The image of China in Chinese export painting of the late Qing period

The current article raises a question of the image of the Celestial Empire that had been represented in the works of Chinese export painting created in the 18th – 19th centuries. The complex image of China had emerged due to the several socio-economic and cultural-artistic reasons. Firstly, due to the contacts between China and the Western countries that had increased drastically, through the missionaries, and through the trade with the European states. The Western travelers sought for visual records of their visit, so, the Chinese commercial artists had managed to incorporate the Western painting techniques with the methods of traditional Chinese painting. Thus, the new art form of Chinese export painting (wàixiāo huà, 外销画) had emerged. The artists observed the daily life in China and transformed it into bright images of river scenes and cityscapes, diverse occupations, birds and flowers, etc. Nowadays, these pictures serve as a valuable illustrative source about China in the late Qing (1644 – 1911) period.

Аннотация статьи
Chinese export painting
image of China
genres of Chinese export painting
syncretic painting
Ключевые слова

A long and complex history of Chinese painting reflexes distinctive interaction between philosophy, poetry and calligraphy, on the one hand, and other artistic and cultural forms, on the other. In the late Qing (1644 – 1911) period contacts with the Western culture had increased drastically, through the Christian missionaries, in the first place, as well as through trade with the European countries. The Western travelers who visited China in that period sought for a visual record of their visit. However, the Chinese traditional painting could not offer them the imagery of the same forcefulness as the European paintings could. They were used to dynamic and colorful oil works and accepted both monochrome and polychrome Chinese paintings to be flat and difficult to perceive [8, p. 5-12].

The Chinese commercial artists fairly soon had managed to incorporate the Western painting techniques, such as linear perspective and chiaroscuro, with the traditional methods of painting [9, p. 105]. Thus, the new art form of Chinese export painting (wàixiāo huà, 外销画) had been created. Meeting an enthusiastic demand for these images, numerous studios were set up in the ports of the Southern region of China. However, after the Emperor’s decree of 1757 all the port cities were closed for the foreign trade, thus making Canton (currently Guangzhou, 广州) the only place opened for the maritime trade with the Westerners [4, p. 15-18].  Only after the Opium Wars, in 1842, in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao and other ports the foreign trade started to flourish, so as the Chinese export painting industry. The Chinese export painting acquired greatest popularity in the Western market at the end 18th and early 19th centuries.

The artists observed the daily life in China, they got inspired from the printed images in both Chinese and Western books, and later transformed them into bright watercolors and oil paintings that had reflected the realities of the Celestial Empire. They depicted a wide range of subjects, such as river scenes and cityscapes, modes of transportation, diverse occupations, pastimes, series of commodity production, etc. The picturesque drawings provided valuable information about China and its people and ignited a genuine interest in its real life.

The genres of Chinese export painting

As noted earlier, thanks to the efforts of the Jesuit missionaries, China had opened up to the Europeans. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Western world longed to learn all the facets of the mysterious Celestial Empire. There was an interest in the realistic image of this country. This desire determined the vector of the development of export painting. The thematic range of Chinese export painting had become quite extensive. While researching the collection of export watercolors in the collection of the British Library, the scholars have identified 13 major thematic categories of the images: 1. Government, military service and education; 2. Economy; 3. Manors, gardens and interiors; 4. Culture and entertainment; 5. Traditions; 6. Means of transportation; 7. National minorities; 8. Religion; 9. Historical, literary and mythological subjects; 10. Geography and sights; 11. Flora and fauna; 12. Portraits; 13. Copies from works of Western European art [2, p. 37-38]. Such a thematic diversity reveals the versatility of Chinese material culture. Moreover, each category has a variety of narrower subsections. Nevertheless, from the point of view of artistic genre orientation, this number of categories can be accommodated in the genre classification traditional for the Western artistic system, as well as to the Chinese painting tradition. Thus, the genres of Chinese export painting can be divided into the four main categories with the following subdivisions: genre painting, landscapes, botanical and animalistic illustrations and still life which have correlation with the Chinese “flowers and birds” painting and portraits.

