The Chinese court's interest in European clocks began in the late Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) in the reign of the Emperor Wanli (r. 1573 – 1620) when he was presented in 1601 with two clocks, one of which had a chiming mechanism. With this introduction, clocks became a favorite collectible in the Chinese imperial court and were considered highly valuable commodities by both the Kangxi (r. 1662 – 1722) and Qianlong (r. 1736 – 1795) emperors of the Qing dynasty.
Europeans, missionary or ambassadors, were soon alerted of this passion to grow the imperial collections of clocks, and elaborate clocks or pocket watches were presented as gifts and tributes to gain entry to the highest ranks of Chinese society.
This spectacular pair of identical watches was reputedly given as a tribute to Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736 – 1795) by the English royal family during the reign of King George III (r. 1760 – 1820). Legend had it that the pair of watches was taken to China by George Macartney (1st Earl Macartney), who was appointed the first Trade Ambassador of Britain to the Chinese imperial court. He led the Macartney Embassy to Beijing in 1793 together with Sir George Staunton, his second in command.
Emperor Qianlong was well-known for his personal passion of collecting and amassed vast collections of Chinese ceramics, ancient bronzes and seals as well as an impressive assemblage of European clocks. Allegedly, the Emperor loved these watches and considered them one of his most cherished possessions.
This pair of watches apparently stayed in the imperial collections within the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing until China entered a period of political turmoil which began with the Xinhai Revolution, a conflict in 1911 between the Imperial forces of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), and the revolutionary forces of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance and ended with the abdication of Emperor Puyi (r. 1908 – 1924).
Chosen by Dowager Empress Cixi (b.1835 – 1908) while on her deathbed, Puyi ruled as the Xuantong Emperor between 1908 and 1911 and was the last Emperor of the Qing dynasty to rule over China. Apparently, on the day that Emperor Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924, amongst the treasures that he took with him on exile were the pair of fabled watches. Supposedly, the minor chips to the enamel work were inflicted on the watches during this tumultuous flight from the palace.
Legend or reality, does it really matter? What matters is the watches are testimonies to the cultural and political history of China. These watches exemplify the cultural exchanges between the West and China in the Qing dynasty and the desire of the West to gain a foothold in this mysterious country by appeasing its rulers with these objects of great beauty with their elaborate cases of costly materials and tiny movements.
They also testify to the Chinese emperors’ desire to emulate the technology of the West and to better understand the scientific and religious aspects of European cultures that the Jesuits sought to introduce in their country.
Regardless of the perhaps mythical itinerary of these watches, they did in fact weather the passing of time, the rise and decline of the Qing dynasty and the crossing of continents. They bore witness to an extravagant and fascinating way of life in the Chinese imperial court that is now lost forever.