Objects, Images, and Court Culture in Qing China

Title: 1077 | Objects, Images, and Court Culture in Qing China
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Yulian Wu, Michigan State University, United States (organizer, presenter)
Yu-chih Lai, Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, (chair, discussant)
Daisy Yiyou Wang, Hong Kong Palace Museum, Hong Kong (presenter)
Kyoungjin Bae, Kenyon College, United States (presenter)


The splendid material culture of the Manchu court during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) embodied diverse power relations in gender, ethnicity, and knowledge that were skillfully maneuvered by the ruling elites. By purposefully producing, using, and displaying discrete objects and images, the Manchu rulers not only engaged themselves in technical matters of production but also strategically used them to address specific political agenda. This multi-disciplinary panel explores Qing court culture through the lens of its visual and material culture. In particular, by examining how and why the court splurged on non-textual media, it aims to elucidate the various ways in which objects and images mediated negotiations of power between men and women, the Manchu and the Han, elites and artisans, as well as the center and the locale(s). Zooming in on the portraits of key imperial women, Wang’s paper analyzes the complex socio-spatial relationships embodied in pictorial spaces and reconstructs the dynamic relations between gender and space at the Qing court. Through an investigation of the silkworm ceremonies led by empresses, Mao underscores how gender hierarchies and relations in the palace were constructed and reconfigured through ritual practices. Bae’s paper shows how woodwork became a means of appropriating and adapting vernacular knowledge at the center by tracing the recruitment of Cantonese artisans and their work at the imperial workshops. Focusing on the interactions between jade craftsmen in Jiangnan and the imperial workshops, finally, Wu investigates how court-Jiangnan relations were constructed and contested through the planning and management of jade production between the central government and Jiangnan society.

Panel Abstracts:
Jiangnan Jade Craftspeople and Court Management in Eighteenth-Century China
During the reign of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-1796/1799), an unprecedented amount of nephrite jade was transported overland from the new frontier of Xinjiang to China’s heartland, particularly to the imperial capital of Beijing and the economic centers of Jiangnan. As court memorials and Imperial Household Department records show, jade objects were crafted in imperial workshops located both at the palace and in the Jiangnan cities of Suzhou and Yangzhou where the skilled local artisans were frequently recruited by the court. The Qianlong emperor, assisted by his formal and informal bureaucrats, made detailed and sometimes peculiar requests. The Jiangnan craftspeople actively responded to the court’s demands through the refinement of technical skills to satisfy the emperor’s taste. This paper aims to reveal the detailed procedures of jade production, with a focus on the transmission of carving skills between the court and local craftspeople in Jiangnan. I investigate how the Qing court recruited local craftspeople and what kind of court-Jiangnan networks were constructed to facilitate this cross region jade production. Through what media or tools did the craftspeople communicate with the court? By examining jade carving procedures, I uncover how skills employed in manufacturing were exchanged between the court and local society, between the imperial central and the Jiangnan market. This research aims to illuminate the ways in which the court presented its power through the planning and management of jade production and how this power was received and contested by local craftspeople.

Gender and Space in Arts of the Qing Imperial Court
This paper presents new research on the relationship between gender and space at the Qing imperial court. Focusing on the pictorial representations of key imperial women, including Empress Xiaozhuang (1613-1688), Empress Xiaoxian (1712-1748), and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), this paper provides new ways of studying court portraits. While prior scholarship has focused mainly on the study of the biography and appearance of the subject in paintings, this paper zooms in on pictorial space and composition to analyze the complex social-spatial relationships embodied in pictorial spaces. How were women represented spatially? What were the differences between the depiction of women and that of men at the imperial court? How did the orientation, scale, and grouping of the figures depicted signify their status, gender boundaries and connections? In addition to paintings, this paper utilizes sources in cosmology, architecture, court rituals, and theatre to reconstruct the relationship between gender and space at the Qing imperial court.

Cantonese Woodworkers and Their Knowledge Culture in the Qing Palace
Throughout the eighteenth century, Cantonese artisans played an important role in the workshops at the Qing imperial palace. Constituting an important group within the “southern artisans” (nanjiang) who were recruited from the culturally and economically developed south, these artisans travelled across arduous routes between Guangdong and Beijing to participate in numerous craft projects at the court. Of various craftspeople and their work, this paper examines the knowledge of Cantonese woodworkers in the palace workshops. Cantonese woodworkers in early Qing times built an elaborate knowledge system based upon their expertise in tropical hardwoods and through interaction with Europeans who brought to their attention Western forms and motifs in decorative arts. In the palace, they were recruited as carvers and cabinetmakers who had attained mastery in maneuvering precious hardwoods such as red sandalwood and huali wood. In examining their recruitment and work at the palace workshops, this paper asks several questions about their knowledge and its mobility: what kinds of knowledge culture did they practice? How and which part of it was transmitted both geographically and culturally to the imperial center? How can we conceptualize the palace woodwork, which actively appropriated and adapted vernacular knowledge systems? In so doing, it argues that the vernacular craft culture was constantly redefined and reconstituted from outside, rather than within, through its mobility and transformation

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