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China's Hidden Century

By Qiwei (Yoyo) Hou

The special exhibition China’s Hidden Century at the British Museum has been a hot topic within my group of friends over the past three months. Before my visit, the only thing I knew was that it was an exhibition of artefacts of the Late Qing period, which is, to my understanding, an age of political turbulence and economic disaster. Rather it was also an era of artistic and technological innovation, which could be easily ignored by the teaching of the complicated political history of the Late Qing. The British Museum’s official Chinese translation of this exhibition ‘晚清百态’ (the hundred facets of the late Qing) is so apt to humanise all social classes in the most truthful way while demonstrating the unprecedented globalisation that took place.

Figure 1: Shadows of key characters of each section at the entrance. Photograph taken by Gareth Gardner.

Spanning just over a hundred years from 1796 to 1912, from the end of the splendid and prosperous high Qing to the birth of a republic after 2,000 years of dynastic rule, the exhibition is divided into six sections: the Court, the Military, Elite Art, Vernacular Culture, Global Qing, and Reform and Revolution. The exhibition rooms are atmospherically curated with swaying shadows of people in their traditional Manchu or Han costumes on the walls. Then their voices ensue, telling their stories in Mandarin, Cantonese, Manchu and English. This kind of curating enables the audience to have an immersive experience of every corner of society, understanding different identities without getting disorientated or confused.

Let us start with this large-scale painting of a war scene. Commissioned by the most powerful figure at the time, Empress Dowager Cixi, the painting The Battle of the Wei River by Qingkuan (fig. 2, c. 1885-90) is undoubtedly a work of political propaganda, used to cover up the irretrievable damage due to the consecutive failures in the Second Opium War and the Sino-Japanese war by celebrating the historic Qing’s victory of the civil insurgencies twenty years before the painting was made. The painting depicts the full view of the battle against the Muslims, clearly suggesting the vigilance and ultimate victory of the Qing troops by the forceful directional line formed by the unified poses of the troops. However, it was far more than a simple political painting. Neither a traditional hand scroll nor a hanging scroll, it is silk framed by wood, within the format just like a European oil painting. Fusion of cultures is key here. The musculature of the horses in the left corner is defined and the thick layer of pigment applied allows perfect chiaroscuro. The horses look three-dimensional although we cannot feel their mass and weight thanks to the absence of shadow (which should be cast on the ground). This sense of Western realism is deliberately blended with the Chinese aesthetic, which can be visualised from the flatness of the leaves and the restrained, subtle effect created by ink mixed with water.

Figure 2. About 1885-1890, Beijing. Qingkuan et al. Painting ink and colour on silk with wood frame. Detail of The Battle of the Wei River. H. 149.9 cm, W. 322.6 cm. The Royal Collection, London.

The Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione (or 郎世宁), who worked at the Qing court a hundred years before, was the name that immediately came to my mind. Castiglione’s style of incorporating Western techniques and indigenous Chinese materials (fig. 3, c. 1728) is shown again in Qingkuan’s painting, further promoting artistic globalisation. The inclusion of mechanic guns carried by the Qing soldiers, reflects on the beginning of the pursuit of technological advancement in Chinese society.

Figure 3: 1768, Giuseppe Castiglione. Detail of One Hundred Horses (Chinese: 百駿圖). 94.5 cm × 776 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei (not part of this exhibition at the British Museum).

This fusion of cultures was by no means only limited to court art or political art, the style of Western techniques applied to Chinese materials gained profound popularity among the royalty, the wealthy, and the people with avant-garde ideas. Just look at the picture (fig. 4, c. 1860-1900) underneath without looking at the illustration caption and guess the material used to create this portrait. Photograph? No. Charcoal or pencil? No. Oil? Still no. It is silk embroidery! You must be even more surprised if you see it in person, the incredible amount of detail will trick your eye. A bunch of visitors in the exhibition room with me just walked away when they saw this work―it looks too similar to a boring photograph of a middle-aged man, but I would not believe that they would still walk away if they knew that this ‘photo’ is entirely stitched. We cannot see any harsh outlines in the embroidery, with only one tone, different textures of the figure’s silk garment, his skin and beard, are so clearly distinguished and so realistically represented. The elegant lustre of the silk drapery is depicted using the same material, stitching silk-on-silk in such a realistic manner explains the virtuous technique of Chinese embroidery. Nevertheless, the work not only presents masterful craftsmanship, but it is also more of an embodiment of the fusion of the traditional and the modern. Since it is an ancestral portrait―the image of him that would be used by his descendants to worship, the choice of a Western photographic representation of this wealthy man is unquestionably innovative, incorporating the completely traditional Chinese embroidery technique.

Figure 4. 1860-1900, Suzhou. Silk embroidery. H. 60 cm, W. 45 cm. The Teresa Coleman Collection.

