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Connoisseurship and Production

The collections of the Qing court had already reached staggering proportions by the time Qianlong became emperor. During his reign, he ordered a large-scale systematic organization of court objects, including painting and calligraphy, rare books, antiquities, and objects of the scholar’s studio. Through research, identification, and grading, superior works were distinguished from lesser ones. The effort of examining and ranking objects involved exhaustive observations, with those taking part being among the finest and most senior craftsmen and officials of the imperial workshops along with many learned literary officials, representing a gathering of experts from various departments at the Qianlong court. The organization, compilation, and research allowed the Qianlong emperor to understand the collection at his disposal and to establish a body of knowledge at his court. In today’s age of information, a review of the Qianlong emperor’s understanding of ancient objects will undoubtedly reveal mistakes and oversights, but most of his observations turn out to be not far from the mark. With his great understanding of the Classics and history as well as an immense collection supporting the production of art, the Qianlong emperor was able to order direct imitations of antiquities or copies from catalogues, even providing them to court workshops to serve as models for innovating on the past, leading to a wide variety of artworks. This large number of objects from the Qianlong court demonstrates the high level of craftsmanship at the time, not only harking directly back to previous heights of Chinese culture under the Han and Tang dynasties, but also comparing favorably with them. Qianlong also incorporated the diversity of contemporary elements in the eighteenth century, creating a pinnacle of craftsmanship surpassing that of the past. The collecting, grading, and production of artworks under the Qianlong emperor were all inextricably linked, leading to one of the greatest collections of art and artifacts that had ever been assembled.

2-1 Organisation and Cataloguing

With the comprehensive organisation and cataloguing of court objects, the Qianlong emperor was able to establish a body of knowledge for the imperial collection. This led, in turn, to his understanding of and skill in appreciating ancient painting and calligraphy, antiquities, and rare books.


The Qianlong emperor undertook the large-scale organisation of the inner court collection, beginning with classifying and cataloguing works of painting and calligraphy into Beaded Grove of the Secret Palace and Treasured Books of the Stone Moat. This was followed by the identification, illustration and explanation, and mounting of the court collection of ancient bronzes and inkstones into Catalogue Raisonné of Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Imperial Collection and Catalogue Raisonné of Inkstones in the Imperial Collection, which also exemplified the art of mounting at the Qianlong court. Complete Library of the Four Treasuries and Concise Edition of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries represent a knowledge base for the entire country brought together and edited under the Qianlong emperor. Catalogue of the Tianlu Linlang Library was also the first imperial catalogue of rare books in Chinese history to focus on bibliographic appreciation. In addition, Modelbook Calligraphy in the Three Rarities Hall, Modelbook Calligraphy in the Studio of Esteemed Excellence, Chunhua Pavilion Modelbooks, and Imperial Recarving of the Chunhua Pavilion Modelbooks demonstrated Qianlong’s passion for famous calligraphy. These various cataloguing efforts all show how the Qianlong emperor attempted to reinterpret art based on this new body of knowledge, which in turn helped formulate his taste in art.

Preface to the Continued Compilation of Beaded Grove of the Secret Palace and Treasured Books of the Stone Moat from the Imperial Brush of Qianlong

Preface to the Continued Compilation of Beaded Grove of the Secret Palace and Treasured Books of the Stone Moat from the Imperial Brush of Qianlong

Anonymous tapestry,
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

2-2 Categorizing and Appreciation

The Qianlong emperor not only had the imperial collection organized and categorized, he also had a comprehensive selection made in terms of authenticity, date, and quality of the objects, which were then divided into different ranks. In addition to the emperor’s opinion, many literary officials, imperial workshop officials, and court craftsmen participated in the connoisseurship effort, reflecting the overall level of appreciation in the arts achieved under Qianlong. The objects in Qianlong’s collection were divided into such rankings as "Superior" and "Second class," with different methods of evaluation used according to category. For example, works of painting and calligraphy were placed into groups identified by the Chinese characters for "Divine," "Marvelous," "Capable," and "Untrammeled," which were so labeled by being stamped or written on the work itself or the title slip. As for porcelains and jades, the object itself or the bottom of the stand was engraved with a ranking system corresponding to "A (jia)," "B (yi)," and "C (bing) in English. The Qianlong emperor’s thoughts and opinions on artifacts took the form of his poetry or prose either written or engraved directly on the work, its medium for display, or its box. Not only sharing his opinions with later generations, the contents of these texts by the Qianlong emperor were also recorded in catalogues and anthologies of his prose and poetry.

