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Lessons from the Royal Plaques July 29, 2006

Posted by kentneo in Artifacts.
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Text by Kent Neo

This long weekend has finally given me time to do some research on the Qing royal plaques found in Thian Hock Keng, Wak Hai Cheng Bio and Kek Lok Si. I was curious under what conditions these plaques were presented to temples in Singapore & Penang as they were all from the same emperor – Guang Xu emperor. As there were no royal connections bewteen the temples in Nanyang until the latter half of the 19th century, there had to be some reasons for the sudden interest by the Manchu government with the Chinese community in Nanyang. Here are some details of the 4 plaques bequethed by the emperor :

1. Wak Hai Cheng Bio – Zhu Hai Xiang Yun (1899)
2. Kek Lok Si – Da Xiong Bao Dian (1901), Long Chang (?)
3. Thian Hock Keng – Bo Qian Nan Ming (1907)
There is one rare plaque from the emperor’s foster mother, Ci Xi :
4. Kek Lok Si – Hai Tian Fo Di (1901)

Other plaques presented by Qing court officials :

5. Heng San Teng – Shan Yu Zhong Ling (1891, destroyed by fire in 1985) from Chen Hui Ming, Qing Naval defence officer
6. Kek Lok Si – Wu Wang Gu Guo (?) from Kang You Wei , Qi Yan Jie lu Shi (1906) from Chen Bao Shen
7. Shuang Lin Monastery – Zhang Zhe Tang (1904) from Lin Guo Qing, Qing official , Couplet on pillars outside Zhang Zhe Tang (1904) from Chen Bao Shen
8. Thian Hock Keng – Xian Che You Ming (?) from Zuo Bing Long
9. Seng Ong Beo – Cong Ming Zheng Zhi (1907) from Zuo Bing Long, 3rd Qing Consul General in Singapore

If we were to look at some of the older temples in Taiwan, we would realise that the presence of royal plaques bequethed by the Qing emperors are not uncommon. However, when we looked at the oldest temple in Malaysia, Cheng Hoon Teng (1645), there was not a single royal plaque. Looking at the wealth and population of the Chinese before 19th century, they perhaps did not pose a threat to the Qing court. However, with the countless uprisings, invasions and a threatened soverignty towards the end of the 19th century, the QIng treasury was in a pretty bad shape. Loyal Qing court officials such as Kang You Wei had to flee China after implementing an unsuccessful ‘100 day’s reform’, a major revamp of the Qing constitution in 1898. Emperor Guang Xu was put under house arrest for colluding with his tutor, Kang’s reformist movement.
From the dates listed above, it is quite clear that all the plaques from Guang Xu were bequethed to the temples in Singapore and Penang whilst he was under house arrest. The dowager Cixi became the regent and official ruler of China whilst his sister’s son the emperor was kept in a bricked-up room in the Summer Palace. So were these calligraphy really Guang Xu’s or merely edicts issued by the Dowager to gain support for the Qing court? The original scroll from Thian Hock Keng has been restored at a cost of S$10,000 by specialists in China, I think it would be an interesting exercise to get other specialists to ascertain the authorship of the scroll. Incidentally, the Thian Hock Keng scroll was bequethed one year before Guang Xu’s tragic death (legend had it that he was poisoned by his foster mum the dowager) in a miserable bricked-up room at the Summer Palace called the ‘Hall of Magnolia’. I have visited the Summer Palace years back when I was in Beijing, the more memorable scandalous relic was the well in which Xu’s favourite ‘Pearl’ concubine committed suicide. Had the empress listened to Kang, it would have been a less tragic ending for herself and the rest of her people. However, she chose to believe in Yuan Shi Kai, whose only ambition was to become emperor himself. There were confucian scholars and reformists who had supported Kang in the Qing court, unfornuately real power was in the hands of warlords like Yuan Shi Kai.

The royal scrolls in Wak Hai Cheng Bio and Kek Lok Si were dated much earlier than the Thian Hock Keng scroll. If they were really from Guang Xu, we can assume that the emperor continued his daily duties under the instruction of her mum. The intention of these plaques were obvious – the refomists, royalists and revolutionaries like Kang You Wei and Sun Yat Sen were getting financial support from the Nanyang Chinese in their cause to topple her majesty’s regency. Kang was in support the emperor, his student and bitterly against the idea of a woman as an empress for it was in contrary to Confucian principles. He was in Singapore for a while in 1900 on a invitation by Khoo Seok Wan, the scholar-poet who funded the building of Sen Ong Beo near Tanjong Pagar MRT station. The interesting thing about the Kek Lok Si plaques is that they were plaques from three persons that were locked in a hopeless internal battle , benefitting only the encroaching colonists all to eager to loot treasures and resources from the technologically backward empire. Perhaps only when we reflect on Kang’s ‘Wu Wang Gu Guo’ plaque in Kek Lok Si, we shall remember and understand why our ancestors had come thus far to make a living.

For more info on the Qing Empress Dowager Ci Xi, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cixi
For more info on Qing Royalist Kang You Wei, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kang_Youwei
For more info on the last Qing emepror’s grand tutor, see http://www.culturalcompass.org/imperial%20tutor.htm