Qing dynasty 1644–1912

Selections from the Collection

The Ming dynasty was weakened by factional infighting, rebellion, and natural disaster in the early seventeenth century. When rebel forces overran Beijing in 1644, the Manchu armies followed, sweeping into China on the pretense of defending the Ming imperial house. The Manchus, a confederation of peoples based in the area of present-day Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces, were ruled by Nurhachi (1559–1626), who founded the Later Jin. His son Abahai (1592–1643) renamed the dynasty Qing. After the conquest, the Manchus adopted Beijing as their new capital, although Ming resistance persisted in the south until the 1680s. Over the years, repair and rebuilding have replaced most of the former Ming palace halls, and what remains today in the Forbidden City was mostly built in the Qing. Besides Beijing, the Manchus also continued to maintain their ancestral palaces at Shenyang, Liaoning province.

With the establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644, the Manchu rulers needed to find ways to occupy, order, and govern the many peoples in the far reaches of their realm. The Qing emperors took on the trappings of Chinese culture, becoming patrons and practitioners of the arts, sponsoring scholarly projects, and adopting the Chinese bureaucratic system and ritual symbols of dynastic legitimacy. At the same time the Manchus strove to maintain their ethnic identity by organizing martial exercises for the military "banner" units; living most of the year in newly developed "imperial garden-palaces," such as the Yuanming Yuan outside Beijing and Imperial Summer Villa at Jehol, away from the urban confines of the Forbidden City. In their palaces the Manchu rulers built secret ritual precincts, and they forced the Chinese male populace to adopt the Manchu custom of shaving their heads and wearing queues.

The reigns of the Kangxi (r. 1662–1722), Yongzheng (r. 1722–1736), and Qianlong (r. 1736–95) emperors brought peace and prosperity to China. The Kangxi emperor pacified the Ming loyalists in the South, and began the process of attracting Chinese scholars into government service. The empire was consolidated under the rule of the Yongzheng emperor, and the long reign of the Qianlong emperor is seen as one of China's golden periods. During the Qianlong reign, the empire was extended from Manchuria and Korea in the northeast to the establishment of a protectorate in Tibet and conquest of the Ili and Turkestan in the west. In addition, Burma became a tributary nation and military expeditions were sent to Vietnam and Nepal. Contacts also increased with the West through Christian missionaries and later with traders and the European colonial powers. Controls on trade with the West were instituted in the mid-eighteenth century, and in 1793 the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, was granted an audience with the Qianlong emperor at the Jehol Imperial Summer Villa, the location where the Manchus received tribute from their so-called barbarian neighbors and allies.

Overseas commerce brought large sums of silver into China, allowing a switch to a silver-based economy, which eventually led to increasing inflation and usury. The consequences were manifold and had a major impact on the way craftsmen and artisans were employed, and how they were organized as a profession. The prosperity of the Qianlong reign ended with corruption and inefficiency after the emperor had entrusted great responsibility in the running of the government to the powerful eunuch Heshen (1750–1799). The White Lotus Rebellion (1796–1805), one of many later secret society uprisings organized by desperate peasants, did much to reverse the stability of Qing finances. The following nineteenth century has generally been perceived as a period of decline, when Western trading interests came into sharp conflict with China's internal policies and struggles.

