Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Lotus Flowers in a Wood Vase: Historical Background

            The Qing dynasty was established in 1636 by the Manchus as an effort to consolidate their holdings in the northeast regions of Manchuria. In 1644 the Manchus capitalized on insurrection led by rebel leader Li Zicheng. The Manchus responded to a call for aid from the ruling Ming dynasty who had recently lost their capital, Beijing, to Li Zicheng. Instead of offering assistance, the Manchus took Beijing for themselves and established the Qing dynasty as the ruling authority throughout China. The Manchus retained many Ming dynasty practices in an effort to mollify the Chinese population. These measures included continuing to use governmental systems pioneered by the Ming dynasty, as well as filling approximately half of their bureaucratic positions with Ming officials.
            One of the most important practices relevant to the arts retained by the Qing dynasty was the civil service examination. The civil service examination was given to especially precocious youths in an effort to create an elite scholar-gentry class capable of ruling imperial China. Applicants were distinguished by their answers to policy questions, and then in further interview. Once selected, applicants would undergo rigorous studies focused mainly on the examination of Confucian texts. Confucius was regarded as the key figure in Chinese culture for thousands of years after his death in 479 BC. Studies of Confucius as a test of merit for civil service would continue uninterrupted until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912. Spurred by Confucian ideals, this examination system allowed for a great deal of social mobility under the Qing dynasty. Members of any social class could rise to the highest level of governmental office by excelling in Confucian studies. As a result, Confucian ideals concerning behavior, rituals, and social interaction infiltrated all levels of society, creating a dominant and unified national philosophy.
            This civil service system was key to the development of the arts under the Qing dynasty. Uneducated peasants were forced to perform daily manual labor mainly focused on farming to produce adequate food for the empire. Those who failed to work adequately were subject to corporal punishment and public humiliation in an effort to increase their efficiency. Escape from this brutal labor system was possible through the civil service exam. The exam consisted of three levels each of increasing difficulty. The xiucai or “cultivated talent” consisted of those who passed the lowest level of testing offered locally in every Chinese village. The Juren or “recommended man” consisted of those who passed the second level of testing undergone at the capital. The Jinshi consisted of students who were able to pass the most advanced testing, qualifying them for governmental positions. Although only the Jinshi were qualified for high office, passing any of the lower levels of testing granted citizens exemptions from manual labor and access to governmental stipends to support their studies. These varying degrees of testing allowed for specialization of labor, creating a thriving artisan class who could focus their efforts on artistic pursuits without fear of reprimand or starvation. These artisans found a market for their works amongst the scholar class who possessed disposable income that was often spent on artistic relics to support their studies and decorate their work spaces. Due to this class structure artistic pursuits reached a new high under the Qing dynasty. Many artistic practices flourished, especially the creation of porcelain. Porcelain works of this period are noted for their perfection, carrying crisp images with hardly any blemishes or evidence of the crafting process visible.

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