sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 3

Jessica Harrison-Hall / Julia Lovell (eds.): China's hidden century

China's Hidden Century offers a reassessment of China's turbulent nineteenth century, from the height of the Qing Empire under the Qianlong Emperor to the dissolution of dynastic rule. Combining recent scholarship in Chinese studies with new research on art and visual and material culture, the volume, conceptualized as the catalogue companion to the eponymous, blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum from May to October 2023, presents the results of a multi-year research and curatorial project.

The turn away from John K. Fairbank's influential thesis that China's modern history was shaped as a 'response to the West' has been de rigeur in Chinese Studies in the past decades. [1] Likewise, this book challenges the assumption that Qing China was insular and stagnant. The central argument is that the nineteenth century was neither a 'dark age' in Chinese history, nor an age in which China sequestered itself from the world, but an era of transformation that shaped Chinese modernity (10-11). Consisting of an introduction and six chapters written by different scholars, the volume shines in its attentiveness to art and visual and material culture as important historical sources.

Julia Lovell's introduction reassesses the long-held historiographical notion, prevalent in sinophone and anglophone narratives, that nineteenth-century China was in crisis. Instead, the Qing is portrayed as "a glittering success story," (11) ruling over a geographically and ethnically diverse empire by 1796. In its final 116 years, the ruling Manchus and society at large were faced with challenges of overpopulation, social conflicts, and antagonistic international relations, culminating in political transformation. Lovell contends that "these same challenges stimulated a striking flexibility and hybridity in art, literature and everyday life that creatively fused the local and the foreign, the aesthetic and the commercial, the elite and the popular". (37)

Mei Mei Rado's chapter on the material aspects of administrative and cultural life at the Qing court addresses the core state institutions of the vast empire. Attention is paid to the Imperial Household department, responsible for daily life within the Qing palace and for the Imperial Workshops that oversaw the production of artworks, textiles and furnishings for the palace. Particularly striking is Rado's argument that while the Qing rulers sought to assert their role as tastemakers through their patronage of the Imperial Workshops, their artistic practice and consumption was also shaped by political uprisings, financial crises, and the wider art market. Specific examples of imperial portraits, state rituals, court dress, furnishings, and theatrical performances showcase the transformations that the court underwent in this era.

In a similar vein, Chia-Ling Yang considers developments in elite art as interconnected to their political, social, economic and cultural contexts. Late imperial turmoil led to new ideas of reform, while also encouraging a turn towards antiquarianism. Artists and calligraphers revisited antique scripts and objects, which led to a distinct "antiquarian aesthetic". (134) Cultural innovations included stylistic changes in calligraphic brushwork, new techniques of seal-carving and composite rubbings and new pictorial conventions, such as the juxtaposition of rubbings of ancient bronzes with paintings of flowers (146). Additional innovations were driven by the acquisition of Western techniques, for example in photography and painting, by Chinese artists active in treaty ports.

Stephen Platt discusses the centrality of military culture to Qing rule. Elite banner forces and the standard army were crucial for securing and maintaining land and coastal security. The seismic events of the opium wars, the Taiping civil war and the Sino-Japanese war are narrated and illustrated with historical images as well as examples of military attire, weapons, the currency and decrees of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

Jessica Harrison-Hall's chapter on vernacular culture highlights the socio-economic and regional diversity of Qing society, from the rural poor to Qing city populations. Poverty and disease were a reality for millions in rural regions, who are usually absent from written records. The chapter offers a corrective by showcasing everyday objects, such as the palm-fibre raincoat worn by rural fishermen and farmers, while acknowledging that gaps remain as museum collections have veered towards the material culture of the elite. In a fascinating section on dress, an array of images of robes, collars and accessories illustrates the rapid diversification of fashion in urban Qing society in the 50 years before 1912, influenced by new domestic and foreign trends as well as innovation in the textile industry.

In 'Global Qing', Anne Gerritsen demonstrates that while the Qing was not in all regards tolerant of European presence, China remained globally connected through the flow of people, goods and ideas. Guangzhou is reassessed as a cosmopolitan port city with varied communities of non-Chinese traders, including merchants from different countries and with different religious beliefs, and skilled migrant craftsmen from Fujian, Manila, and Ceylon. Commodities from throughout the Indian Ocean world were traded in Guangzhou, and 'hybrid' luxury goods created by Guangzhou-based artists that displayed combinations of European and Asian styles found global appeal. The Chinese diaspora - growing migrant communities in the borderlands, along the coast and throughout Southeast Asia - is briefly addressed. A consideration of the complex relationship between opium, the spread of Christianity and the convergence of Chinese and Western medicine in China rounds off this chapter.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom's concluding chapter addresses the last decades of the Qing as an era of 'proto-globalisation.' New forms of transportation and communication brought China into closer contact with the wider world. This led to varied responses within China, ranging from violent rejection of the new and foreign by the Boxers to attempts at strengthening and reforming China. Distinctive strategies of reform emerged, some looked towards the West and to Japan for models of a modern state organised around a constitutional monarchy, while revolutionaries sought to overturn the Manchu rulers. Ultimately, the foundation of the Republic of China in 1912 brought an end to Qing rule.

The book is a resounding success in its documentation of the exhibition and in introducing recent scholarship on China's nineteenth century to a wider audience. Its crowning achievement is the fruitful engagement between scholarship and the wide array of visual and material culture (with over 300 images) that underpins the entire book, showcasing the results of a productive collaboration between the British Museum, Birkbeck, University of London and individual contributors. Particularly commendable is the commitment to diversity, evidenced in the emphasis on Qing China as an ethnically and linguistically diverse empire. The curation of objects seeks to widen established categories of Chinese art and visual and material culture through its inclusion of vernacular works on paper and dress as well as military and medical artefacts. Furthermore, the recurring 'key figure' section features short biographies of both well-known and previously obscure individuals in Chinese history, offering a wider array of Qing voices. The authoritative chapters, illustrations and representative bibliography will be a valuable guide to laypeople, students and scholars on the late Qing for years to come.


[1] John K. Fairbank: Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of Treaty Ports, 1842-1854, Volumes I-II, Cambridge 1953; Ssu-yü Teng / John K. Fairbank: China's Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839-1923, Cambridge 1954.

Rezension über:

Jessica Harrison-Hall / Julia Lovell (eds.): China's hidden century. 1796-1912, London: The British Museum Press 2023, 336 S., ISBN 978-0-7141-2493-3, GBP 40,00

Rezension von:
Emily Teo
Forschungszentrum Gotha der Universit├Ąt Erfurt (FGE)
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