Qing Dynasty Art
Characteristics of Manchu Arts and Culture in China.

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Portraits of the Yongzheng Emperor
enjoying himself during the lunar
month (one of a set of twelve),
by anonymous court artists.
Yongzheng period, (1723-35).
Hanging scroll, colour on silk.
Palace Museum, Beijing.

Qing Dynasty Art (1644-1911)
History, Types and Characteristics


Arts and Culture
Styles and Types of Painting
Individualist Painters
Buddhist Statues
Decorative Arts

Additional Resources

For earlier Chinese cultures, see:

- Neolithic art in China (7500-2000 BCE)
- Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE)
- Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE)
- Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE)
- Han Dynasty art (206 BCE - 220 CE)
- Arts of the Six Dynasties (220-618 CE)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)
- Tang Dynasty art (618-906)

For dates of early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For movements and periods,
see: History of Art.


In the early 17th century a loose confederation of semi-nomadic tribes occupied land in Manchuria, to the north of China. In 1644, unified by strong leaders, the Manchus swept down through the Great Wall, captured Beijing and established their own Qing (or Pure) dynasty, thus ending the era of Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644). Originally founded by the Jurchen Aisin Gioro clan, the Qing dynasty controlled China until the end of the dynastic era in 1911. Qing Dynasty emperors brought with them their own Manchu traditions and language but were quick to adopt Chinese art and culture to seal their legitimacy as Confucian-style rulers. Over the next century and a half, the Manchu Dynasty extended its rule in Central Asia, Tibet, and Siberia, reaching its height under the Qianlong Emperor in the eighteenth century. In the process it gave China a welcome period of political stability and economic prosperity. Qing leaders included: Shunzhi Emperor (1643–1661), the Kangxi Emperor (1661–1722), the Yongzheng Emperor (1722–1735), the Qianlong Emperor (1735–1796), the Jiaqing Emperor (1796–1820), the Daoguang Emperor (1820–1850), the Xianfeng Emperor (1850–1861), the Tongzhi Emperor (1861–1875), the Guangxu Emperor (1875–1908), the Xuantong Emperor (1908–1911). Of these, the Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors were the greatest patrons of traditional Chinese art, notably painting and calligraphy, as well as a range of decorative art and crafts. The Qing Dynasty began to founder during the 19th century, as corruption, rebellions, and defeats by European powers drained its vitality. Qing attempts at self-reform produced few lasting results, while defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) demonstrated that Japan's modernization since the Meiji Restoration in 1867, had been much more effective.


Arts and Culture

The Manchu takeover did not dislocate Chinese cultural life in the same way the Mongol conquest had done, and their culture was much more elevated than that of Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368). Indeed, the Manchus had been imitating Chinese ways for some time prior to their invasion, and their rulers, particularly Kangxi and Qianlong, were well-educated leaders who were keen to enlist the support of Chinese scholars. The Qianlong emperor ranks alongside Emperor Huizong from the era of Song Dynasty art (960-1279) as the most culturally active of the Qings, assembling a collection of some 4,000 works of painting and calligraphy and listing them in successive editions of the Shiqubaoji. Until the mid-19th century, as literacy surged, all the traditional types of art flourished alongside a Confucian emphasis on cultivation. Thereafter, Qing weakness led to a general stagnation across all forms of visual art.

Styles and Types of Painting

In simple terms, three main groups of artists were at work during the Qing Dynasty: (1) the traditionalists, who aimed to revitalize painting through a more modern reinterpretation of past models; (2) the individualists and scholar-artists, (epitomized by the likes of Bada Shanren), who pursued a highly personal style of art - often containing symbols of political defiance; and (3) the courtiers and professional artists who were employed by the imperial court. One of their important tasks was to pictorialize important state events, as exemplified by the ink and wash painting entitled Emperor Kangxi Inspecting the Dams of the Yellow River (c.1689, Musee Guimet, Paris), by Yang Jin (1644-1728), Gu Fang (active 1690-1720) and Wang Hui (1632-1717). They included a number of foreigners, notably Italian Jesuits attached to the Forbidden City (like Giuseppe Castiglione: 1688-1768), whose workshop produced paintings that used techniques unknown to most Chinese painters, such as linear perspective and chiaroscuro.


In general, Chinese painting under the Qings is characterized both by lavish decoration and orthodox academicism. The former was embodied by Yuan Jiang (c.1690-1724), whose style embraced the work of Guo Xi (1020-90) as well as the mannered expressionism of the late Ming period; and by Jiao Bingzhen (1689–1726), who applied Western perspective to his pen and ink drawings, which were often reproduced in the form of wood engravings. The more orthodox/conservative style of painting - generally landscape painting - was represented by scholar-artists like "The Four Wangs": Wang Shimin (1592-1680), Wang Jian (1598-1677), Wang Hui (1632-1717) and Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715). These four together with Wu Li (1632-1718) and Yun Shouping (1633-90) comprised the Six Masters of the early Qing period, followers of Dong Qichang's systematization of painting method, whose shan shui paintings are exemplified by Wang Jian's masterpiece White Clouds over Xiao and Xiang (1668, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC).

