A Connective History of Qing Art: Visuality, Images and Imaginaries



Chen Kaijun

PhD candidate, Columbia University

Handicraft and Statecraft: Tang Ying’s Album of Imperial Porcelain Manufacture 

This project focuses on a supervisor-in-chief, Tang Ying’s (唐英, 1682-1756) foremost role in porcelain design and in the transmission of porcelain technology at the Imperial Porcelain Factory (御窯厰) in Jingdezhen from 1728 to 1756. He represents a multiethnic community of technocrats in the Household Department (内務府) of Qing dynasty. He engaged in the handicraft production at an important part of empire building.

First, by analyzing an imperially commissioned twenty-leaf polychrome album (1743) on porcelain production, which was inscribed by Tang Ying, I would argue that the efficacy of its texts and images in the representation of technology must be understood together with its artistic, stylistic specificity and political implication, which epitomizes the court culture of the Manchu regime. Second, I would provide an outline of Tang Ying’s technocratic career as a court designer and porcelain supervisor by drawing documents from the imperial archive, and by matching extant porcelain pieces with the successful porcelain experiments documented in Tang Ying’s official reports.


Lisa Claypool

Associate Professor of Art History (University of Alberta) and Mactaggart Art Collection Curator

Fountain Pens, Inksticks, and No. 2 Pencils: Artist’s Tools in Late Imperial Shanghai

The traditional “four treasures of the scholar’s studio” – ink brushes, inksticks, inkstones, and paper – were intimately associated with the literary culture of a particular kind of scholar-elite, distinguished by class and social station. During the final decades of the nineteenth century, however, newly manufactured tools for calligraphy and painting no longer were strictly emblematic of the elegant taste and refinement of men of letters but often were artefacts of the new urban and commercial centres of art production such as Shanghai. This paper looks at late nineteenth–century tools of the artist in Shanghai with an eye to how they were designed, produced, and reinvested with meaning. It then traces their cultural status in the first decades of the twentieth century, when new and foreign technologies of mark-making gained ground. I argue that the pen and pencil were interpolated into the symbolic systems built around brush and ink, but that during the final years of the dynasty it was Chinese-ness, rather than elite class or social distinction – or even urban identity – that became the mark of the artist’s tool.


Nixi Cura

Course Director, Christie’s Education (London)

Finger Painting as Qing Contemporary Art

Traditional accounts of Manchu, Mongol, and Han-martial bannermen – the Qing conquering elite – present them as having been captured by the ineluctable attractions of Chinese culture. Recent scholarship re-evaluates this Sinocentric interpretation by recognizing the Qing investment in representing a stable multi-ethnic polity. Though this harmonious ideal was upheld as superior to its constituent parts, institutionalized mistrust of Chinese culture eroding the military foundations of the Qing conquest state eventually culminated in the ejection of most ethnic Chinese from the banners between 1742 and 1779.

Finger painting evolved primarily within Han-martial bannerman circles during the Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) reigns. Scholarship on eighteenth-century court art reflects the breadth, eccentricity, and even the excesses of the emperors’ tastes by including what Chinese art historical discourse would classify as “classical” or eccentric, and as “decorative” or kitsch. This logic allows for the commingling of, say, a literati monochrome landscape painting with a chicken-shaped jade knickknack, where multiple artistic discourses converge synchronically in what one might call “Qing art.” This paper explores the status of finger painting in terms of its symbolic capital in Beijing and as a short-lived “contemporary” art embedded in the visual culture at the Qing court.


John Finlay

Independent Scholar, Paris

Cultural Commerce between China and France in the 18th Century: The ‘40 Views of the Yuanming Yuan’ in the Collections of Henri-Léonard Bertin

What we should call the “commerce in images” between China and Europe begins in earnest in the seventeenth century but probably reaches its greatest extent in the later eighteenth century. The “Savants” of eighteenth-century Europe believed that images enhanced and confirmed what might be learned from texts about a China which they imagined as an ancient empire ruled by an enlightened monarch. This acquisition of direct knowledge is exemplified in the collections of Henri-Léonard Bertin (1720-1792), who served as a Minister of State under Louis XV and, briefly, Louis XVI. As both a government official and an avid private collector, Bertin sought knowledge of China, chiefly through his direct contacts with the French Jesuit missionaries in Beijing, who provided him with a remarkable number of books, objects, prints and pictures. Bertin received paintings or prints derived from such Chinese traditions as illustrations of tilling and weaving and the production of porcelain. He also received paintings of Qing imperial palaces, notably in the form of paintings of the Yuanming Yuan. Much of the material from Bertin’s collections as well as the information in the extensive archives of his correspondence with the French Jesuit missionaries in Beijing remains unpublished, and, indeed, important paintings of the Yuanming yuan have not previously been identified. A study of this material – Bertin’s images, his letters and records – provides many new insights into how 18th-century Europeans both literally and figuratively looked to China for inspiration.

