After the reign of Qianlong (1736–95), China encounters a succession of economic and political crises that shake the foundation of the empire. Around the mid-nineteenth century, foreign powers force open several ports along the Chinese coast for international trade. Shanghai flourishes and becomes a commercial magnet for artists and craftsmen from all over the country. In the urban centers especially, a growing demand for household and personal items fosters diverse styles in wood carving, textiles, painting, and ceramics. Auspicious symbols, folk deities, and literary characters feature regularly in aesthetic objects for popular consumption.
A noted development of the nineteenth century is the full blossoming of the Stele School. Using archaic inscriptions on stones, seals, and bronze vessels as references, exponents of the school create new calligraphic expressions that emphasize lucid structure and raw strength. These works offer an aesthetic alternative to the fluid elegance associated with the canonical brushed-calligraphy of Wang Xizhi, Zhao Mengfu, and Dong Qichang.