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Taste and Cultivation

Under the Qianlong emperor, China entered a period of great civil and military achievement that formed a stable foundation for the Qing Empire. Highly cultivated, Qianlong was learned in many subjects, including traditional forms of martial skills and culture, exhibiting great skill and creativity. Court art under his guidance and patronage reveals the lofty taste and manner of an imperial heyday. The Qianlong emperor’s abundant creativity and acute interest in art not only derived from his own diligent attitude towards study, it also reflected the assiduous training in his youth by his father and grandfather, the Kangxi and Yongzheng emperors. Renowned Confucians as teachers and guides as well as a close relationship with elder members of the imperial family also played key roles in establishing a cornerstone for Qianlong’s learning.


Qianlong, while still a prince, grew up in an excellent environment and demonstrated a keen interest in exploring art and knowledge, developing an interest in a wide range of matters. With the extensive imperial art collection at his disposal, Qianlong immersed himself in famous works of calligraphy through the ages, diligently copying them and honing his skills with the brush. Influenced by the National Preceptor Changkya Khutukhtu, of the same age and with whom he grew up, Qianlong also came to understand Tibetan art and culture. He likewise maintained close contact in his youth with literary officials, court painters, skilled craftsmen, and Western missionary-artists, who influenced his appreciation and production of various art forms. This section is devoted to the Qianlong emperor’s cultivation and environment as a way to explore the origins of his diverse taste in art.

1-1 Cultivation

The Qianlong emperor was very close to his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, meeting him for the first time at the age of twelve at the Peony Terrace in the Garden of Perfect Brightness. Qianlong’s intelligence immediately struck his grandfather, who had Qianlong brought into his palace to be raised there. And when Kangxi went to the Jehol Summer Resort, Qianlong was always there by his side. Kangxi also did calligraphy and personally instructed Qianlong, who was influenced by everything he heard and saw, thereby proving to be a great inspiration. Qianlong’s father, the Yongzheng emperor, was very strict when it came to Qianlong’s education, making considerable effort to select suitable Confucian scholars as his teachers. They included those trained in the Classics who Qianlong would later refer to as the "Three Masters"--Fumin, Zhu Shi, and Cai Shiyuan. They consolidated Qianlong’s solid foundation in knowledge and helped him reach attainment in the Classics and history. Other members of the imperial clan, such as Lady Fuca and Qianlong’s 21st uncle, Yunxi, also played roles in different degrees to mold and influence Qianlong’s interest in and appreciation of the arts. This section features historical documents and selected artifacts that allow audiences to further understand some of the key figures in the cultivation of the Qianlong emperor’s taste in art.

Anthology of Imperial Poetry

Anthology of Imperial Poetry

Emperor Qianlong Imperial edition in black-lined columns,
Qianlong reign (1736-1795),
Qing dynasty

Prosperous Branch of Gexian

Prosperous Branch of Gexian

Yu Sheng (fl. 1741-1757),
Qing dynasty

Molded gourd brush holder with inscriptions

Molded gourd brush holder with inscriptions
(with sandalwood box)

Kangxi reign (1662-1722),
Qing dynasty

1-2 Environment

The formation of the Qianlong emperor’s taste in art and his natural gifts were directly related to the environment of his upbringing and closely associated with his attitude towards constant learning. For example, Qianlong had the opportunity to view the works of such masters in calligraphy as Wang Xizhi and Yan Zhenqing, learning to appreciate their styles by copying them. The Changkya Khutukhtu, who grew up and studied with Qianlong, would later become his National Preceptor when Qianlong was emperor. The design and production of Qianlong’s Tibetan Buddhist objects were undoubtedly influenced by the Changkya Khutuktu. As a youth, Qianlong also sought out such court painters as Tang Dai and Zou Yigui, who were important proponents for transmitting the style of painting from the Yongzheng reign. And Fang Xihua went in and out of the imperial workshops to identify porcelains for Qianlong, while Yao Zongren explained to the emperor how jades were made to look antique. Many European missionaries at court also served their role as experts in Western knowledge, being consultants to the Qianlong emperor. The objects that Qianlong preserved and wrote about help trace the trajectory of his cultural inquiries and the creative process of art that he promoted. Of special note for Qianlong was the fact that his experiences did not fade or disappear over time. Rather, the people, events, and objects in the Qianlong emperor’s daily life continued to stimulate and inspire his new vision.

Picking Spirit Fungus

Picking Spirit Fungus

Yongzheng reign (1722-1735),
Qing dynasty

Gilt kiosk clock on the back of an immortal crane

Gilt kiosk clock on the back of an immortal crane

England, 18th century