Genre painting: the pictures of folklife

The pictures of genre painting or as they are called in the Chinese painting tradition the pictures of folklife (mínsú huà, 民俗画) or the ethnographic pictures (fēngsú huà,风俗画), had fascinated the European audience the most. They represented the diverse peoples of China, porcelain manufacture, tea production, silk making, entertainments, “One hundred occupations” and punishments, etc. Often the drawings were accompanied with the explanations in Chinese: the inscriptions could either simply name the drawn object or provide more common explanations, sometimes including specialized terminology. Although the origins of Chinese folk painting can be found in the ancient times, it became widespread during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) [7, p. 6].

During the reign of the Manchu dynasty, the artistic tradition of creating illustrated catalogs with images of household items, clothing, weapons, musical instruments, etc. had become widespread. The majority of albums of the Qing period were originally created for a specific cognitive purpose. Among them, the most popular were the album of the “Pictures of Tilling and Weaving” (Gēng zhī tú, 耕织图) by Jiao Bingzhen created in 1696. Other works widely used by export artists were the album depicting one hundred professions in Hangzhou by Zhejiang artist Fang Xun “Paintings of Joy in Times of Peace” (Tàipíng huānlè tú, 太平欢乐图) made in 1780, and an album featuring 360 Chinese professions (Sānbǎi liùshí háng, 三百六十行) and many other illustrative editions. These type of publications quickly gained popularity among different segments of the population within the country, and, more importantly, they began to be specifically replicated in the form of export paintings for the Western visitors.

In 1800, G.H. Mason published a book “The Costume of China” that contains 60 images of diverse representatives of Chinese society, each illustration was provided with commentaries in English and French. People of all walks of life were portrayed there: officials, traders, strolling actors, beggars, etc. The illustrations were based on the watercolor originals created by the Chinese export artist Puqua. The originals are currently stored in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Paintings showing the Chinese in various moments of domestic and social life were of great demand. Popular themes of pastimes included ladies being attended and dressed by servants, tea drinking, music playing etc. They were usually elaborately performed and look consent and elegant at the same time.

There is an album kept in the Prints Department of the National Library of Russia (code: ЭАлИ34.354 / 2-1 ОХ, inventory number Эи 11268) [1, p. 122]. It contains a series of 13 watercolor drawings. The first twelve watercolors are connected with the common subject matter: they feature Chinese noble women playing various traditional musical instruments. Most of the scenes show us Chinese ladies in simple interiors. The bright decorative floor is painted in reverse perspective. The interior details in the images alternate and repeat: tables with flower vases, wooden shelves or sofas. These images, their compositions remind of Chinese folk painting – nianhua with the images of Chinese beauties surrounded with the decorative accessories. In nianhua these interior elements carry specific auspicious meaning, however, in the works of export painting the auspicious meaning was not paid attention to, these objects became purely the elements of interior design. It should be noted that the images of Chinese beauties playing music are similar to the image of a woman playing the flute from the collection of the California State Library. There are also many similar images in the world collections such as in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (the Kunstkamera) (code: 311-1 / 12-10a), Durham University, Oriental Museum, Museo Civico, Casale Monferrato, Italy, the British Library (code: OR 7408, Nov. 1909), Victoria and Albert Museum and other collections.

The Westerners were fascinated with every aspect of Chinese life, including images of punishments, tortures and executions. This encouraged artists to create series of paintings in bound albums. The range of subjects included trials, public parade of the guilty, followed by the images of punishments from prisoners bound in shackles to an agonizing death by slow slicing. One of the most well-known set of 22 macabre illustrations with commentaries was published in 1801 in London in the book by G.H. Mason “The Punishments of China”.

Another popular thematic group of Chinese export painting was the one that represented production stages of main Chinese export goods. These included silk-making, cultivation of rice and tea, porcelain production, etc. The California State Library possesses an album with a series of drawings representing a process of silk manufacturing. It should be noted that the artist gave somewhat accurate information on the subject. The process itself looks convincing, although the certain flatness can be observed in the treatment of figures. The images have no background, there is no shading, compositions look simplistic. However, due to this primitivism in style and treatment of the characters and objects, the works obtain their artistic charm. Nonetheless, it is not a depiction of a real process, rather an interpretation of the master. Covering almost every aspect of Chinese life and culture, export pictures served as an important source of ethnographic information for the Western customers.