As Spanish and Portuguese galleys continued to bring silver from Europe and the Americas, opium was introduced into China to create a "dependent" market and reverse the trade imbalance. After attempts by the Qing government in Canton to suppress the trade of opium by the British, the First Opium War (1839–42) resulted in Chinese indecision and humiliation. The terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing forced China to pay huge indemnities, open new trading ports, and to cede Hong Kong to Britain until 1997. Later, as more trading and diplomatic rights were demanded, resistance by the Qing government led to the Anglo-French War of 1856–1860. This war is sometimes known as the Second Opium War, or Arrow War, and culminated in 1860 when the Qing emperor was forced to flee the capital to take refuge at Jehol. Occupying Beijing, the British and French commanders ordered the burning of the summer palaces. The main target of looting and destruction was the nearby Yuanming Yuan imperial garden-palace. While the Qing struggled against European forces, several rebellions erupted in the mid-nineteenth century causing famine and devastation that resulted in a population drop of over sixty million people. In particular the Taiping Rebellion (1851–64) posed a serious challenge to the Manchu rulers. Hong Xiuquan (1813–1864) was the rebel leader who organized a religious-military organization based on a mix of Christian teachings and personal visions in which he was sent by God to slay demons and eradicate demon worship. He deemed the Manchus as propagators of demon worship who needed to be overthrown to usher in an era of "Great Peace" (Taiping). The Taiping forces occupied Nanjing as their capital, and attracted followers with their anti-Manchu sentiment and notions about social and economic reforms. The rebellion, however, failed to consolidate its territories, was not able to establish an effective administrative structure, and was not even able to keep the focus of its leader.

In the late nineteenth century, territorial losses continued as China ceded Taiwan to Japan, Korea became fully independent, Britain annexed Burma, the French occupied Vietnam, and further concessions had to be made with the European nations. Growing anti-foreigner sentiments led to the Boxer uprising in 1900, which was suppressed by international troops. Recognizing China's weakness, efforts were made at reform but proved ineffective. Advised by the reform advocate Kang Youwei (1858–1927), in 1898 the Guangxu emperor (r. 1875–1908) instituted a series of edicts aimed at modernization that has come to be known as the "Hundred Days of Reform." Included were proposals to form a constitutional state, reform the education system to include Western studies, as well as ideas to promote commerce and industry, and strengthen the military. These proposals met with strong opposition, and after only three months, a coup d'etat returned authority to the Empress Dowager, Cixi (1835–1908). Just before her own death, she had the emperor executed and installed on the throne the Last Emperor, Henry Puyi (r. 1909–1912), then only two years of age.


Early Qing literati painting was influenced by the theories of the late Ming artist and collector Dong Qichang (1555–1636). A new orthodox lineage of painting that sought to create artistic style through the study of past models coalesced around Dong's disciple, Wang Shimin (1592–1680). Later known as the Orthodox School, this group of painters included the Four Wangs—Wang Shimin, Wang Jian (1598–1677), Wang Hui (1632–1717), and Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715)—along with Wu Li (1632–1718) and Yun Shouping (1633–1690). As Chinese scholars were lured into government service in increasing numbers, this literati painting style was eventually appropriated by the imperial court. While some literati refused to submit to foreign rule or shunned bureaucratic servitude, others including, Wang Hui and Wang Yuanqi, accepted imperial commissions and patronage.

Individualist painters in the early Qing are often associated with developing deeply personal styles that sometimes concealed strong messages of political protest against the Manchu rulers or expressing loyalty to the fallen Ming dynasty. Born to the Ming imperial family, the dynasty's fall in 1644 prompted Zhu Da (1626–1705) to retreat into the mountains where he become a Buddhist monk. After more than thirty years of self-imposed exile, he returned to secular life as a poet and painter in 1680. Often feigning madness in his dealings with others, in painting he developed an eccentric style that relied heavily on calligraphic brushwork. Frequently animated with plants, flowers, birds, fowl, insects, shrimp, crabs, fish and other delicate creatures, his paintings has often been read as deeply personal statements concerning the fragility of life under the Manchu conquerors.

One of the true geniuses in the history of Chinese painting, Shitao (1642–1707) was born a prince in the Ming imperial family. In the turmoil following the Qing conquest, he became an itinerant monk. His exposure to Chan Buddhist teachings may have led him to explore the self-expressive potential of calligraphy in painting. Shitao's paintings are characterized by fluid brushwork and moist graded ink-tones. Experimenting with novel brush manners, he claimed "no method" as his method, and shunned the imitation of past styles. Late in life, Shitao settled as a professional painter in the city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, where his innovative spirit was to influence a later group of painters commonly known as the Yangzhou Eccentrics.

