This album was a unique commission by the imperial court, that honours the Emperor Qianlong in his accomplishment in composing the lengthy poems inspired by scenes of West Lake near Hangzhou. The composition of these poems were probably written during Qianlong's six 'Grand Inspection Tours' to the South, which included Suzhou and Hangzhou. The text throughout the present album is interspersed with the following cylclical years: Xinwei (1751), Dingchou (1757), Renwu (1762), Yiyou (1765), Gengzi (1780), Jiachen (1784) which coincide with the dates of Qianlong's tours.
The first leaf, woven with a panoramic view of the lake with a lakeside villa, sets the scene for the recitation of the poems, transcribed onto the next eleven leaves. As Claudia Brown writes in the exhibition Catalogue, p. 105, "The clerical script is based on engraved - as opposed to brush written - calligraphy of the Han dynasty (206 B. C. - A. D. 220) and thus each stroke of each character is even in width. Each character fills an imaginary square and the spacing of the characters in regular. The choice of script implies a reverence for antiquity and complements the many Arcadian references in the poems."
A kesi album woven with running script replicating the writing of Emperor Qianlong and bound in a very similar zitan cover, was sold in these Rooms, 1 November 2004, lot 913; while an Imperial album of ten leaves embroidered with scenes of West Lake is illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Silk Tapestry and Embroidery in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1981, no. 39.
The illustrated poem has been translated by Dr. An-Yi Pan (by permission):
Gazing from the Heart of the Lake
1) Palaces and terraces on the empty mirror-lake
Are the Isles of the Immortals, allowing visitors by sail;
Scenic mirages from outside the windows in all four directions,
With beautiful mountain layers on three sides.
Leaning on the balustrade, I gaze at fish 'painting' across the water; Rolling up bamboo curtains, I draw swallows flying low to tailor the wind.
Sitting there, my eyes move with boundless joy.
To take in all secluded tranquility.
2) Nights of spring rain left at dawn;
In a forward-moving skiff, I feel as if I am in a little Isle of the Immortals.
A thousand layers of lush green are reflected in the water;
Cloudy hills from all directions welcome and bid farewell as I sail by. There are no waves to startle my commoner's eye;
Lacking worldly desire, my spirit is joyful.
Light on the lake reminds me of a mirror's brightness,
The essence of purity.
3) Trusting in the sky, I wish to dwell amid clouds; floating about, I wish to sail;
The palaces of Penglai are in mid-water,
With boundless views in all four directions,
And extraordinary scenery in all four seasons.
Was this mirror ever polished?
Not by a toad; [the mirror's] self-awakening emits brilliant light.
I want to call upon Zhuangzi for dialogue;
After grasping the ideas, in silence things are easily forgotten.
4) Who said there was no space for towers and terraces?
They open on the surface of the mirror-lake.
To reach them, one must go by boat and leave worldly dust far behind;
When sitting, one should be like floating clouds, without schemes in mind.
Two peaks in the West are close to Heaven;
Three pagodas floating in the South are accompanied by a beautiful moon.
My white hair has increased, but my beard is still black;
I sigh over the changes between then and now.
5) West Lake scenery is superb.
Where I am is the heart of the lake.
It is the chief of Five Officials,
Which is admired from all directions.
I often self-reflect,
Wondering who is responsible for the affairs of the state.
Between diligence and laziness,
I find these thoughts hard to endure.
I calm myself with my gazing eye;
Concern is actually advantageous.
For a complete translation of the entire text by Dr. An-Yi Pan, see Weaving China's Past: The Amy S. Clague Collection of Chinese Textiles, pp. 108-112.