Late Qing was an age of flux and new perspectives, especially in cities like Guangzhou, Fuzhou and Shanghai where their trade with other countries resulted in high exposure to foreign influences. The study of Plantains (fig. 5, c. 1800-30) created by (very possibly English) unidentified artists in the 1820s is completely in a Western botanical style on European paper, reminding me of the paintings hung on the wall of my host family in the Cotswolds. However, plantains are only grown in the south of China and this piece of artwork was imported to China, targeting art collectors in Guangzhou. The extent of scientific accuracy of a sample of fruit was unprecedented in China at the time. leading to illustrated manuscripts describing Chinese medical plants (fig. 6, c. 1850-90), made by Chinese doctors. The exhibition succeeds in explaining the process of how different cultures and artistic styles imitate each other by identifying the elements that were rejected or appreciated, and in emphasising the cultural changes other than political instability within this period of Qing history.

Figure 5. 1800-30, Guangzhou. Watercolour and ink on European paper. H. 31 cm, W. 39 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Figure 6. 1850-90. Southern China. Ink and watercolour on paper. H. 33.3 cm, W. 23.9 cm (closed). The British Library, London, photo from China’s Hidden Century Catalog.

The audience also sees evidence of new technologies which mark the transformation of China, corresponding to Julia Lovell, one of the exhibition co-curators, who expressed that the late Qing “formed a crucial bridge to Chinese modernity.” New technologies like lithography surfaced and became popularised in Shanghai, and original copies of The Dianshizhai Huabao (點石齋畫報) and Shenbao were displayed in the exhibition. This weekly magazine uses both pictures and texts to report commendable news as well as advertisement of the Chinese of foreign goods, introducing them to Western modernity. The pages of the launching the railway (fig. 7, c. 1884-5) and the advertisement of Doan's kidney pills (fig. 8, c.1911) vividly reflect the overall picture of China's social environment under the background of the spread of Western learning eastward in the late Qing Dynasty. 

Figure 7. 1884-5, Shanghai. Lithographic printing. H. 22 cm, W. 12 cm (approx.,
closed). SOAS University of London. Photo from China’s Hidden Century Catalog.

Figure 8. 9 June 1911, Shanghai. Doan's Kidney Pills advertisements in Shenbao. Photo from China’s Hidden Century Catalog.

Apart from the wealthy and powerful, the exhibition gives explanations of the daily life of the ordinary. It is understandable that one might find this section rather dull and even lowly. However, the aim of this exhibition is to present the entire society comprehensively and thoroughly, so the inclusion of vernacular culture is apt and necessary. The palm and ricefibre coat and bamboo hat (fig. 9, c. 1800-60) might seem rather incongruous in the exhibition room stuffed with gorgeous dresses and accessories (figure 10, c.1880-1908, and figure 11, c. 1780-1850) which perfectly discloses the massive gaps among social classes of Qing China.

Figure 9. 1800-60. China. Chinese windmill-palm and rice straw. H. 145 cm, W. 95 cm. British Museum, London. Transferred from Kew Gardens.

Figure 10. 1880-1908. China. Embroidered Kesi robe for the Empress Dowager Cixi. H. 134.6 cm, W. 134.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Figure 11. 1780-1850. China, Gilding, kingfisher feathers, jade, tourmaline, coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, bone, pearl, glass, resin, silk-satin weave and silk plain weave. H. 25 cm, W. 22 cm, D. 19 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

What first drew me to this exhibition was its online poster with a portrait of a middle-aged Chinese lady (fig. 12, c.1876), who is, surprisingly, not Empress Dowager Cixi (she is the most often represented woman of the late Qing period.) With all the curators being women, the exhibition aims to push forward the question of the absence of records and especially biographies of women during this period, when China had two hundred million women. Portraits of women are scattered throughout the entire exhibition, but none of them have much history or information attached, and most of them are women who were unknown (fig. 13). This is clever in a way that it is almost self-explanatory that women in feudal China had far lesser importance than men, but they were by no means not an indispensable part of society. Portraits of unknown Chinese women give the audience space for contemplation, to think about what is missing in history and to look at the whole picture of the Qing dynasty rather than purely relying on what has been saved today.

Figure 12. unknown artist, Guangzhou, Portrait of Mrs Lu (Detail), about 1876. Framed hanging scroll; ink, colours and gilding on paper. H. 116, W Royal Ontariao Museum.

Figure 13. China. Unknown artist. Unknown Women. British Museum.

It was certainly a successful and enjoyable exhibition, covering such a wide range of artefacts, from paintings to embroidery, from maps to calligraphy, from jewellery to ceremonial gowns... China’s Hidden Century showcases an illuminating combination of cultural change and innovation with Chinese tradition during the late Qing, carefully telling a story of a time of transformation from the perspectives of people of different social classes. The exhibition deliberately dilutes the amount of the complicated historical context of this period, to avoid people falling into the trap of over-emphasising the disastrous politics and foreign relations by the end of the Qing dynasty. However, without knowing these contexts of the social background, would we still be able to understand every facet of the late Qing in the fullest way? This is the question that everyone would have a different answer to, but we should all keep it in mind.


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