Forging Identities: Art in the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911 (55+)

In 1644 the northern Manchu federation overthrew the Ming and established the Qing dynasty, the final chapter of imperial rule in China. Over the next 267 years, the Qing used art and culture to both legitimize their regime and maintain their distinct ethnic identity. Ming loyalists, meanwhile, expressed regret, reclusion and resistance in their paintings. When the Qing dynasty eventually ended, through loss of power to Western nations, natural disasters, rebellions and war, visual art came to play a key role in the struggle between contending visions of China’s future.

We will explore the importance of art in the Qing’s highly conscious performance to appear more Chinese or Manchu, depending on political circumstances, and will see how Chinese artists navigated new challenges and influences to redefine themselves.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

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What will I learn?

Week 1: Introduction

China’s dynastic history spanned more than 2000 years, and its civilization dates back to much earlier, which makes any discussion of later Chinese culture difficult without some background and context. We will review the important historic events, main philosophical foundations, and critical artistic developments that preceded seventeenth-century China. The 1644 invasion by the Manchu prompted a crisis of national and self-identity, expressed in a struggle to define and preserve cultural traditions that continued throughout their rule.

Week 2: Emperor Kangxi Lays the Groundwork

The second Manchu emperor, Kangxi (reigned 1662-1722), began by consolidating control of the empire before turning to winning over his Chinese subjects. One strategy was to take ownership of cultural, political and artistic forms to foster the appearance of legitimacy and assert imperial authority. An enthusiastic patron of art, Kangxi reinstated the Imperial Art Academy, promoted regional schools of art and employed court painters for commissions. A number of Chinese artists developed highly individual styles that remain fresh even today.

Week 3: The Manchu Way

Kangxi understood and stressed the importance of preserving and maintaining Manchu cultural and ethnic distinctiveness even as he demonstrated respect for rule based on Confucianism. He endorsed an idealized collection of customs and practices held to be at the heart of Manchu identity: an outdoor life, military discipline, archery, horse riding, language and frugality. Court art served many of same purposes as always: to promote the tastes of the imperial family, decorate palaces, record events and as ceremonial works and official gifts.

Week 4: Emperor Qianlong Amasses Chinese Culture

Under the rule of Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1795) China enjoyed a period of political, economic and cultural supremacy. The population was growing and life was generally peaceful, prosperous and free from religious strife, which won admiration from European Enlightenment thinkers. Qianlong took an active role in the arts as a painter, poet and patron, and accumulated a vast art collection that became the foundation of both the Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Week 5: Changing Attitudes of the West

The 19th century was a time of political upheaval and cultural conflict in China. From the mid-16th century, Asia, Europe and the Americas had interlinked economies, and China’s prosperity lent authority to its modes of political and social organization. With the rise of the industrial revolution in the West, however, pressure increased to gain access to Chinese markets, and European attitudes shifted from respect to disdain. Chinese artists gained more exposure to Western forms of art, and debates over “traditional” culture sharpened and accelerated.

Week 6: The End of Empire

Natural disasters, foreign debt, the devastating opium trade, growing internal economic pressures, wars and internal rebellions led to the end of dynasty in 1911. Many millions died, and China faced enormous costs as a result of the destruction, penalties and suffering. The cultural sphere was complex with multiple and conflicting forces; art was politicized and turned into instrument of warfare and class struggle. Local modes of art competed with foreign styles, and visual art became part of the battle between contending visions of China’s future.

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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