5 Features of Qing Dynasty Art

The Qing Dynasty capped off China’s imperial era. Under its greatest emperors, extravagant and varied art forms flourished.

Mar 5, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History
qing dynasty art features


The rise of the Qing Dynasty in 17th-century China was a significant departure from earlier periods of Chinese history. Unlike all but one prior dynasty, the Qing emperors were not ethnically Han Chinese. Yet despite their different ethnic background, the Qing Dynasty’s rulers also worked tirelessly to uphold central elements of traditional Chinese culture. One way they did this was through extensive patronage of art. Chinese art flourished under Qing rule, especially during the 18th century. Not only were artists in demand at home, but Chinese painting and ceramics were highly sought after overseas.


1. Artistic Schools of Thought During the Qing Dynasty: The Loyalists

kuncan wooded mountains
Wooded Mountains at Dusk, by Kuncan, 1666, Source: The MET, New York


Long before the Qing Dynasty’s ascension to power, Chinese culture had valued continuity and social harmony. This extended from Confucian philosophy and spirituality to architecture and artwork. The Qing emperors largely upheld this way of thinking, especially during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722). As in all societies, however, Qing China did not have just one school of artistic thought.


Some of the Qing period’s earliest artists known to us today actually came from the toppled Ming dynasty. When their rule collapsed, members of the former imperial family went into exile. Some of them devoted their lives to Buddhist spirituality, while others poured their efforts into art. They were known as the yimin (“leftover people”) for their previous positions under the Ming and developed distinctive styles of painting. Art historians today refer to these painters as the “Loyalists” or “Individualists” — a somewhat erroneous term, given imperial China’s communal culture.


gong xian landscape painting
Landscape and Trees, by Gong Xian, c. 1679, Source: The MET, New York


The city of Nanjing was an important center for Ming holdouts during the beginning of the Qing Period. That being said, Loyalist artwork heavily featured themes of reclusion and personal loss. Artists such as Bada Shanren and Gong Xian focused on landscape painting. Their surviving works may appear colorless, but they reflect deeper themes of loneliness, appreciation for natural scenery, and a lack of direction following the Qing conquest. Loyalist works offer not only artistic beauty, but a valuable insight into their creators’ mentalities at the time.

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2. Artistic Schools of Thought: The “Orthodox” Artists

wang shimin landscape qing dynasty
Landscape in the Style of Huang Gongwang, by Wang Shimin, 1666, Source: The MET, New York


Because of their ties to the previous dynasty, the Loyalists did not receive any kind of patronage from the new Qing government. Instead, the Qing dynasty’s elites coalesced around another school of thought: the “Traditionalists” or Orthodox School. This artistic movement’s inspirations came from the older masters of earlier Chinese dynasties. Like the Loyalists, many Orthodox painters specialized in landscape artwork.


The progenitors of the Orthodox School were the artist Wang Shimin and his teacher, Dong Qichang. Dong, who had worked during the late Ming period, had distinguished between the natural world and art while simultaneously elevating them to a high standard. His student, Wang Shimin, would go on to train the most renowned painter of the early Qing dynasty, Wang Hui.


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Third scroll of the Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, by Wang Hui, c. 1698, Source: The MET, New York


Wang Hui was born in 1632 to a family of artists. Like his teacher, he specialized in landscape painting. However, he seems to have surpassed his predecessors in the scope and skill of his work. Wang Hui’s work owed a great debt to the landscape paintings of the Song Dynasty (r. 960-1279). He wanted his painting to emulate the works of great Song-era artists. In doing this, however, he also added his own flair. Wang Hui ultimately aimed to bring together all the work of artists from older dynasties as part of a grand, unified approach to painting.


The Orthodox School’s reverence for the artwork of old caught the attention of the Qing Dynasty’s first great emperor. In 1691, the Kangxi Emperor commissioned Wang Hui to paint a series of handscrolls to commemorate his southern tour. Wang Hui, who had picked up the handscroll format during the late 1660s, rose to the challenge. He and his assistants built on his twenty-five years of handscroll expertise to create twelve scrolls for the emperor. Altogether, these scrolls measure over 740 feet in length and exemplify the Orthodox School’s approach to Chinese art.


3. Lacquerware

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Lacquer box depicting treasures and the Chinese character for spring, 18th century, Source: Asian Art Museum, San Francisco


Lacquerware is one of the most distinctive Chinese contributions to global art. With its vibrant colors and intricate symbolism and themes, lacquerware (known as Qīdiāo in Chinese) is simultaneously beautiful and influential. Over the centuries, the techniques to produce lacquered works spread across the Chinese cultural sphere, including to Korea and Japan.


