“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 2)

I’m now into the “pretty pictures” section of this book – the photographs of the items that were in the exhibition. Obviously I can’t put those in a blog post, but each section is introduced with a short essay and I discuss the first four of those below.

“Images of Imperial Grandeur” Jan Stuart

This short essay introduces the pictures of the official imperial portraits and court clothes of the type worn in the images. The formal portraits are all of a type: the subject is sitting on a throne facing forwards, dressed in elaborate yellow & blue court clothes with a red hat, there are no background objects. The faces are painted realistically but the expression is always serene. I think they look more like icons of monarchy rather than pictures of people, if that makes sense.

Stuart explains that these formal portraits were not for public viewing, they were only seen by the elite and were an important part of rituals both while the subject was alive and afterwards as part of ancestor worship. Apparently until the 20th Century it was actually a crime for a commoner to own an image of a former or current ruler. I’m not sure from the essay if that was just these formal portraits or if it was all images.

The history of these types of portraits goes back as far as the Han Dynasty (post), but the Song Dynasty (post) is when the style and ritual usage was fully developed. There are aesthetic differences thereafter but they’re relatively minor. At first portraits were only used in Buddhist & Daoist rituals but gradually during the Song Dynasty they came to be used in Confucian rituals as well. The initial reluctance for using them was down to a fear that inevitable imperfections in the portrait might redirect the ritual to the wrong person.

“Qing Dynasty Court Painting” Nie Chongzheng

This essay talks about the formal court paintings which recorded events and decorated the palaces & temples that the emperors used. It’s a little confused in that first it says that there wasn’t much difference in subject matter between the Qing & the Ming Dynasty paintings of this type, and then goes on to explain how it was different in the Qing Dynasty. Presumably what Chongzheng meant is that the details are different but the broad categories are the same? It doesn’t read like that though. The major difference in subject matter is that the Qing paintings have fewer historical themes and more emphasis on current events. Chongzheng suggests this is due to the conquering origins of the dynasty – the historical figures & events are not Qing history, so they preferred to emphasise stuff that was them.

There were changes in the status of court painters during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign – they gained titles that reflected a higher position in the court. The style of the paintings also changed, and incorporated European stylistic elements. As well as Chinese court painters there were several European court painters (mostly Jesuits). This brought vanishing point perspective to landscapes and more realism to portraits. Oil painting techniques were also brought to China by these Europeans, although not many oil paintings have survived from this era of the Chinese court. Another innovation in this era was informal portraits of the Emperors & their families, as well as the formal portraits discussed in the previous essay.

One problem with seeing these paintings in a book rather than in the flesh is that they are reproduced in quite a small size. So you get a sense of the whole scene but the details are lost. But they do reproduce some bits in a larger size, so you get a little bit of a feel for it. Some of these paintings are enormous and must’ve taken a lot of time to produce. Picking one at random to give the dimensions – “The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Eleven: Nanjing to Jinshan” is a silk handscroll that is 67.8cm tall and 2612cm long. It tells a story, you see the fleet sailing along the coast, then a procession on horseback going to a palace in the mountains. From the detail section they show in the book you can see each boat has a complement of courtiers & sailors and the decoration on the boats is all shown, from the long-ish section that’s reproduced in a small size (about half the scroll I think) you can see there are tens of boats, with hundreds of tiny figures on the boats & on land. The landscape & sea are also painted in (not quite realistic) detail.

“Ritual” Patricia Berger and Yuan Hongqi

The Qing Dynasty continued the state rituals of the Chinese state as a legitimisation of their rule. This essay divides the rituals into two sorts. The first of these is the sacrifices to Heaven, agriculture & silk. There was a calendar of such events through the year, and these rituals had to be carried out precisely, using ritual equipment of the right form and all the proper obeisances. These were pretty strenuous – apparently towards the end of his reign the Qianlong Emperor delegated his ritual responsibilities to his sons because he was no longer sure he was physically capable of getting the ritual right.

The second sort of ritual was the sacrifices to the ancestors of the Qing Emperors. These followed the tradition established by the Zhou Dynasty (post), and came in three sorts – shi xiang (seasonal offerings), gao ji (declaration offerings) & jian xin (offerings of fresh seasonal produce). They all involved ritual offerings of food and drink in ceremonial vessels whose shapes were based on bronzes from the Shang Dynasty era even if now they were more often made in porcelain or lacquer.

This section of the book has pictures of several of the ritual vessels. There are also ritual clothes, bells and a court painting showing a ritual taking place.

“Religion” Patricia Berger

The previous essay was about the Confucian rituals, which aren’t really religious per se tho given it includes a belief in Heaven that strikes me as a very technical distinction. But this essay is about religions that regard themselves as religions.

Berger starts off by discussing the Manchu shamanistic faith, which was in some senses invented during the period of the three Emperors covered in this book. Prior to the 1630s the Manchus were not a united people, and in the early years of the Qing origin myths and a Manchu cultural identity was developed, of which shamanism was a part. The shamanistic rituals developed formed part of the ritual calendar from 1644 onwards, and were eventually codified by the Qianlong Emperor.

The Qing Emperors also amalgamated other religion’s rituals into their observances. Berger says that this was seen as a means of controlling their newly conquered territories via their own cultural practices. (Although she doesn’t state it, this must surely be why they embraced the Chinese Confucian rituals as well.) So as well as Confucian rituals of the state, Manchu shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism, the Qing Emperors also promoted other religions including Daoism, Islam & Christianity.

Tibetan Buddhism had particular support. Berger sets out the political path towards this status, including the Great Fifth Dalai Lama recognising the Qing Emperors as boddhisvattas destined to rule over a unified China, Tibet & Mongolian empire (you can see why this would appeal …). But she also notes that the Kangxi Emperor & the Qianlong Emperor seem to’ve been personally inclined towards Buddhism.

Most of the art in this section of the book is Buddhist, and interestingly it doesn’t look “chinese” to my (uneducated) eyes. It looks more Indian, which would make a certain amount of sense.