In the Qing period, many regional styles of painting and groups of painters developed in such places as Yangzhou, Nanjing, and Anhui province. Painting styles ranged from the technical mastery of the professional court painters to idiosyncratic and personal styles. Innovation was prompted by new avenues for artistic transmission and instruction afforded by growing numbers of printed illustrations and painting manuals such as the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1679, 1701). In addition, elements of chiaroscuro and perspective drawing introduced by European artists—including the Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766) and Jean Denis Attiret (1702–1768)—were also incorporated by some Chinese artists. At Yangzhou a group of innovative painters became known as the Yangzhou Eccentrics. Among the individualist painters working in this commercial center who are represented in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum are Hua Yan (1682–ca. 1756), Gao Fenghan (1683–1748/49), Li Shan (1686–ca. 1756), Jin Nong (1687–1764), and Luo Ping (1733–1799).


The Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722) was an expert calligrapher who greatly admired the calligraphy of the Ming artist and critic Dong Qichang (1555–1636), which became a style used for government documents. Kangxi’s grandson, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95), was also an avid practitioner and student of calligraphy, and he amassed the single largest collection of this art in China. Among his treasures was Wang Xizhi's (303–361) Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Princeton University Art Museum). In addition to his many seals, traces of the emperor’s ownership appear in the form of colophons through which Qianlong asserted his own position at the end of a distinguished lineage of calligraphers going back to Wang Xizhi himself. Through the culture of calligraphy, the Qianlong emperor, both as a practitioner and collector, symbolically asserted his legitimacy to rule China.

To document the choicest works from his collection, in 1747 Qianlong commissioned an anthology of rubbings known as Model Calligraphies from the Hall of the Three Rarities (Sanxitang fatie). Like earlier imperial anthologies, the rubbings published under Qianlong’s aegis functioned as a state-sanctioned overview of the history of calligraphy. In spite of Qianlong’s efforts, many Qing calligraphers rejected the canonical authority of these types of anthologies, arguing that these compilations, often based on works of dubious authenticity, distorted the history of calligraphy. Seeking inspiration in earlier models, calligraphers turned to ancient stone and bronze inscriptions. The calligrapher-officials Liu Yong (1720–1802) and Yi Bingshou (1754–1815) based their styles on ancient metal and stone inscriptions and were exemplars of an artistic and scholarly movement known as the Stele School (Bei xue).


Benefiting from technological improvements and artistic innovation, porcelains produced under the reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors represent the pinnacle of Qing ceramics in terms of quality and diversity. Considering imperial wares alone, vessels ranged from the most simple in form and monochrome decor to the most extravagant in decoration, and some were modeled after ancient vessels.

At the end of the Ming, financial difficulties at court caused a cessation in the production of ceramics at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. After the Manchu conquest, efforts were made to re-establish the imperial kilns. But it was not until after the pacification of the South and the completion of a new complex of kilns in 1683 at Jingdezhen that Qing imperial production attained a consistently high level in quality. Imperial ateliers for porcelain were also established by the Manchu rulers in the Beijing palaces. Plain white porcelains were sent from Jingdezhen to the capital, where they were decorated in the imperial workshops. Some of the finest overglaze painted enamel porcelains were made in this manner during the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns.

Improvements were made in the body material and glazes used for Qing porcelains. In the eighteenth century the clay composition was refined to be fired at higher temperatures, resulting in a whiter, smoother, and more transparent appearance. A new opaque white glaze was developed for use with overglaze enamels.

Underglaze blue and underglaze red techniques were successfully revived, but now sometimes used together or with other glazes and relief decoration. In the Kangxi reign, underglaze blue was combined with overglaze enamels in a variation of the "five-colors" (wucai) palette—usually red, green, yellow, and brownish-black—that displayed the use of a new pale green enamel. This variant developed into a style of overglaze decoration known as famille verte.

