China’s Hidden Century

The latest exhibition at the British Museum, China’s Hidden Century, considers the rapid change that took place in China during the late 19th century and early 20th century under the Qing dynasty. From the end of the 18th century, successive emperors saw their empire come under threat from domestic dissent, as well as external aggression. The domestic revolts, such as the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s, were an enormous drain on the Qing government’s finances, and was one of the main causes for its downfall. During this period, writers, philosophers, and artists responded to this turbulent time, especially towards the end of the period, to debate how society should modernise and how China should relate to a changing international world.

The exhibition uses the emperor’s reigns to define the period, from the abdication of the Qianlong emperor and the ascent of his son, the Jiaqing emperor, in 1796 to the abdication of the last emperor, Puyi, in 1912, which made way for a revolutionary republic. Qing China endured cataclysmic civil and foreign wars, including the notorious Opium Wars between Britain and China, the earlier domestic White Lotus Rebellion at the start of the period covered in the exhibition (1793-1804) and culminating with the Boxer revolution that ended 2,000 years of dynastic rule. Over this ‘long century’ tens of millions perished in the conflicts and millions were forced to flee their homes in the chaos they generated forcing China to move from the empire of the Qing to a modern republic.

Focus on individuals rather than groups in China’s Hidden Century

It is the first time that an exhibition has used a focus on individual groups of people to explore this period in China’s history. Using general themes, each section has a ‘lead character’ that is used to understand the material culture and the complex layers of society of China at the time. Themes comprise life at court, the military, elite artists and writers, a section on local life that looks at those often ignored by history, the globalised communities of merchants and diplomats that grew in response to the exponential growth in global trade, as well as the reformers and revolutionaries who transformed China into a modern society.

Despite the turbulent backdrop to the period, the events and people of 19th-century China launched the country on a far-reaching, multi-faceted quest for modernity. Survivors of this century’s dislocations, from many social classes and economic groups, demonstrated extraordinary resourcefulness, both driving and embracing cultural and technological change in art and politics, war and craft, literature and fashion.

The Qing Court

China’s Hidden Century opens with a review of the Qing court and court life. Six emperors ruled in succession between 1796 and 1912 – three adults were followed by three children, whose reigns were dominated by Empress Dowager Cixi as regent. Representations of people at court changed dramatically as styles were absorbed from photography, and as the Manchu imperial family increasingly adopted Han-Chinese culture.

Probably one of the most well-known characters from this period is the Empress Dowager Cixi. A robe, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art features a swooping phoenix amid lush chrysanthemums and wide sleeve bands – combining Manchu, Chinese, and Japanese motifs – in purple, gold and turquoise. The Empress Dowager’s wardrobe contained hundreds of such dazzling items, which she would accessorise with grandiose, jewelled headpieces.

The life of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) was anything but conventional. She rose in power from a low-ranking imperial concubine to Grand Empress Dowager of the Qing court, a reigning sovereign over more than 400 million people for more than 45 years. From 1861 to 1908, Cixi held the supreme power in China. Considered opportunistic, ruthless, and malicious, she ruled with an iron rod. She had a complex personality, which could be seen through her extreme conventionalism, her passion for power and intrigue, her vanity. She delighted in ritual and showed both her extravagance and corruption. Cixi also loved gardens, painting, and the theatre. Other themes in this section explore the changes in fashion for court dress and accessories, as well as looking at court entertainments, especially Peking Opera.

However, the aim of China’s Hidden Century is not to contain itself to the elite, the most recorded in history, but to also explore lives in the many levels of society of the time, including a dancer, soldier, artist, housewife and diplomat, all of which give different examples of the texture of life in 19th-century China through art, fashion, furniture found in written records and later newspapers. Many people not only survived but thrived in this tumultuous world.

Later in the period, new art forms, such as photography and lithographic printing flourished while technology and transport, especially the telegraph, electricity, and railway, transformed and modernised society, rushing them towards a more modern, global age.

The emergence of a new type of art and artists

In the section on artists, the show explores the artistic traditions that were upheld during the 19th century – where technical skill were prized alongside the introduction of more modern influences. The artist Ren Xion (1823-57) has been chosen as the character to represent the themes of this section. This Shanghai artist mainly worked as a portrait painter, but embodies the new type of artist that was beginning to emerge.

The 19th century has often been described as a period of cultural stagnation, but this exhibition shows that towards the end of the century new technologies and ideas transformed an obsession with antiquarianism and replicating the past into a passion for embracing the new. Although the old system of court and elite patronage was failing, it forced artists to search new markets for their work – looking at the new vibrant cities created during this time in response to China’s changing situation – such as the extraordinary opportunities that were created in Shanghai and Canton.

