Arts and Culture

Calligraphy by Emperor Qian Long.

During Qing dynasty, traditional forms of art flourished and innovations were made at many levels and in many types. High levels of literacy, prosperous cities, successful publishing industry, and the Confucian emphasis on cultivation all fed a lively and creative set of cultural fields.

The Manchu emperors were generally deft at poetry and often skilled in painting, and offered their patronage to Confucian culture. The Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors, for instance, embraced Chinese traditions both to control them and to proclaim their own legitimacy.

The Kangxi Emperor sponsored the Peiwen Yunfu, a rime dictionary published in 1711, and the Kangxi Dictionary published in 1716, which remains to this day an authoritative reference. The Qianlong Emperor sponsored the largest collection of writings in Chinese history, the Siku Quanshu completed in 1782.

Court painters made new versions of the Song Dynasty masterpiece, Zhang Zeduan’s Along the River During the Qingming Festival whose depiction of a prosperous and happy realm demonstrated the beneficence of the emperor. The emperors undertook tours of the south and commissioned monumental scrolls to depict the grandeur of the occasion. Imperial patronage also encouraged the industrial production of ceramics and Chinese export porcelain.

“The New City of Feng” (畫院本新豐圖) Ink and color on silk. Width 96.4 cm, Height 203.8 cm. Located in National Palace Museum, Taibei. The inscription is poetry from the Qianlong Emperor.

Yet the most impressive work aesthetically was done among the scholars and urban elite. Calligraphy and painting remained a central interest to both court painters and scholar-gentry who considered the Four Arts part of their cultural identity and social standing.

The painting of the early years of the dynasty included such painters as the orthodox Four Wangs and the individualists Bada Shanren (1626-1705) and Shitao (1641-1707). The nineteenth century saw such innovations as the Shanghai school and the Lingnan School which used the technical skills of tradition to set the stage for modern painting.

Literature grew to new heights in the Qing period. Poetry continued as a mark of the cultivated gentleman, but women wrote in larger and larger numbers and poets came from all walks of life.

Pu Songling brought the short story form to a new level in his Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, published in the mid-18th century, and Shen Fu demonstrated the charm of the informal memoir in Six Chapters of a Floating Life, written in the early 19th century but published only in 1877.

Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber.

The art of the novel reached a pinnacle in Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, but its combination of social commentary and psychological insight were echoed in highly skilled novels such as Wu Jingzi’s The Scholars (1750) and Li Ruzhen’s Flowers in the Mirror (1827).[60]

In drama, Kong Shangren’s Kunqu (southern) opera The Peach Blossom Fan, completed in 1699, portrayed the tragic downfall of the Ming dynasty in romantic terms. The most prestigious form became the so-called Peking Opera, though local and folk opera were also widely popular.

The gentleman gourmet, such as Yuan Mei, applied aesthetic standards to the art of cooking, eating, and appreciation of tea at a time when New World crops and products entered everyday life. The Manchu Han Imperial Feast, although probably never common, reflected the appreciation by Han Chinese for Manchu culinary customs.

By the end of the nineteenth century, all elements of artistic and cultural life had recognized and begun to come to terms with world culture as found in the West and Japan. Classically trained Confucian scholars such as Liang Qichao and Wang Guowei broke the ground later cultivated in the New Culture Movement.

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