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City
L-R: 铜镀金乐箱上亭式人打钟 Zimingzhong with Turbaned Figure in Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City at th¬e Science Museum © Science Museum Group; Visitor looking at the 铜镀金珐琅葫芦顶渔樵耕读钟 Zimingzhong with rich decoration through a moon gate in Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City at the Science Museum © Science Museum Group.

Part of the appeal of zimingzhong was also the sophisticated music technology they showcased; they 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.

To explore the cultural legacy of zimingzhong, the Science Museum has collaborated with China Exchange to gather stories and memories from people of Chinese heritage living in London. These are on display throughout the exhibition and provide a range of rich, personal perspectives on the significance and meaning of zimingzhong.

Visitors can also see 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 Watts’ workshop. These objects beautifully complement the stories represented by the zimingzhong, showcasing the complexity of the instrument and clockmaking trades.  

On entering the final section, visitors can uncover why the zimingzhong trade began to decline. In 1796, Emperor Jiaqing ascended the throne; he believed zimingzhong to be a frivolous waste of money and the trade faded. But zimingzhong continued to be used by China’s elite class and highlighted the growing global links being forged by trade. 

Wang Xudong, Director of The Palace Museum, said: ‘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. This is an exhibition worth visiting!’

Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City opens at the Science Museum today until Sunday 2 June 2024. The public are invited to pay what they can to visit the exhibition, with a minimum ticket cost of £1.00 per person.  

To celebrate today’s opening, visitors can join the museum’s Chinese New Year Lates marking the Year of the Dragon from 18.30 – 22.00 on 1 February. This special edition of the popular adults-only, after-hours event features live lion and dragon dancers, Chinese drummers, and fun-packed New Year’s arts and crafts. Plus, visitors can listen to themed talks on the history of timekeeping, quantum physics and even time travel, as well as enjoy the usual Lates highlights including the chance to dance under real rockets at our silent disco and explore the museum after hours.

Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City is generously supported by The Huo Family Foundation (Associate Funder) and opens at the Science Museum with thanks to the Lee Kai Hung Foundation. The full Chinese title for this exhibition is: 《凝时聚珍: 中英钟表技艺交流展》.

ENDS

NOTES TO EDITORS 

For further information or to arrange interviews please contact Lucy Preston on +44 (0)20 7942 4718 or lucy.preston@sciencemuseum.ac.uk. Please find images available to download here. Please note that images must be displayed with the accompanying image credit (name of object © The Palace Museum) and must also mention their display in the upcoming exhibition, Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍. The images must not be stored and must be deleted immediately after use.

WHAT IS A ZIMINGZHONG? 

The mechanical clocks in this exhibition were known to the emperors of China as ‘zimingzhong’ (roughly pronounced zi-ming-jong), meaning ‘self-sounding bells’ or ‘bells that ring themselves’. Most zimingzhong would tell the time, move and played music when operated. The zimingzhong in this exhibition are around 300 years old and very fragile. To protect them for future generations they will not be running or tell the time. In the 1700s, zimingzhong were known to British merchants as ‘sing-songs’. Today, The Palace Museum refers to them as clocks. 

ABOUT THE SCIENCE MUSEUM  

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group, the world’s leading group of science museums that share a world-class collection providing an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical achievements from across the globe. Over the last century the Science Museum, has grown in scale and scope, inspiring visitors with exhibitions covering topics as diverse as robots, codebreaking, cosmonauts and superbugs. The Science Museum was named a winner of the prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year prize for 2020. www.sciencemuseum.org.uk. Follow on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.  

ABOUT THE PALACE MUSEUM  

Established in 1925, The Palace Museum is a massive and broadly representative museum on traditional Chinese art, based on the imperial palace of the consecutive Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, known as the Forbidden City. In 1961, the State Council listed the Forbidden City as one of China’s most important protected cultural heritage sites, and in 1987 it was inscribed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO. Today, The Palace Museum houses over 1.86 million artistic pieces, showcasing the age-old and splendid Chinese civilization to the public through the imperial palace architecture, the reproduction of original interior settings, and permanent and special exhibitions. intl.dpm.org.cn

ABOUT THE HUO FAMILY FOUNDATION  

The Huo Family Foundation's mission is to support education, communities, and the pursuit of knowledge. Through its donations, the Foundation hopes to improve the prospects of individuals, and to support the work of organisations seeking to ensure a safe and successful future for all society. huofamilyfoundation.org

ABOUT DISCOVER SOUTH KENSINGTON  

Discover South Kensington brings together the Science Museum and other leading cultural and educational organisations to promote innovation and learning. South Kensington is the home of science, arts and inspiration. Discovery is at the core of what happens here and there is so much to explore every day. discoversouthken.com.