Another genre that provided an ample amount of information about China was landscape. The landscape, as we are accustomed to seeing it in the Western painting tradition, had not become so widespread in Chinese export painting due to the fact that foreigners had almost no opportunity to visit and be inspired by the picturesque places of China. The landscape was applied as an element of the genre composition. In the framework of Chinese export painting, the landscape genre had developed in two key thematic directions. The first included port views and ship portraits. The second direction included a group of works with cityscapes.

As for the first group, active maritime trade between China and Western countries lied at the heart of its popularity. The crew members of trade ships were willing to purchase the images of various vessels navigating along the coast of Chinese ports. The collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in Canada had a set of paintings with an imaginative range of ships and boats: steam-ships, houseboats, dragon racing boats, duck merchant boats, market boats with vendors selling all types of goods.

This type of paintings was extremely popular, thus, by the 1840s a formula for creating such works had been developed. It should be noted that the works made at the end of the 18th – beginning of the 19th centuries had been done in a more elaborate way: they had more volume, more tonal gradations, the outlines looked more delicate and crispy, the images involved a lot of details. Gradually, the drawings became flatter and simpler. The water started to be depicted as a series of horizontal lines of different shades of green, the forms of ships followed a set of geometric shapes, from triangle to rhombus. This formula had been successfully adopted in the popular album series of various types of Chinese vessels, ranging from simple fishing boats to duck sellers' junks. There were even ships providing all kinds of services: hairdressing salons, theaters, flower boats etc. The National Library of Russia contains one watercolor album on pith paper (code: Э АлТх 784/2-7 ОХ, inventory number Эи 33857), which contains 12 drawings of Chinese junks [1, p. 121-122].

The portraits of ships were performed not only against the background of the open sky, the port views often were used as backgrounds, in this case. Before the Opium Wars, the classic range of port views included Canton, Macau, Whampoa, and Bocca Tigris. This choice was due to the fact that Macau was the first Chinese port to meet sailors on their long journey; Bocca Tigris was a picturesque entrance to the Pearl River; Whampoa was the anchorage for the foreign ships, and Canton was the final destination of their voyages.

The early works of the 1760s were mostly performed in watercolors or gouache on silk sheets, by the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century instead of watercolors they used oil paints and canvas. The features of typical port views include a low horizon, clear, geometric shapes of houses facing the embankment, strict rhythm, flatness of the image, and panoramic views. As C. Crossman noted, these characteristics had originated from the European engravings of the 18th century, where the ports of Holland and England were depicted [4, p. 107-115]. However, it should be noted that such panoramic views were also typical for the landscape genre in Chinese traditional painting.

The key feature of port cities is seascapes. Despite that other cities managed to enjoy the Westerners with the picturesque views. The collection of Z.F. Leontievsky stored in the National Library of Russia includes a number of views of such cities as Beijing, Suzhou, Nanjing, etc. (fund 1272, No 27-52). The majority of paintings was devoted to Beijing (No. 16-22; 27-44) and its city gates. All the pictures share one palette, the compositions repeat: the panoramic view, low horizon, the gates occupy the central position, left and right-hand side are almost symmetrical. The gates were displayed as significant architectural and cultural elements of the city; therefore, the space was filled up with people. These views in many ways can be considered of great importance, because they aid the comprehension of the environment and atmosphere of the urban life in the late Qing period.

The landscape genre in Chinese export painting had received the largest influence from the European painting tradition. Chinese export artists had paid a lot of attention to the works by European artists. This category also included the engravings that served as illustrations in the publications about China and travel logs of the 17th – early 19th centuries. During this period, the presence of artists on European ships arriving in China was quite common. Often, they were the members of diplomatic missions and had the opportunity to travel through all of China: from Canton to the capital of the empire.

On the way, they made a large number of sketches of Chinese sights, which were subsequently finalized by European engravers and published as illustrations in the travel diaries of members of diplomatic missions and reference publications about the Celestial Empire. The most popular among the masters of export painting were the works of J. Nieuhof, O. Dapper, J. B. Du Halde, A. Kircher, G. Staunton, J. Barrow, G. H. Mason and W. Alexander, and others.