Chinese lacquerware dates back to ancient times. It was during the Han dynasty (c. 202 BCE-220 CE) when artisans working with lacquer started to receive state funding. During the Qing Dynasty, lacquerware continued to be produced in imperial-supported centers. In fact, Qing-era artisans still used similar techniques as their ancestors had over a thousand years earlier. The most popular formats for lacquerware included cups, boxes, bowls, and statues.


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Circular lacquer box, Qing dynasty, 18th century, Source: Christie’s


Lacquer comes from the sap from a specific tree that grows in southern China, Toxicodendron vernicifluum. Once harvested, this sap must be applied to a desired object in multiple coats. In order to apply a new coat of lacquer, the previous coat had to be completely dry first. The process was incredibly time-consuming, and the efforts to produce quality lacquerware only made the products more alluring to Chinese elites.


Lacquer artists during the Qing dynasty were creative with their themes. At the same time, however, they did work with some common design staples. Animal designs — especially of tigers, birds, or dragons — and geometric shapes were among the most common. Human figures were depicted as well by later dynasties.


4. Porcelain

porcelain roosters qing dynasty
Plate with Roosters amid Peonies and Rocks, c. 1723-35, Source: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts


No journey through Chinese art history would be complete without discussing porcelain. During earlier eras, Chinese porcelain was the most elaborate in the world. The imperial government exported it across Asia, which influenced ceramics in other societies, especially Islamic art. The Qing Dynasty maintained porcelain production and even expanded it. The southeastern city of Jingdezhen was the major center of China’s porcelain business.


Porcelain under the Ming Dynasty had largely dealt with two colors: blue and white. Chinese ceramicists had not yet mastered how to preserve other pigments in all their richness. Under the Qing Dynasty, artists finally cracked the code. Kilns that could reach higher temperatures were invented, allowing for different gases and pigments to be employed and preserved. Qing-era porcelain comes in an array of colors, from blues and whites to reds, greens, and yellows.


qing dynasty export sweden
Punch bowl (intended for the Swedish market), c. 1745-55, Source: The MET, New York


During the 17th and 18th centuries, European trade with China intensified. It turned out that European elites craved Chinese goods, especially tea and porcelain. A whole sub-industry developed within the Chinese porcelain trade which dealt specifically with export porcelain. Ceramics created for export overseas depicted themes and styles that European customers liked — a departure from the Chinese norm.


All of Europe’s most powerful countries — Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal — sought porcelain from the Qing Dynasty. By the early 19th century, however, the demand had declined. European states also began to surpass China at this time with regard to national wealth and military technology. The tables would completely turn after the Opium Wars between China and France and Britain in the middle of the century.


5. Foreign Influences on Qing Dynasty Art

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French tapestry from the series The Story of the Emperor of China, c. 1697-1705, Source: Picryl


Popular images of Qing China often depict a very insular society, isolated from the rest of the world. To be sure, the Qing Dynasty did heavily restrict foreign trade to certain port cities, but they were never entirely isolated. China under the Qing Dynasty never went as far as Edo-era Japan did in cutting off foreign influences.


Economic and cultural contact between China and Europe had begun under the Ming Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty maintained many of these links, particularly with the Catholic Church’s Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuits weren’t only interested in spreading the gospel —they also shared scientific and artistic techniques with their Chinese hosts. The Qing emperors were more intrigued by European science and art than they were by their strange religion.


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Assembled Blessings, by Giuseppe Castiglione, 1723, Source: The National Palace Museum, Taipei


The piece shown above, painted by Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione, is a great example of Chinese and European artistic fusion. Castiglione created Assembled Blessings around 1723, specifically for the Qianlong Emperor. In the vase, lotus flowers and grain grow vibrantly. Since the lotus flower is a symbol of good fortune in Buddhist thought, it symbolizes the grandeur and longevity of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign. The emperor was undoubtedly pleased with Castiglione’s work.


But how does Assembled Blessings fuse Chinese and European artistic techniques, exactly? It is all in the shading and materials used. Castiglione painted the vase and flowers on a silk backdrop — distinctly in the Chinese style. It also takes the form of a hanging scroll.


European technique is apparent via the vase. Castiglione painstakingly depicted the shadows cast onto the vase by the hanging plants. The realism of the leaves is another reflection of the 18th-century European style. At least with the imperial household, aspects of European art did find their appeal in China under the Qing Dynasty.

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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.