Guo Hui

Research Associate, Nanjing Normal University

Canonization of Qing Art in the Early Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, ideological changes took place in the narratives of Chinese art and eventually amounted to a shift that converted pre-modern canons from theoretical guidelines into research objects of the past and replaced them with canons constructed from new content and new categorical logic. One of the major shifts of art canons concerning Qing art in early twentieth-century China is from the Orthodox School to the Individualist School as they were labelled at that time. This transition occurred in both art practice and art historical writing. Through an intertextual reading of art activities – especially the creation, publications, and exhibitions – in early twentieth century, this paper explores the transformation of Qing canons in order to shed light on why and how canonical formation of Qing art happened in Republican China. Faced with quite different political, economic, social, and artistic conditions amid the instability of the early twentieth century, Chinese scholars to some extent attempted to manipulate Qing art in order to create new canons for cultural orthodoxy and authority.


Kristina Kleutghen

Assistant Professor, Washington University, St. Louis

Illustrating Perception and Deception: Nian Xiyao and The Study of Vision

During the Yongzheng era, the Chinese bannerman Nian Xiyao (1671-1738) held a number of prestigious imperially appointed posts including Superintendent of the Jingdezhen imperial kilns. Nian’s privileged position facilitated travel to Beijing, where his elite status, amateur painting practice, and fascination with Western subjects resulted in numerous interactions with the Jesuits. These special circumstances resulted in the singular illustrated treatise The Study of Vision (Shixue), which first appeared in 1729 after consultation with Jesuit court painter Giuseppe Castiglione before being significantly expanded in 1735. Based on the contents of its short prose prefaces and its relationship to European linear perspective treatises, this text is commonly characterized simply as a Chinese perspective manual. However, by moving beyond the prefaces into the 150-plus illustrations and their accompanying text, this paper investigates The Study of Vision as a significantly more advanced text. The complex geometry is intended to teach the reader specifically how to produce visual deceptions through perspective-based illusionistic paintings, which themselves are deliberately intended to challenge the Chinese viewer’s perception of reality. Ultimately, Nian Xiyao’s experience as the Jingdezhen Superintendent and his privileged contacts with the most talented artists serving the Qing imperial court produced a text that illustrates the most profound changes occurring in Chinese court art as it responded to European pictorial ideas.


Yeewan Koon

Assistant Professor, University of Hong Kong

Gods at Leisure: Myths, History and Intimacy in Su Renshan’s Buddhist Painting

 The study of religious art in the Qing dynasty primarily focuses on the imperial patronage of Tibetan Buddhism and issues of intercultural connections at the frontiers and in the capital. Another area that has received scholarly attention is the Jesuits and the impact of Western art. Buddhist art of the Mahayana tradition is, in comparison, a minor area for researchers, and in part because conventional histories suggest that Chinese Buddhism and its arts peaked in the Song period. In the seventeenth century, however, the revival of Chan Buddhism in southeast China, which was linked to a growing maritime trade in Asia, sees a growing market for Buddhist arts. There is remarkably little scholarship on this subject, and this paper provides only a small window to examine some of the repercussions of this revival in the early nineteenth century. Focusing on paintings by Su Renshan, I will investigate how this artist brings together two unlikely bedfellows: kaozheng scholarship with its emphasis on empirical research, and Buddhism that rests on the intangible nature of faith. Through close readings of a small sample of Su Renshan’s paintings, I will demonstrate how the artists drew on kaozheng methods and the materials often associated with evidential scholarship including engravings and rubbings. By examining his images of gatherings of religious figures when they are at leisure, a question is raised concerning whether we can still consider these works as religious imagery because the gods are not on duty. Instead we have intimate images of communities of religious figures, what do gatherings mean in this new context?

Francesca Dal Lago

Associated Researcher, Centre de recherche sur les civilisations de l’Asie orientale (CRCAO), Paris

Why realism at the end of the Qing? Socio-political reforms, visual choices and new ways of seeing

While realist painting techniques were first introduced to the imperial court during the early Qing, it is at the end of this dynastic period that realism begun to circulate in many forms of visual representation such as in the translations of scientific manuals, publications of popular culture and minor art forms such as what is normally called “export art.” The rise of photography was also an important agent facilitating the popular success of realist practices.

