19th Century Chinese Taste

Ross Edman, 1968

The arts of eighteenth century China include almost every aspect of human creativity. As in Western Europe, the Chinese artists and artisans produced an enormous quantity of objects designed with exquisite taste and executed with a careful and sensitive feeling for detail which died out with the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

During the reigns of the three best-known Manchu Emperors—K’ang Hsi (1660-1722), Yung Cheng (1723-35), and Ch’ien Lung (1736-96)—the Chinese predilection for accumulating all that was wonderful and rare reached a high point. While much attention was given to relics of the past—which was both aesthetically rewarding and morally justified because of the instructive value of ancient history—the three emperors were great patrons of the contemporary artists and artisans as well. Painters, calligraphers and potters were employed in large numbers at court, and the Imperial household underwrote the costs of manufactures, which would provide them with an endless series of objects for their own delight and to serve as gifts to officials as a sign of Imperial favor.

Chief among these state-supported institutions were the porcelain kilns at Ching-te-chien, which very much impressed European visitors such as the Jesuit Pere d’Entrecolles. Because it is the porcelain that most excited the Europeans, and —judging from the number of surviving pieces—the Chinese themselves, half of the pieces in this exhibition are ceramics. The pieces that are included represent a variety of glazes and shapes which demonstrate the importance of porcelain as an art rather than as strictly utilitarian.

Other categories in the exhibition—textiles, lacquer, hardstone, carvings, enamel, and glass—are types which could also be deemed useful. But all illustrate as well a concern for shape and decoration that goes far beyond the needs of an ordinary functional object. Whether a lavish embroidery to tickle the fancy of an emperor accustomed to luxurious furnishings or a simple object of humble use in an ordinary scholar’s study, there is a consistent attention to variety and quality that disappeared after the eighteenth century.

A number of paintings in the exhibition show the extremes of Chinese taste at this time. They range from the fussily detailed works of the court to the apparently careless idea-writing of a scholar-recluse. No matter what the extreme, one senses a certain lack of grandeur and sweep when compared to the works of earlier periods. Nonetheless, one can also appreciate a personal and reflective restatement of four thousand years of history in the last century of one of the world’s great and unique civilizations.

This text was originally published in the exhibition handout.