Botanical and animalistic illustration and still life paintings

Of all thematic groups presented in Chinese export painting, works illustrating objects of Chinese flora and fauna had the most solid background in the native pictorial tradition of the “birds and flowers” genre (huāniǎo, 花鸟). The beginning of the study of the nature of the Celestial Empire was laid by the Jesuits who were interested in the methods of Chinese medicine. Later, many European museums of ethnography and natural history, horticultural societies began to collect scientific works on Chinese botany and zoology. The theme became widespread in the late 18th – early 19th centuries. The early drawings of Chinese flora and fauna were done according to the direct orders coming from the Western clients. The images had a purely scientific objective, thus, the samples of flora and fauna were depicted in minute detail to be useful for the further research, according to the tradition of European botanical and animalistic illustration.

Initially, objects were depicted with amazing accuracy, the work usually was so delicate done that even in the images of birds and animals it was possible to distinguish individual small feathers and hairs of wool. This attitude to detail comes from the traditional gongbi technique (gōngbǐ, 工笔 – "careful brush"). Its main principle was to depict the smallest details of nature. This technique had been used by the Chinese in the creation of their medical treatises since the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) [9, p. 111].

For many early works, the exact date of their creation can be said, since they were performed under the guidance of European scientific institutions representatives. For instance, the collection of John Reeves that is currently stored in the Royal Society of Gardeners in the Great Britain. As a representative of this society, J. Reeves volunteered to travel personally to Canton to study specimens of botanical and animalistic species. By 1831, J. Reeves had managed to collect an extensive collection of images of flora and fauna of China. Commonly, these works were done on the sheets of European, Chinese paper or pith paper with the use of watercolor or gouache. In many cases, the pictures had captions in Chinese describing the names of the species. Usually, the images of flora and fauna were illustrated on a full page, singled out with little or no background. Being works of scientific interest, these watercolors were often commissioned by ethnographic and natural history museums around the world.

Over time, objects of flora and fauna began to be created in a more decorative form, many compositions were probably borrowed from the genre of flowers and birds. The watercolor drawings of mixed semi-decorative, semi-scientific nature became more popular in the 19th century, especially in its second half. An album representing flowers and birds made in watercolors on pith is stored in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (code: 311-1 / 12 (8)). The album was probably made around 1893 in Canton and sent to Hankow as a gift to Crown Prince Nicholas. The album kept some bright, vivid images of flowers and birds made in the gongbi technique.

This type of images can have several functions: 1. Scientific function: images can be perceived as a transfer of objects of Chinese flora and fauna, 2. Artistic function: images can be perceived as artistic examples of the traditional genre of Chinese painting of flowers and birds, since in most cases there is an asymmetric composition typical for the genre, the delicacy of the drawing, attention to detail, as well as thematically – this is a reflection of a small part of ideal world, which is typical for the Chinese genre of flowers and birds.

In the mid-19th century, some botanical drawings began to resemble ornamental compositions or decorative images, reminiscent of the Western European genre of still life. For example, the collection of the Guangzhou Museum contains an album made in the Sunqua’s studio. Several images represent gongbi-style flower arrangements in vases or baskets, reminiscent of the auspicious symbolism of such images in traditional Chinese art.


Another genre of export painting that had a long lasting tradition in Chinese painting system was the genre of portrait. Despite the fact that it enjoyed immense popularity, it was Western travelers, sea captains and foreign and Chinese merchants who became its main heroes.

In export painting, the portrait genre was one of the first to use the technique of oil painting. Many merchants, ship captains sought to capture their images in Canton, fixing this moment in memory and history. One of the first Chinese artists to work in this genre and technique was Spoilum. He began his career in the 1760s, creating artistic paintings on the back of mirrors, in the 1770s he had already worked with oil paints and canvas [4, p. 35-36].

