Magnificent clockwork treasures from China’s Forbidden City to go on display at the Science Museum

A major exhibition will open at the Science Museum on Thursday 1 February 2024 featuring more than 20 resplendent mechanical clocks, called zimingzhong, on loan from The Palace Museum in Beijing and never before displayed together in the UK.

Running until 2 June 2024, Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City will take visitors on a journey through the 1700s, from the Chinese trading port of Guangzhou and onto the home of the emperors in the Forbidden City, the UNESCO-listed palace in the heart of Beijing.

The exhibition will shine a light on the emperors’ keen interest in and collection of these remarkable clockwork instruments, the origins of this unique trade, and the inner workings of the elaborate treasures that inspired British craftsmen and emperors alike. Translating to ‘bells that ring themselves’, zimingzhong were more than just clocks: they presented an enchanting combination of a flamboyant aesthetic, timekeeping, music and movement using mechanisms new to most people in 18th century China.

铜镀金嵌珐琅转鸭荷花缸钟 Zimingzhong with British and Chinese mechanisms © The Palace Museum

On entering the exhibition visitors will encounter the ornate Pagoda Zimingzhong, a celebration of the technology and design possibilities of zimingzhong. This unique piece dating from the 1700s was made in London during the Qing Dynasty in China. The complex moving mechanism is brought to life in an accompanying video which will show the nine delicate tiers slowly rise and fall.

Next the Emperors and Zimingzhong section explores the vital role of zimingzhong in facilitating early cultural exchanges between East and West. Some of the first zimingzhong to enter the Forbidden City were brought by Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary in the early 1600s. Ricci and other missionaries were seeking to ingratiate themselves in Chinese society by presenting beautiful automata to the emperor. Decades later, the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722) was intrigued by, and went on to collect, these automata which he christened ‘zimingzhong’, displaying them as ‘foreign curiosities’. They helped demonstrate his mastery of time, the heavens and his divine right to rule.

The Trade section explores the clock trade route from London to the southern Chinese coast. The journey took up to a year but once British merchants reached the coast, they could buy sought-after goods including silk, tea and porcelain. Within this section, visitors can 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.

铜镀金嵌料石升降塔钟 Moving Pagoda Zimingzhong © The Palace Museum

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 will see 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 will be 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 will also be on display. Provided by Hong Kong Science Museum, these interactives will enable visitors to discover some of the inner workings of these delicate clocks.

In the Design section, the exhibition will explore how British zimingzhong, designed for the Chinese market by craftsmen who had often never travelled to Asia, reflect British perceptions of Chinese culture in the 1700s. On display will be 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.

铜镀金仙鹤驮亭式表 Zimingzhong with Parts from China and Britain © The Palace Museum

Although beautiful to behold, zimingzhong weren’t purely decorative. As timekeepers, zimingzhong 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. On display in the exhibition will be 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 East and West.

Visitors will 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 will explore the decline of the zimingzhong trade. 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 rulers in the Forbidden City and highlighted the growing global links being forged by trade.

Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City will be open at the Science Museum from Thursday 1 February to 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.  

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