This larger trend towards visual accuracy is presented in traditional historiography as a kind of inevitable necessity generated by the exposure to and forced introduction of European visual culture. Arguments used bring up the social and economic decadence experienced by Chinese society at the end of the Qing together with the rise of Han nationalism, stirred by the economic decline and accelerated by progressive European encroachment. A scientific approach to nature adopted as part of the process of nation building during the last decade of the 19th century supports one the arguments of this paper: that realism entered China under the rubric of ‘science’, not as artistic practice and was thus justi­fied by a socio-political rationale. In this presentation I will first summarize the general existing narrative by discussing specific visual references, but I would also like to propose the idea that indigenous cultural elements may have contributed to the adoption of this new visual idiom at this moment in history. More specifically I would like to elaborate on the assumption that exposure to new ways of seeing may have been one of the causes of the changes that brought about new way of representing the world.


Lai Yu-chih

Assistant Researcher, Academic Sinica

Priming the Empire: Birds, Beasts and Peoples at the Qianlong Court

How did the Qianlong Emperor come to understand a world that was becoming increasingly global in his day? And what role did visual imagery play in his understanding of such? This talk focuses on the joint projects behind three image productions at the Qianlong court; Official Tributes, Album of Birds, and Album of Beasts. They were all initiated around the same time, i.e., 1750, and finished around the same time, i.e., 1761, while also sharing the same format and size. Most importantly, for the projects related to Official Tributes and Album of Birds, an entire bureaucratic network was mobilized by the center of political power at the time, the Grand Council, so as to collect and produce the images therein. As such, they proved to be highly important to both the court and the state.

Why would the Qianlong Emperor juxtapose the productions of these three seemingly unrelated categories of images? In particular, all of them contain a considerable amount of rewritten styles, elements, and even images from European natural history writings, maps, and other sources. By comparing them with their European counterparts and Chinese traditions, this paper intends to show how these joint projects appropriated different sources, such as fictional images from traditional Chinese texts, actual information submitted by locals, and European texts and images imported by Jesuits. They were ambitious projects prior to the compilation of the Complete Texts of the Four Treasuries, in which an attempt was made to illuminate every living subject and include all the knowledge under his majesty’s rule. Here, visual imagery played an important part in Qianlong’s understanding of the world, constructing a field of knowledge, and priming his empire.


Liu Lihong

PhD Candidate, Institute of Fine Arts

Landscape for Biography and Diplomacy: Zou Yigui’s Art Before the Court, 1722-1742

Zou Yigui (1686-1772, jinshi 1727) has been most commonly recognized as a great court painter of the Qianlong Emperor’s court who specialized in the decorous courtly style of the bird-and-flower paintings. However, my project is to investigate his early career as a landscapist when he painted places associated with his journeys from the South to Beijing as he traveled to take the metropolitan examination, and later from Beijing to Guizhou when he went on official missions. Particularly, this paper highlights his understudied landscape paintings including painting albums depicting places in the Guanzhong area (Shaanxi and Gansu) in 1722-1725, albums titled “Landscape Looking at Me” depicting places along his way from Hunan to Guizhou in 1735-1742, and a puzzling handscroll titled “Ten-Thousand Miles of the Yangtze River.” My approach is to explore Zou’s combinatory roles of being a painter, poet, and a literati-official, and to see how those roles interacted with each other along his life journey in which he developed different views on his relations with the world surrounding him. In broader historical and cultural contexts, I will also address a general painting theme about an envoy’s voyage for official missions which prevailed during the eighteenth century. In Zou’s case, I will show how he illuminated, on his diplomatic journeys, the presence of an ideal world around him in his discourse of constructing a literati-official’s biography.


Michele Mattenini

Assistant Professor, Reed University

Three Friends, a Crane, a Constellation: The Cult of Su Shi in Eighteenth-century Xuannan District

The night of the nineteenth day of the twelfth month set the social time of the demimonde of Beijing’s Xuannan District. From 1779 to 1818, the antiquarian Weng Fanggang hosted at his residence, the Su Studio, an elaborate ritual to celebrate the birthday of Su Shi. Weng had identified in Su Shi his guiding model, and, since childhood, that process of identification had unfolded through a sequence of “accidental” encounters with material traces of Su Shi. Once a year, objects, artworks and books were taken out their cases, displayed in Weng’s garden, and inscribed. The same exact protocol was followed each year, and, after Weng’s death, handed down to his disciples.

Instrumental in guiding Weng’s self-discovery in Su Shi was Luo Ping. Weng’s “accidental” encounter with Luo Ping re-enacted his early encounter with Su Shi. Luo Ping’s paintings were a central component of the celebrations and treated like Su Shi’s relics. The Su Studio (1780) provides a pictorial corollary to the celebrations and a reflection on the bond between the two men and Su Shi. The analysis of the painting’s formal and spatial features suggests that the painting itself functioned as site for encounters and hints at the transformative agency that late eighteenth–century scholars assigned to objects and images as means for the understanding of their own selves.

