After the reign of Qianlong (r. 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.
Britain’s Lord Amherst and Lord Napier, like their predecessor Lord Macartney, fail to obtain China’s consent to open its markets for international trade.
Between the reign of Emperor Daoguang (r. 1821–50) and the end of the Qing dynasty, new discoveries and publications of stone and bronze artifacts inspire an unprecedented variety of styles within the Stele School. Representative masters of this period include Wu Rangzhi (1799–1870), Xu Sangeng (1826–1890), and Zhao Zhiqian (1829–1884). Zhao extends the composition of seal carving and the brushwork of calligraphy to his paintings.
Ruan Yuan (1764–1849) publishes Nanbei shupai lun (Discussion of the Calligraphy Schools in the South and the North) and Beipai nantei lun (Discussion of the Stelae in the North and Model Books in the South), which lay down the theoretical foundation for the Stele School.
Emperor Daoguang sends a commission to stop the trafficking of opium by the British East India Company and a network of Chinese merchants. This prompts Britain’s attack on China in 1840–42, an event known as the Opium War. The war concludes with the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing, which opens new ports for international trade. By this treaty, Hong Kong becomes a British colony.
Discontent among the impoverished peasantry culminates in the Taiping Rebellion. Its leader, Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864), casts himself as a Christian savior and the younger brother of Jesus. Protracted violence and banditry force many Chinese to flee their homes. Artists in search of a stable income gravitate toward Shanghai, a rising commercial city protected by Western interests. “The Four Rens”—Ren Xiong (1820–1857), Ren Xun (1835–1893), Ren Yu (1853–1901), and Ren Yi (1840–1896)—are among those who make their reputation in Shanghai, painting accessible subjects such as flowers and characters from popular legends.
French and British troops burn Yuanming Yuan, a Western-style imperial garden and a symbol of Qing splendor completed by Emperor Qianlong.
The Western Enterprises Movement (also called the Self-Strengthening Movement) invests millions of yuan to train Chinese experts in Western knowledge and technology.
China sends troops to help Vietnam resist French advances in the Annam and Tonkin provinces, but the effort ends in vain.
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) misuses navy funds on an expansion of Yihe Yuan (pleasure garden) in Beijing.
Japan prevails in the First Sino-Japanese War. China turns over the sovereignty of Taiwan, the Penghu Islands (the Pescadores), and the vassalage of Korea. For several decades afterwards, the Chinese view Japan as both an imperialist threat and an exemplar of modernization.
Kang Youwei (1858–1927) convinces Emperor Guangxu (r. 1875–1908) to launch a program of modernizing reforms inspired by the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Empress Dowager Cixi, supported by ultraconservatives, stages a coup and halts the program after about only one hundred days of implementation.
The first tortoiseshells and animal bones bearing incised writings are identified as oracle bones used in ancient divination.
“China, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=10®ion=eac (October 2004)