Show and Tell 1: Qing Dynasty Art and Europe

For my first show and tell project, I decided to focus on art in the Qing Dynasty during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During this period, Europeans and Chinese people came into contact more frequently through missionary work and trade, which led to cultural exchanges that are reflected in art from both regions. Most eighteenth century Europeans had never met Chinese people, but they became very interested in Chinese culture through writings by European missionaries who had traveled the empire. 1

Chinese art became trendy in Europe during the eighteenth century. Europeans created an art style called “chinoiserie” which was a hybrid of Chinese and European elements 2. One form of art where the Chinese and Europeans influenced each other was pottery. According to David Mungello’s book chapter “European Acceptance of Chinese Culture and Confucianism,” “By the eighteenth century, the two-hundred ship fleet of the Dutch East India Company was carrying tens of millions of pieces of Chinese porcelain to Europe. Chinese artisans produced expert porcelain based on designs modeled on what they believed to be European aesthetic taste, and the hybrid forms were striking. Meanwhile, Europeans began to develop European porcelain centers based on Chinese models… ” 3. Buying pottery from China, or imitating its style, was very popular among Europeans. The Chinese artists might have taken on European influences in their pottery to appeal to customers and make a profit.  Below are two examples of Chinese porcelain from the eighteenth century Qing Dynasty:

Chinese white porcelain vase with floral design.
“Famille Porcelain” Vase made during the Yongzheng reign×700&q=85
Porcelain Chinese tea caddy. It is box-shaped with a round top. It has drawings of flowers.
Chinese Tea Caddy made in about 1780 for export

Europeans also used art as a diplomatic tool for their relations with the Chinese. An example is a set of chinoiserie tapestries gifted from France to China in the eighteenth century. The French hoped that gifts would improve Chinese demand for their goods and help create an informal alliance 4. The tapestries were brought by Aloys Ko and Étienne Yang, two Chinese men who converted to Catholicism and lived in France for over ten years. The men had went to France with French missionaries from Beijing who wanted them to be trained as priests 5. Ko and Yang returned from France in 1765 and brought the tapestries along with other gifts from the French minister Henri-Léonard Bertin to the Qianlong Emperor 6. Ko and Yang’s Jesuit teacher, Michel Benoist, wrote that the Qianlong Emperor was “seized with admiration” when he was given the tapestries 7. He ordered the building of a new palace where there would be enough space to hang them up. Benoist’s description of Qianlong is biased because he was a French missionary, but the Qianlong Emperor wanting a new palace for the tapestries shows that he likely appreciated the gift. While researching, I could not find pictures of the original tapestries that were given to the Emperor, but I found a picture of this French chinoiserie tapestry from the same time period to show what the style looked like:

Tapestry that shows a group of Chinese men, two of them are on horseback and one is holding a flag. There is a man in the center who is being carried in a luxurious chair.
A Beauvais Chinoiserie tapestry, from the Series ‘The Story of the Emperor of China’ Late 17th/First Quarter 18th Century

Europeans did not only send their art to China. An Italian painter named Giuseppe Castiglione lived in China for fifty years, and he worked directly for three different Qing emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong 8. Castiglione was a Jesuit missionary whom the Kangxi Emperor invited to his court along with other “Jesuit experts in astronomy, painting, cartography and mechanics.”9. The Kangxi Emperor was interested in Western artistic and scientific knowledge. Castiglione’s paintings included elements of Italian renaissance art and Chinese techniques. Art was one of the tools that the Qianlong Emperor used to appeal to different groups of his subjects. According to Matthew Ehret-Kump’s article on Castiglione, “With the aim of keeping the fragmented and multi-ethnic Chinese empire unified, Qianlong commissioned Castiglione to represent his image to different constituents.” 10. Diversity and legitimacy were challenges for the Manchus, who were an ethnic minority in their own empire. The Emperors needed to balance keeping their own cultures with adapting to the native cultures of their subjects so that they could remain in power. This is one of Castiglione’s paintings of the Qianlong Emperor as a Manchu warrior:

Painting of the Qianlong Emperor riding a horse. Qianlong is wearing gold armor and carrying arrows.
“The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour on Horseback” by Giuseppe Castiglione

As we discussed in class, the traditional Chinese worldview portrayed the Emperor as the center of power, and people who were close to him (inner subjects, then outer subjects) had the highest status. People who were not subjects of the empire or the vassal states were foreigners labeled as barbarians. The Qing viewed Europeans as barbarians, but they were open to European art. This is evident in their acceptance of European gifts and their Emperors’ hiring or commissioning European artists. If I had the time to research this topic further, I would like to look for primary sources from Chinese people about how they viewed European art and whether the art also influenced their perceptions of European people.


Ehret-Kump, Matthew. “The Passion of Giuseppe Castiglione: How an 18th century Jesuit Painter Revolutionized Chinese Art”. LA Review of Books, China Channel, January 17, 2019. URL:

Mungello, David. “4. European Acceptance of Chinese Culture and Confucianism.” In The Great Encounter of China and The West, 1500 – 1800. Critical Issues in History. World and International History. Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013.

Smentek, Kristel. “Chinoiseries for the Qing: A French Gift of Tapestries to the Qianlong Emperor.” Journal of Early Modern History 20, no. 1 (January 2016): 87–109. doi:10.1163/15700658-12342490.

  1. David Mungello, “4. European Acceptance of Chinese Culture and Confucianism.”  In The Great Encounter of China and The West, 1500 – 1800. Critical Issues in History. World and International History (Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013,) 90.
  2. Mungello, “European Acceptance of Chinese Culture and Confucianism”, 112.
  3. Mungello, “European Acceptance of Chinese Culture and Confucianism,” 112-113.
  4. Kristel Smentek, “Chinoiseries for the Qing: A French Gift of Tapestries to the Qianlong Emperor,”  Journal of Early Modern History 20, no. 1 (January 2016): 92, doi:10.1163/15700658-12342490
  5. Smentek, “Chinoiseries for the Qing,” 95.
  6. Smentek, “Chinoiseries for the Qing,” 87-88
  7. Smentek, “Chinoiseries for the Qing,” 105
  8. Matthew Ehret-Kump, “The Passion of Giuseppe Castiglione,” LA Review of Books: China Channel, January 17, 2019,
  9. Ehret-Kump, “The Passion of Giuseppe Castiglione”
  10. Ehret-Kump, “The Passion of Giuseppe Castiglione”






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