Cole Roskam

Assistant Professor, University of Hong Kong

Writing Liminality:  Yue Jiazao’s Chinese Architectural History 

This paper focuses on the previously unexplored legacy of the late Qing scholar Yue Jiazao and his 1933 work, Zhongguo jianzhu shi, within the cultural and political milieus of late Qing and early Republican China.  Although it represents the first Chinese attempt to comprehensively craft the country’s imperial architectural development into history, the book’s immediate and public dismissal by Liang Sicheng in a 1934 review continues to impact its scholarly reception today.  As I will argue, however, it is through the purportedly significant shortcomings of Yue’s scholarship, coupled with Liang’s acerbic response to the work, that important cultural and intellectual shifts in the study of architectural history in China may be detected.  The book’s organizational structure, which binds basic Chinese architectural archetypes together through a rich connective tissue of classical Chinese literary allusion as well as Yue’s own, somewhat unreliable, memories of Beijing’s most notable monuments situates it within the realm of Qing Evidential Studies scholarship (kaozheng xue 考證學).  At the same time, however, under­standing the motives behind its production, its striking resistance to the allure of the material-situated methodologies then employed by foreign as well as foreign-trained Chinese architects like Liang, and the unmeasured, vitriolic nature of its critique each help to re-position the work within a uniquely Republican-era architectural discursive context.  In this respect, we may see the work as marking an important epistemological intersection within the field of early twentieth-century Chinese architectural historiography.

Wang Cheng-hua

Senior Researcher, Academic Sinica

Beijing as Imperial Theater: A Global Perspective on the Images of Qianlong’s Eightieth Birthday Celebration

This paper will tackle the images of Beijing in which the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) performed imperial roles in the concrete spaces of the capital, no matter whether his likeness appears in them or not. Through studying two images, respectively celebrating an extraordinary astronomical phenomenon and the emperor’s eightieth birthday, the paper will propose that these images theatricalised and gave new definition to the spatiality of the capital. The city became a stage for the emperor to display his supreme status, political authority, and Heavenly Mandate.

There will be two major features that involve cross-cultural perspectives. In these images, the Imperial City and the streets of Beijing were anatomically depicted with a concrete sense of spatiality as if the imperial spaces had been demystified. Also, the interior spaces of the capital were transformed into stages on which imperial roles were played in front of subjects of various social statuses. Both of these features were theretofore unseen in the tradition of Chinese visual culture, which were in fact appropriated from European precedents.

Stephen Whiteman

Visiting Assistant Professor, Middlebury College

Some First Steps into Wang Yuanqi’s Topographic Landscapes

This paper is intended as a first foray into several topographic landscapes painted by Wang Yuanqi. In particular, an attempt will be made through formal means to contextualize Wang’s handscrolls depicting the “Wangchuan Villa,” “Ten Views of West Lake,” the Kangxi emperor’s sixtieth-birthday celebrations (the Wanshou shengdian tu), and albums showing scenes from Lu Hong’s “Thatched Hut” and the Qing park-palace, Bishu shanzhuang. I am interested in exploring distinctions between the paintings Wang executed for the court and those created outside it, the significance of generic conventions associated with seventeenth-century Orthodox album painting within his oeuvre, and the formal relationship between album and handscroll paintings, whether topographical or otherwise. It is hoped that these and other concerns may offer insight into the nature of Kangxi court painting, both stylistically and programmatically.

Roberta Wue

Assistant Professor, University of California Irvine

Big Names and Little Games: Shanghai’s Dianshizhai Publisher, Artist Prints and Their Audiences

The pioneering Shanghai lithographic publisher, Dianshizhai (Studio of Touching the Stone), showed a deep commitment to the popular image; less well-known is the involvement of Shanghai’s late Qing art world in Dianshizhai’s projects and publications.  This paper examines print designs made by famous Shanghai artists for Dianshizhai’s publications, most notably for the publisher’s eponymous magazine, Dianshizhai huabao, and as collected together in the illustrated book, Dianshizhai conghua (Collected images from the Dianshi Studio) of 1885.  In both kinds of publications, artist prints appear amid a jumble of images seemingly slapped together for the indiscriminate attentions of a popular audience.  What function did these prints serve for their makers and audience?  This paper will focus on two aspects: first, how these publications and images capitalize on and showcase the phenomenon of the contemporary celebrity artist, and, second, how these images – by turns diverting, collectible and disposable – are made for a broad urban readership, placing this new viewership in intimate relationship to the famous artist and the mass-produced image.  These images stress variety and accessibility, and also address their urban audience through the topicality of their subjects, open-ended formats and an intense visuality that encouraged or challenged and involved viewers in the playful back-and-forth of each image’s construction.  This intersection of new media, artist and audience in Dianshizhai huabao and Dianshizhai conghua highlights some of the strategies employed by the Shanghai art world of the 1880s to reach and serve a broader and anonymous public.