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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911): The Traditionalists

Defining a New Orthodoxy
While the early Manchu court favored a colorful figurative style, exemplified by the imposing image of Emperor Guan, a Chinese god whose martial prowess became a symbol of Manchu power, China’s scholarly elite was deeply influenced by the theories and art of the late Ming artist, collector, and theorist Dong Qichang (1555–1636). Dong and his circle developed a revolutionary theory of literati painting based on a study of the old masters that became the foundation of a systematic stylistic reconstruction of landscape painting. Emphasizing the distinction between art and nature, Dong maintained: “If one considers the wonders of nature, then painting cannot rival landscape. But if one considers the wonders of brushwork, then landscape cannot equal painting.”

During the early Qing period, this traditionalist theory became the foundation of a new orthodox style under the leadership of Dong’s disciple, Wang Shimin (1592–1680). Wang was an accomplished amateur painter who built an important collection of old masters based on Dong’s advice. It was this corpus of prime models that helped to define the orthodox lineage of scholar painting for Wang and his followers—later known collectively as the Orthodox School.

Wang Shimin and his friend Wang Jian (1598–1677 or 1688) were the senior members of this school, but they were outshown by their brilliant pupil Wang Hui (1632–1717). Wang Hui made it his objective to integrate the descriptive landscape styles of the Song dynasty (960–1279) with the calligraphic brushwork of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) to achieve a “great synthesis.” Wang Shimin’s other preeminent disciple was his grandson, Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715)—the youngest of the so-called Four Wangs. Wang Yuanqi pursued a rigorously abstract style in the manner of Dong Qichang that could accommodate learned references to the past without sacrificing his own artistic identity. Two other important disciples of Wang Shimin were Wu Li (1632–1718) and Yun Shouping (1633–1690).

Coopting Orthodoxy: The Kangxi Emperor’s Institutionalization of the Orthodox School
Coming to the throne at the age of six, the first task of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722) was to consolidate control over the territories formerly governed by the vanquished Ming state and wrest power from his Manchu regents. He accomplished both objectives by shrewdly cultivating the support of the Chinese intellectual elite and by modeling his rule on that of a traditional Confucian monarch. Beginning in the 1670s, scholars from China’s cultural heartland in the south were actively recruited into government service. These men brought with them a taste for the literati painting style practiced by members of the Orthodox School. A symbolic turning point in the legitimation of Kangxi’s rule was his triumphal 1689 inspection tour of the south. On this tour, the emperor climbed Mount Tai, Confucianism’s most sacred mountain, inspected water conservation projects along the Yellow River and Grand Canal, and visited all of the major cultural and commercial centers of the Chinese heartland, including China’s cultural capital, Suzhou. Shortly after Kangxi’s return to Beijing, his advisors initiated plans to commemorate this momentous event through a monumental series of paintings. Wang Hui, the most celebrated artist of the day, was summoned to Beijing to oversee the project. Kangxi further extended his manipulation of Chinese cultural symbols by enlisting Wang Yuanqi to advise him on the expansion of the imperial painting collection.