The characters in his portraits usually stood against a gray background, the figure was engulfed in a ray of light, the portrayed person was depicted in a three-quarter turn, facial features were clearly outlined, a smile played on the lips. In a similar manner, Spoilum not only portrayed foreign clients, but he also created portraits of Cantonese official traders such as Puan Kee Qua and Esching, currently stored in the Peabody Essex Museum. The Cantonese merchants were depicted dressed in traditional Chinese official clothes, each wearing stripes indicating their rank on their chests, and a traditional headdress crowned with a crystal ball on the top. Around Puan Kee Qua’s neck there was a long amulet necklace made of 108 beads, known as a Buddhist rosary. Probably, the creation of these portraits was preceded by the desire of the customer to capture the merchant with whom he entered into successful transactions, thereby expressing his respect and gratitude for assistance in conducting business. Spoilum and his followers in a similar style also created portraits of European and American merchants and captains, who wanted to preserve in this way the memory of a visit to the Celestial Empire.

These portraits in Western style were very different from the traditional Chinese ones. In contrast to the European portrait, which reflected the individual traits of the depicted person, his inner world, not to mention the elaboration of volumes, plasticity and shadowing, in the Chinese portrait tradition the images were somewhat conventional.

Most often, the characters could be represented as literati (wénrén,文人), wise old men, members of a certain social or moral-ethical group: an emperor, an official, a noble husband or a virtuous wife, etc. According to Chinese aesthetics, the portrait should represent the philosophical meaning of the concepts of Heaven and Earth, which could be conveyed through physiognomic features. The influence of Confucian ideas, noting the harmfulness of emotions for a person, determined the external impartiality and detachment of the portrayed. In this regard, the images in traditional Chinese portraits appeared motionless and flat, the heroes were depicted in a strictly frontal position, as if they were joining the eternity and leaving the worldly vanity behind.  The portrayed of the Spoilum's works look completely different. However, the Chinese aesthetics of portraiture also took place in export painting.

The collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in Canada contains a portrait of a Chinese official, in the technique of oil painting, the size of the image is 99.3 x 73.3 cm. The author of the work is unknown. The portrait may represent one of the thirteen Cantonese official merchants. The image of the person being portrayed looks static, this is facilitated by the immobility and the absence of folds on the official attire. The face of the official is completely dispassionate and emotionless, however, well-executed shadowing modeling makes the image realistic and creates the effect of presence. The interior is made in a manner typical for export miniatures: a diamond-shaped carpet pattern, a small table with a vase as a symbol of peace and prosperity. The elaboration of the details of the costume also reminds us of the Chinese traditional painting style – gong bi.

The portraits of Chinese merchants, made in a realistic manner, had become another component of the image of the Celestial Empire. They allowed to imagine how the Chinese aristocracy had lived. It is not surprising that having seen such a luxury at least once, the overseas guests created an image of China as an immensely rich country, and its inhabitants were seen by the European society as connoisseurs of beauty with a surprisingly delicate aesthetic taste.


Having grown into a large and prosperous industry, Chinese export painting impressed with the variety of subject matters: scenes of everyday life, views of cities, ports and ships, portraits, drawings depicting flora and fauna of China. However, in terms of painting genres all the range of works can be successfully categorized into four main genres: genre painting, landscape, botanical and animalistic illustrations and still life paintings, and portraits. Though, the genre classification mostly relies on the genre system of the Western painting, it should be noted that the classification has a mixed nature of Chinese and Western painting systems. The Western classification was taken as the basic one due to the reason that the export paintings were specifically created for the Western audience, which was familiar exclusively with the Western painting tradition. Thus, the foreigners in China when ordering works of export painting were relying on the most conventional system for them, that is the Western one. However, due to the fact that the Chinese artists were trained according to the norms and rules of Chinese painting system, then in stylistic and genre matter they used references more conventional to their comprehension and utilization, that is the Chinese painting system. Due to these reasons the genre system of Chinese export painting has mixed nature.

However, exactly this feature enabled it to meet the demands of the overseas guests and depict various phenomena of Chinese culture. Western visitors were willing to uncover the secrets of China. For the first time, they had got acquainted with the China of a commoner, and not that of literati. This Celestial Empire was completely different, but absolutely fascinating.

Текст статьи
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  2. Chinese Export Paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library British Library. Vol. I / Andrew Lo, Song Jiayu, Wang Tzi-Cheng, Frances Wood. – Guangzhou: Guangdong People’s Publishing House, 2011.
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