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PD Dr. habil. Phillip Grimberg

PD Dr. Phillip Grimberg

Fellow in the project „Epochal Life Worlds: Man, Nature and Technology in Narratives of Crisis and Change“

Short Biography

Phillip Grimberg is a cultural historian specializing in the material cultures of late Imperial and contemporary China. He studied Chinese Studies and International Law at Universities in Germany (Cologne, Bonn) and China (Beijing, Hangzhou). After receiving his PhD in 2014 he held several research and teaching positions at different institutions (Bonn, Frankfurt, Erlangen, Naples, Heidelberg). In 2021 he completed his Habilitation in Chinese Studies at the University of Erlangen where he serves as an Adjunct Professor. Currently, he is a Permanent Fellow at the Joint Center for Advanced Studies "Worldmaking from a Global Perspective: A Dialogue with China".


Guwantu - The "Illustrated Inventory of Ancient Playthings" of the Yongzheng Emperor (1723-1735). A Study of Courtly Collecting Practices and Documentation during the Qing Period

The subject of the study is the pictorial scroll B/C-8 from 1729 held in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, one of two extant inventories worldwide illustrating part of the Yongzheng Emperor's art collections. The Guwantu, which were probably commissioned as a series and may have consisted of at least eight, possibly as many as 24 individual scrolls, are illustrated inventories of ancient as well as contemporary works of art, curios and other objects from the emperor's possession. The picture scroll B/C-8 presents itself as a mounted hand scroll (64 cm x 2648 cm) with 255 listed objects, cabinets and cupboards depicted in ink and colour. The aim of the project is to identify the inventory of the scroll, to collect statements about the function of the Guwantu and to present the emperor's associated collecting and ruling practices.

The project, located at the interface of China-related art and cultural history, is guided by three hypotheses. Dr Grimberg assumes that, in contrast to earlier catalogue works, the Guwantu primarily served not to inventory but rather to visually document the collected artefacts as a representative expression of the collector's "care" for his objects. He sees the ontological side of the objects and their performative, constructive and constitutive power as the guiding idea here. Dr Grimberg then assumes that the objects depicted in the scrolls are material representations of the concept of "tianxia", i.e. the universal concept of empire and rule of the Chinese imperial state. The material aspect of rule, such as the possession and use of sacred or mystically connoted objects that were reserved for the ruler alone, also had a long tradition in China. Thus it seems only logical that the Yongzheng emperor sought to identify himself as the supreme scholar, preserver and guardian of the culture of his empire through the possession of extraordinary objects (including porcelains with dragon decoration or antique bronze vessels from prominent previous possessions) and to legitimise his rule through these objects, among other things. On the basis of a detailed analysis of the scroll B/C-8 and the objects listed there, the emperor's collecting is presented as an expression of political action. According to the third hypothesis, the Guwantu are not illustrated inventories for object management, but individual, detailed and naturalistic portraits of the objects depicted there, which were intended to interact with the viewer as "action carriers" and thus form "networks".

In the first step of the study, both the role of B/C-8 and the objects depicted are described and analysed in detail, using the tried and tested tools. The text-critical evaluation of relevant passages of the memorandum and edict collections, which are available in modern editions, is aimed, among other things, at defining more precisely the genesis of the Guwantu and the role of Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), the Jesuit priest from Milan, who was even to rise to the position of court painter under the Qianlong emperor, as "object portraitist". Subsequently, documents from the archives of the imperial workshops, which are available in digital form, are evaluated with a view to the artists involved from Castiglione's circle and the provenance of the role is discussed anew. In particular, the period before the purchase by Captain Rivett-Carnac in the first decade of the 20th century is examined and - on the basis of the archival material of the Imperial Court Office - it is clarified whether the Guwantu were originally kept in the Yuanmingyuan Summer Palace and stolen in the course of the burning of the palace by British and French troops in October 1860. It can be assumed that the remaining scrolls were lost in the flames.

Funded by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung für Wissenschaftsförderung.