A major exhibition will open at the Science Museum in February 2024 that was produced
with a little help from China Exchange.
The exhibition features more than 20 mechanical clocks, called zimingzhong, on loan from
The Palace Museum in Beijing. They have never before been displayed together in the UK.
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. 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.
To explore the cultural legacy of zimingzhong, the Science Museum collaborated with China
Exchange to gather stories and memories from people of Chinese heritage living in London.
In a series of workshops, these ideas were explored by the China Exchange convened
group. The stories gathered are on display throughout the exhibition and provide a range of
rich, personal perspectives on the significance and meaning of the objects.
The exhibition will shine a light on some 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. 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.
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.
Tickets to Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍 are pay what you can, with a minimum ticket price of £1. For more information and to book, visit the Science Museum website.
All object images © The Palace Museum