Qing Encounters – by Craig Clunas


Petra ten-Doesschate Chu and Ning Ding, with Lidy Jane Chu, eds., Qing Encounters: Artistic Exchanges Between China and the West (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015)

This collection of sixteen essays gives a good sense of the much-increased body of work now being carried out on cultural contacts between the Qing empire and Europe in the long eighteenth century. It is for the most part work which seeks to transcend older paradigms of “chinoiserie,” “Chinese export art,” or “Western influence,” and situate itself instead in a framework of the trans-national, the trans-cultural, even the “trans-portal” (a neologism coined here by Richard Vinograd). All the essays are well worth reading, but not before taking on board Jonathan Hay’s trenchant “Foreword,” which sets out the crucial ways in which the terms “Qing” and “China” of the title in fact constitute two different frames of reference, artistically as well as politically and economically. “Qing” and “Chinese” are not the same thing.

There is certainly new knowledge here, for example in Mei Mei Rado’s excellent essay on Qing imperial deployments of imported Western silks (their poor rate of survival being in inverse proportion to their importance), or in Kristel Smentek’s intriguing exposition of tact flou as a French connoisseurial term applied specifically to Chinese porcelain. There are new interpretations too, Lihong Liu’s innovative discussion of “Shadows in Chinese Art” for example fully living up to its claim to be “An Intercultural Perspective.” Not all of the analytical work here convinces this reader equally. Yue Zhuang’s claim that the use of cross-hatching techniques in Matteo Ripa’s engravings of the Qing imperial summer palace at Rehe represents “a superimposition of a Christian ideal universe on the land of Jehol” strikes me as bold but implausible. And her conflation of li  理 and li  禮, two quite different Chinese words, adds a layer of obfuscation to her discussion of the neo-Confucian philosophy she sees as essential in understanding the Qing woodcut illustrations of these same landscapes.

Analyses can differ from author to author. For Marcia Reed, the perspective effects in the copperplate prints of the Qianlong emperor’s victories were an addition of the French engravers who produced them, while for Ma Ya-chen they “must be the work [in Beijing] of Castiglione and his colleagues.” Both authors cannot be right, and it would be good to know if this disagreement was thrashed out at the conference which generated this volume. Similarly, Kristina Kleutghen and Yue Zhuang come to diametrically opposed conclusions with regard to the adoption of linear perspective in certain Qing imperial projects. While it is a sign of a welcome liveliness in a field to have a range of interpretations of key points, it makes this volume harder to use for the non-specialist than it might otherwise be.

One problem facing a number of the authors gathered here is how to square the circle that eighteenth-century Europeans imported, used and clearly valued large amounts of Chinese stuff, while at the same time those who wrote about this stuff, and about Chinese aesthetics more generally, usually did so in largely pejorative terms. For Stacey Sloboda, the relentlessly negative things said by eighteenth-century European commentators about the incoherence of Chinese aesthetics are paradoxically a sign of respect, of a praiseworthy refusal to render Chinese culture as a coherent whole (since to do so would be to render it subject to European mastery). So (p.258), when James Marriott says in 1755, “every incoherent combination of forms in nature, without expression and without meaning, are the essentials of Chinese painting,” he is in fact voicing his impeccably cosmopolitan acknowledgement of difference without hierarchy. Greg Thomas sees in the architecture and interior decoration of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton “a serious and meaningful cultural dialogue with China and Chinese culture,” “a harmonious dialogue between compatible, and in some ways equivalent, cultural traditions,” which “placed China on a par with France as a cultural model and worthy political competitor.” Here, just as in the contemporaneous serious and interested Qing deployments of Western silks or pictures, there is to be no conflict, no misunderstanding, just mutually respectful and harmonious “encounter.” Is this right? It seems to me that the paradigm, the intellectual father really being ritually slain in many of these essays is that of Orientalism, and of Edward Said (whose name is nowhere in the index). This may well be seen as healthy and necessary, but an account of eighteenth-century “encounter” which avoids any mention of conflict, or even of simple profit-seeking, makes it all the harder to account for the rather different “encounters” between the Qing and the West which occupied the nineteenth century, and which continue to shape imaginations at both ends of Eurasia today.

Craig Clunas is Professor of History of Art at the University of Oxford


Cite this note as: Craig Clunas, “Qing Encounters”, Journal18 (2016), https://www.journal18.org/277

Licence: CC BY-NC