Gaozong, One or Two?

Gaozong, One or Two?

Anonymous,
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

Dish in celadon glaze

Dish in celadon glaze

Ru ware,
Northern Song dynasty (960-1126)

Dish in celadon glaze

Dish in celadon glaze

Ru ware,
Northern Song dynasty (960-1126)

Washer in celadon glaze

Washer in celadon glaze

Ru ware,
Northern Song dynasty (960-1126)

Pseudo-classical ax-shaped pendant of reworked ancient jade (with wood case and imperially produced notes)

Pseudo-classical ax-shaped pendant of reworked ancient jade
(with wood case and imperially produced notes)

Ming-Qing dynasties (17th-18th century)

In Imitation of Lu Hong's ''Illustration of a Thatched Hut'' In Imitation of Huichong's ''Landscape''

In Imitation of Lu Hong's
"Illustration of a Thatched Hut"
In Imitation of Huichong's "Landscape"

Wang Hui (1632-1717),
Qing dynasty

Banquet at the Peach and PearBlossom Garden on a SpringEvening

Banquet at the Peach and Pear Blossom Garden on a Spring Evening

Leng Mei (fl. ca. 1691-1742),
Qing dynasty

Spring Mountains

Spring Mountains

Attributed to Zhao Boju,
Song dynasty

Banquet by Lantern Light

Banquet by Lantern Light

Ma Yuan (fl. ca. 1189-1225),
Song dynasty

Painting Manual

Painting Manual

Attributed to Ni Zan (1301-1374),
Yuan dynasty

Landscape

Landscape

Wang Jingming (1688-1721),
Qing dynasty

2-3 Imitation and Innovation

The Qianlong emperor personally led and controlled the production of objects at the court, putting his taste in art into practice.


Imitation was the most direct and concrete means by which the Qianlong emperor transmitted his aesthetic taste. For example, he greatly disliked the style of jades made in Suzhou and Yangzhou at the time, immediately ordering jade craftsmen to imitate ancient bronzes and jades as a counter-measure and making his abstract aesthetic quite clear and specific. The original intention of his "imitations" was naturally to express his fondness, knowledge, and respect for the originals, but he also had lofty ambitions that surpassed even previous generations. This is reflected in the reproduction and reappearance of many classical works in the same or different mediums. There lies the spirit of the Qianlong emperor in upholding the lofty pursuit of antiquity and finding a way to surpass it, serving as an inspiration for innovation in imitation.


Despite the Qianlong emperor’s interest in the "novel and unusual," this was not a prerequisite for his appreciating a work of art. Besides porcelains, he seldom actively encouraged or requested the production of a "new style." Rather, in the confrontation with tradition and changes in surroundings, especially under the influence of foreign cultures, techniques, and new materials, the Qianlong emperor often looked for new ideas.

Imperially Endorsed Concise Edition of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries

Imperially Endorsed Concise Edition of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries

Compiled under the order of Emperor Qianlong,
Manuscript copy of the Chizaotang Hall,
Qianlong reign (1736-1795),
Qing dynasty

Covered ding vessel with two handles in gold glaze

Covered ding vessel with two handles in gold glaze

Qianlong reign (1736-1795),
Qing dynasty

Revolving gourd-shaped vase with decoration of floral pattern in yellow ground of yangcai painted enamels

Revolving gourd-shaped vase with decoration of floral pattern in yellow ground of yangcai painted enamels

Qianlong reign (1736-1795),
Qing dynasty

Court Version of ''Spring Dawn in the Han Palace''

Court Version of "Spring Dawn in the Han Palace"

Court artists,
Qing dynasty, 1741

Guarding Against the Cold of Wuyi

Guarding Against the Cold of Wuyi

Yu Sheng (1692-after 1767),
Qing dynasty

Linzhong in the Height ofSummer

Linzhong in the Height of Summer

Zhou Kun (fl. first half of 18th c.),
Qing dynasty

Ascending the Isles of the Immortals

Ascending the Isles of the Immortals

Zhang Tingyan (fl. mid-18th c.),
Qing dynasty

Mountain Dwelling of Ge Hong

Mountain Dwelling of Ge Hong

Zhang Ruocheng (1714-?),
Qing dynasty