In this section of China’s Hidden Century, landscape paintings, fans, and albums show artistic traditions that look more to the past sitting alongside more modern and forward-thinking works. New Western techniques such as lithography were embraced by artists trained in traditional woodblock printing design, and by new magazines and newspapers in the coastal cities. As the likelihood of attaining an official job in government service dwindled, alongside court patronage, men sought alternative forms of financial and social support, establishing new artistic and literary groups and selling to merchants in the more populated cities and coastal cities, where opportunities for work were found because of the rapidly growing demand for artistic objects from China in the international markets.

The section Everyday Life explores the rise of the cosmopolitan centre, such as Shanghai. The lead character in this section is Lady Li. She was a Buddhist and had survived the traumas of the 19th century and managed to live a good, but ordinary life. Her portrait (one of a pair, the other is her husband) gives a face and voice, told in the script on the painting, to all the less famous people who lived through China’s watershed century. By the 1850s, China’s population reached 450 million and it was also on the move.

Growth of the coastal cities

The growth of the cities came from the population fleeing conflict and the search for employment. During the period, women were mostly hidden from the official records, unless made famous by the actions of their husbands or sons. Yet there is so much that survives that helps us to re-imagine these women and the worlds in which they lived. Paintings, prints, costumes, luxury furnishings and entertainment equipment add a richness to the textural records. On show in the exhibition is an elaborate kingfisher-feather headdress, which illustrates the wealth and craving for luxuries among the wealthier urban population.

On the other hand, to consider the mainly unrecorded lives of the lower classes that represents the many millions of people who did not manage to attain improvement in their living standards and remained to work the land, there is a waterproof cape, made of straw, from the mid-19th century. It is an extraordinary survival of rural life. Fishermen and farmers had worn this type of waterproof raincoat and hat for centuries. In urban settings, poorer people including porters, street cleaners and labourers also wore such garments as protection from the elements.

Regional variations existed, depending on which plants were available locally. In the far south palm leaves or coconut fibres were used instead of rice or millet. This coat was made by folding layers of straw or leaves, then stitching them to the layer above using rice-straw thread. From 1870 onwards, the Royal Botanic Gardens (now Kew Gardens) transferred objects from across the world to the British Museum. Specialist organics conservators transformed the appearance of this cape over months from a rigid bundle of straw to the natural garment visitors can see in the exhibition.

The Canton trade

Global Qing, in China’s Hidden Century, considers the transformation of Guangzhou (Canton) into the international trading port that dominated many areas of export from the mid-19th century and is still considered a major industrial city today. The signing of the unequal Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which ended the first Opium War, led to more ports being forcibly opened to foreign trade. Along with the second Opium Wars with the British, which forced China to legalise opium further eroded Qing sovereignty, and seen by many as the start of a looming crisis for China.

The lead character here is the Hong merchant Mouqua (1801-1860) painted by Lam Qua (active 1825-60), who served as head merchant in Guangzhou from 1807 to 1811. Until the 1840s, Canton was the only place in China where international trade was legal and foreigners could live. Merchants in Guangzhou interacted with Europe, the Americas, Japan, Russia, Parsi merchants in South Asia and diaspora communities in Southeast Asia. Modern technology and transport revolutionised industry and changed people’s lives. Inventions such as electricity and the new postal system transformed the way people worked and communicated. Printed media and translations of foreign books provided a two-way window onto the world through travel, industry and education. Here, you can find a range of luxury goods made for the export market.

Foreign contact greatly expanded after the two Opium Wars, Western educational works began to circulate in China, translated into Chinese and Chinese students began to study abroad after 1860s. A new print culture informed readers of domestic and international news, as well as providing an opportunity for arts and culture to flourish. In response to this changing world, a new national identity was sought. Army and naval weapons, uniforms and organisation were modernised. The imperial court established a series of new ministries for foreign affairs, commerce, the police and education. Beyond China, there was a diplomatic search for alternative methods of governance.

Reformers and revolutions in China

Importantly, the final section of China’s Hidden Century looks at the ‘reformers and revolutions’ during the 19th and early 20th century. After Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the loss of Korea as a vassal state, the Qing faced further carving-up of its territory by Western imperialist forces. Dowager Empress Cixi resisted the ideas of reform – the climax came in 1900-1901 – with the Boxer Revolution. The anti-foreign sentiments in China were brutishly put down by an alliance of foreign countries, which entered the Forbidden City in 1902. Political turbulence during the next decade continued to erode the old imperial system, which finally broke in the reign of the boy emperor Puyi. All these wars had had a huge financial impact on the Qing and ultimately led to the demise of their dynasty.

Things changed even more rapidly in the early 20th century. More new technologies were introduced that enabled China to modernise and compete in this new world alongside the powers of the West. Dynastic China was a thing of the past.

Until 8 October, 2023, British Museum, Exhibition catalogue available