The parrots in the imperial bird album (Niaopu)
(64th Meeting Budapest, 2022)
The Manchu Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) not only almost doubled the size of the Chinese empire through his “Ten Military Glories” [campaigns], he also had a new map of the empire made (with the significant participation of Jesuit missionaries), a new description of the empire, a multilingual dictionary of the official languages (last version: Five languages), a geographical lexicon in six languages, and comprehensive albums of the ethnic groups (550, in colour, with bilingual descriptions), the birds, the quadrupeds and the aquatic animals in the country. The bird album, completed in 1761 after ten years of work, describes 360 bird species in text (bilingual, Chinese and Manchu) and pictures. The plates, painted with great precision on silk by the court painters Yu Sheng and Zhang Weibang (a pupil of Giuseppe Castiglione S. J.), are fine examples of flower-and-bird painting and show Western influence. The birds include 21 species of parrots (three of them American and one African), which appear to have been painted after nature, although only three species were native to China at the time — obviously they were present in the imperial aviaries.
The Manchu text version is an important contribution to the surviving Manchu text corpus, which is otherwise comparatively poor in natural history terms. The names entered the dictionaries through the descriptions of the Niaopu 鳥譜.