New blue, gold, and fine black enamels were also developed, as well as a rose-pink enamel that became the distinguishing trait of famille rose decoration. The pink enamel was invented near the end of the Kangxi reign but the full famille rose palette was not brought together until the Yongzheng reign. The original impetus for this palette came at the wishes of the Kangxi emperor to imitate the decoration found on Western enamels on metal. This may be the reason why the term "foreign colors" (yangcai) generally is used today to refer to famille rose decorated wares.

Snuff Bottles

In 1934 the Princeton University Art Museum received the bequest of about five hundred Chinese snuff bottles from Colonel James A. Blair, Class of 1903. Ingeniously decorated using techniques that run the gamut of Chinese artistic production, snuff bottles are said to embody the Chinese art world in miniature. Ironically, the practice of taking snuff in China derived from the import of tobacco and nasal etiquette from the West. By the late sixteenth century, after its discovery in the New World, the American sotweed, tobacco, was introduced to China. Traded or given as gifts by Western merchants and clerics, tobacco became known in China as "smoke-weed" (yancao). By the seventeenth century, tobacco smoking had become widespread. In its levigated, or finely powdered, form, it was administered for its supposed medicinal properties and usually stored in medicine bottles (yaoping). In general, the European habit of taking snuff did not win greater acceptance until the Qing dynasty, during the reign of Qianlong. Because the emperor himself imbibed, the fashion of taking snuff grew at the Manchu court and gradually spread to the rest of the country by the middle of the eighteenth century.

The production of snuff accoutrements—bottles, funnels, dishes—also developed with this new, imported habit. According to reports, exquisitely wrought European snuffboxes had already been presented as official gifts to the Chinese court in the late Ming dynasty. Such containers, however, proved unsuited to China's humid climate. Elaborating on earlier medicine bottles, miniature stoppered bottles with tiny spoons were soon invented. Crafted from a variety of materials, including jade, metal, wood, ivory, horn, lacquer, coral, glass, stone, and ceramics, the bottles protected their contents from moisture and could be carried on the person. Decorated with traditional Chinese artistic techniques, including painting, calligraphy, carving, enamel, cloisonné, and ceramics, the bottles also show Western-influenced decorative methods and styles. The Blair collection contains inside-painted glass and quartz bottles that combine Chinese-style painting with a back-painting technique (i.e., églomisé) brought to China in the mid-eighteenth century by the Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione. Some of the finest snuff bottles in the Blair bequest are copper vials with Western figures painted in famille rose enamels. Many such foreign-style bottles, though produced for export, were cherished in China as a form of "Occidental" exoticism.

[Modified from Cary Y. Liu, "Asian Art Collection: From Exotica to Art and History," Record of the Princeton University Art Museum 55, nos. 1–2 (1996), pp. 126–28.]

Further Readings

Qianshen Bai, Fu Shan’s World: The Transformation of Chinese Calligraphy in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003).

Ju-hsi Chou and Claudia Brown, The Elegant Brush: Chinese Painting under the Qianlong Emperor, 1735–1795 (Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1985).

Ju-hsi Chou and Claudia Brown, Transcending Turmoil: Painting at the Close of China’s Empire, 1796–1911 (Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1992).

Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson, Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong (New York: Merrell; Chicago: Field Museum, 2004).

Michael C. Hughes, The Blair Bequest: Chinese Snuff Bottles from the Princeton University Art Museum (Baltimore: International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, 2002).

Rosemary E. Scott, For The Imperial Court: Qing Porcelain from the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (New York: The American Federation of the Arts; Singapore: Sun Tree Publishing, 1997).

Wang Fangyu and Richard M. Barnhart, Master of the Lotus Garden: The Life and Art of Bada Shanren, 1626–1705 (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1990).

Wang Gai, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, translated by Mai-mai Sze (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956).

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Zhu Da
Album of Flowers and Insects
China, Qing dynasty, ca. 1681
Ink on paper
Each leaf 30.2 x 30.2 cm.
Gift of Mrs. George Rowley in memory of Professor George Rowley