Despite the historical dichotomy between individual scholar-artist and court artist, many of the former were also employed at the Manchu court (partly to help legitimize Qing rule), thus blurring the distinction between individual amateur artist and court professional that had been introduced in the Song era and that played such a significant role in the Ming era.

To see how Qing Dynasty culture fits into the overall evolution of arts and crafts in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (from 18,000 BCE).

Individualist Painters

Another individualist was Gong Xian - the best known of the Chinese painters who came to be known as the Eight Masters of Nanjing - whose repetitive forms and emotional tonal contrasts are shown in landscapes like Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines (Rietberg Museum, Zürich, Switzerland).

Individualist Buddhist masters included Shitao (1641-1707), as well as Kuncan (Shiqi) (1612-74), noted for his landscape pictures inspired by the dense brushwork of Wang Meng (1308-85) of the Yuan era; and Hong Ren (1610-63), representative of the style of the Xinan/Huizhou area of southeastern Anhui province that drew its inspiration from the scenery of the nearby Huang Mountains. In contrast, the group now known as the Anhui school - that is, a group of Ming loyalists including Ding Yunpeng (1547-1628), Xiao Yuncong (1596–1673), Mei Qing (1623-97), and Zha Shibiao (1615-98) - based themselves on the dry linear style of the Yuan artist Ni Zan (1301-74).

Two other Qing painters, both survivors of the deposed Ming family, left an especially enduring legacy. The first was Bada Shanren (1626-1705) (also known as Zhu Da), noted for his wet-and-wild manner as well as his sparse use of brush and ink. His enigmatic compositions of birds and fish, and his studies of rocks and vegetation, are almost without precedent in Chinese painting. The second was Bada Shanren's cousin Daoji, whose freshness stems entirely from the artist's own imaginative brushwork and bold use of colour.

The individual creativity embodied by these two artist-scholars contrasts vividly with the growing scholastic orthodoxy of Qing painting and inspired many contemporaries including the so-called "Eight Eccentrics" - including Zheng Xie (1693–1765), Hua Yan (1682-1756), Huang Shen (1687-1772), Gao Fenghan (1683-1749), Jin Nong (1687-1763), and Luo Pin (1733-99) - who were patronized by rich collectors in 18th century Yangzhou. The artistic reputation of Bada Shanren and Daoji grew significantly during the late 19th century, during the era of the Shanghai school and the Lingnan School, and went on to exert a major influence on Chinese modern art of the 20th century.

Buddhist Statues

During the 18th century Qing emperors made religious and diplomatic alliances with Tibet and Mongolia, resulting in the building of many Buddhist temples of the Tibetan school, notably in Beijing. These contained exotic images of deities and elaborate sets of ritual vessels. (See: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture c.100-present). A typical Buddhist artifact of the period is the statue of Lobsang Palden Yeshe (the 6th Panchen Lama) (1738-80, Field Museum, Chicago), whose meeting with the Qianlong Emperor in 1780 was celebrated with the lavish refurbishment of temples and creation of new statuary. The statue is decorated with gilded cloisonné enamel, the ancient goldsmithing technique which uses little compartments (cloisons) filled with coloured enamel paste, whose walls are made from strips of metal fused onto the object's surface. To compare the impact and strength of Buddhist arts in Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards).


Developments in Chinese pottery during the Qing Dynasty included the use of bright colours and meticulously painted scenes to decorate plates and vases. Chinese porcelain craftsmen began making five-coloured ware by applying a variety of underglaze pigments largely to floral and landscape scenes - a style which was (and is) much prized in the West. During the Yongzheng era (1723-1735), porcelain craftsmen developed fencai enamel in a wide range of colours and tones. However, Qing ceramic art never attained the exquisite qualities of Song or Ming pottery.

Decorative Arts

Many craftsmen worked in the imperial court, producing artifacts for palace use: everything from items of jewellery art to beautiful Chinese lacquerware, including lacquered imperial thrones: see, for instance, the Qing Dynasty Imperial Throne (1775-80, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). The Imperial Household Department managed a number of crafts workshops both within the Forbidden City and outside it. Some of the skilled workers and master craftsmen were on permanent duty, like those in the imperial glass factory established in 1696 under the direction of the German Jesuit Kilian Stumpf (1655-1720). Other experts in ivory carving, horn and jade sculpture and metallurgy were summoned to Beijing for a specific period of service.

Note: During the Qing dynasty in the 17th and 18th century, a craze for pseudo-Chinese decorative art and design, known as chinoiserie, spread across Europe, notably in the fields of architecture, interior design, ceramics, textiles and silks.

In the case of jade carving, supplies of nephrite rock were augmented during the 18th century by the purchase of jadeite from Burma. Jadeite, which varies in colour from white through pale apple green to deep sea green and also blue-green (rarer colours include pink and lavender), is typically bright emerald green. By the 19th century, jade carvers at Guangzhou in the south of China worked almost entirely with imported green jadeite, while carvers in Beijing, and Shanghai specialized in the white variety.

For more information about other Asian cultures, see: Japanese Art as well as: India, Painting & Sculpture.

• For more about traditional arts and culture in China, see: Homepage.

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