Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City at the Science Museum

Zimingzhong ????: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City. Gallery view with visitors, Science Museum, London 2024.

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.

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.’