Qing dynasty (1644–1911), an introduction


Portrait of Lady Guan, Qing dynasty, Kangxi reign or later, mid 17th-early 18th century, ink and color on silk, China 343 x 145 cm (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program and partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff, S1991.121)

Portrait of Lady Guan, Qing dynasty, Kangxi reign or later, mid 17th-early 18th century, ink and color on silk, China 343 x 145 cm (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program and partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff, S1991.121)

Map of the Qing dynasty in 1890

Map of the Qing dynasty in 1890 (map: Trajan 117, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) was founded by a northeast Asian people who called themselves Manchus. Their history, language, culture, and identity was distinct from the Chinese population, whom they conquered in 1644 when China was weakened by internal rebellions. The Manchus forged alliances with certain Chinese and Mongol groups that aided their conquest of China. Manchu rule did not completely uproot the government of China or its social and cultural life; instead, Manchu rulers selectively continued and adapted aspects of Chinese life they admired. They developed a style of rule befitting the multiethnic empire they commanded, of which the Chinese were the largest population. The Manchu rulers modeled many of their government practices on those of the previous Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644). For example, they employed a civil service examination system much like in previous Chinese dynasties to recruit Chinese government officials. In addition, the emperors were bilingual in Chinese and Manchu. Simultaneously, the Manchu rulers maintained and promoted many Manchu customs at court and within the general populace.

The Qing dynasty, especially in the eighteenth century when the Qing empire was the largest and most prosperous in the world, saw prolific cultural and artistic achievements. Three Qing emperors were responsible for the notable stability and prosperity of the period. They were Kangxi (reigned 1661–1722), Yongzheng (reigned 1722–1735), and Qianlong (reigned 1735–1796).

Vase of bottle shape with “garlic” mouth, Qing dynasty or possibly modern, Qianlong reign, 1736-1795, or possibly early 20th century, Jingdezhen ware, porcelain with enamels over clear, colorless glaze; ivory stand, China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, 17.2 x 9.5 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1954.127a-e)

Vase of bottle shape with “garlic” mouth, Qing dynasty or possibly modern, Qianlong reign, 1736-1795, or possibly early 20th century, Jingdezhen ware, porcelain with enamels over clear, colorless glaze; ivory stand, China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, 17.2 x 9.5 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1954.127a-e)

The ceramic industry reached a new height during the Qing dynasty and created some of the most splendid porcelains ever crafted. An immense variety of porcelains was produced, which included those for imperial use, for popular consumption, and for export. Close contact between the court and resident European Jesuits in China had a great effect on aspects of Qing art. Some porcelains of the period displayed features that reflected Chinese-Western interactions. One Qing innovation was the production of exquisite wares painted with new colors and types of enamel pigments. Some of the colors, notably pink, was in part a result of imperial admiration in the seventeenth century for European enamel objects with this palette that were brought to the court by the Jesuits.

Treasure Box of Eternal Spring and Longevity, Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign, 1736–95, carved red, green, and yellow lacquer on wood core, China, 16.5 x 44 x 44 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1990.15a-e)

Treasure Box of Eternal Spring and Longevity, Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign, 1736–95, carved red, green, and yellow lacquer on wood core, China, 16.5 x 44 x 44 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1990.15a-e)

The Kangxi Emperor set up workshops for the manufacture of court arts, including paintings and three-dimensional objects, as well as arts for religious devotion. Some workshops were in the palace, and much of the manufacture of lacquerware, enamel, jade, and carvings of ivory and organic materials occurred under court control. Other arts, like porcelain and textiles, were made in imperial workshops located outside of Beijing. For some special ceramics, undecorated ceramic “blanks” were sent from Jingdezhen to the Beijing workshops for painting. These workshops remained in production for the rest of the dynasty.

Emperor's face painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) Imperial workshop, The Qianlong Emperor as Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign, mid-18th century, ink, color, and gold on silk, China, 113.6 x 64.3 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by an anonymous donor, F2000.4)

Emperor’s face painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766) Imperial workshop, The Qianlong Emperor as Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign, mid-18th century, ink, color, and gold on silk, China, 113.6 x 64.3 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by an anonymous donor, F2000.4)

Qing customs of painting largely followed previously established traditions. Professional artists worked either at court or outside the court; some, however, worked in both spheres. Other artists painted as an avocation and followed the style of scholar-amateur artists. Talented professional painters who served in the palace workshops produced portraits, documentary and narrative images, copies of ancient masterpieces, and religious art; they also undertook decorative projects for palace buildings. Some of the painters were European Jesuit missionaries who served the court. Their representational techniques were greatly admired by the Qing emperors. Among them, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), also known as Lang Shining, was a favorite. He was a key figure in establishing the new court aesthetic of combining Western style realism (as can be seen in the three-dimensional modeling of a face with light and shadow) with other traditions of brushwork.

Artists who painted as scholar-amateur artists had various goals and practices. Some sought to revitalize Chinese painting by careful imitation and adaptation of classical masterpieces. Their art was not directly inspired by nature but by the study of established techniques and styles. Some of these artists were also collectors of, or had easy access to, ancient masterworks. Other artists who more obviously broke with or radically modified past tradition have been known as “Individualists.” They viewed art as a form of personal expression, sometimes injecting it with a strong message of political protest or social commentary.

The nineteenth century was largely difficult for China. The opium trade that arose from unfair trade practices imposed by Europeans in the first half of the century devastated the Chinese economy. The two opium wars in 1840–42 and 1856–60 and the unequal treaties that followed violated China’s sovereignty. They had long-lasting consequences on China’s economy and society. The Boxer Rebellion in 1900 illustrated strong Chinese antipathy toward foreigners, but it was short-lived and ended with the Qing court’s forced flight from Beijing. China’s position in the world declined and internal rebellions overthrew the Qing dynasty government in 1911. China’s last emperor abdicated in early 1912, ushering in a republican China.

 

Freer Sackler Smithsonian LogoThis resource was developed for Teaching China with the Smithsonian, made possible by the generous support of the Freeman Foundation


Additional resources:

This essay from Teaching China on the Smithsonian website

Cite this page as: Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art, "Qing dynasty (1644–1911), an introduction," in Smarthistory, April 23, 2021, accessed August 1, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/qing-dynasty-intro/.