My favorite room
Zhang Tielin

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 57, Winter 2018

Page 52

A modest retreat in the Forbidden City enchants Zhang Tielin

My favorite room is a tiny little space, but it is very well known. Tucked behind the walls of Beijing's Forbidden City, it is known as the Hall of the Three Rarities, so-called because it housed the Qianlong Emperor's favorite pieces of calligraphy. Despite its grandiloquent name, the room seems very modest for an emperor, but that's the point: there is a tradition in China of small bedrooms, as no one wants to leave too much space for the ghosts to swirl around in. However, the art objects and the treasures he kept in that tiny room were anything but humble. Everything would have been specifically made for him, to his exact specifications, and what was kept here would have been the emperor's personal favourites.

The Qianlong Emperor is a hero of mine. Like him, I am a calligrapher and collector – I have just published a big book about my collection – and I've played him in 3,000 episodes for television shows. He wasn't the only emperor I have portrayed – I have played 40 or 50 different emperors from across Chinese history – but he is my favorite. Every time I play him, I become dizzy with power, especially when I am in costume and sitting on a throne with several hundred people around me shouting "Long live...". One of the reasons why I love this room was that I was allowed to live in the Forbidden City while we were making My Fair Princess, so we could imbibe the atmosphere. After five o'clock, there's a very strange atmosphere – when all the tourists have disappeared and the temperature drops, you feel ghosts gather around you.

I first played an emperor on film in 1982, so my imperial qualities were recognized quite young. People began to stop me on the street and ask, "Your Majesty, could I have your autograph please?" It hasn't stopped since then. I sometimes think I would rather play someone a little closer to home, a little more colorful and free – but then they ask me to put the imperial robes on again.

I didn't intend to become an actor at all. I graduated from a film academy in Beijing and came on a scholarship to the National Film & Television School in England in 1986. Then Tiananmen Square happened... and I found my calling as a serial emperor in the Taiwan film industry. I have often wondered why. Perhaps simply because people think that an emperor should be powerful, should sound powerful, and the way I act can be powerful. Honestly, I think that when they look at me I'm as close to an emperor as they can imagine.

Zhang Tielin has starred as the Qianlong, Jade, Shunzhi, Kangxi and Yongzheng Emperors, as well as Chairman Mao, and published a book on his art collection.

The Hall of the Three Rarities, The Palace Museum, Forbidden City, Beijing.

Related auctions