Watercolour on pith paper "Qing"


Qing dynasty, China, mid 19th century, private collection from Finland.

The Qing dynasty (Qīng cháo), officially the Great Qing (also sometimes referred to as the Manchu dynasty) was the last imperial dynasty in China, lasting from 1644 to 1912. It was an era noted for its initial prosperity and tumultuous final years, and for being only the second time that China was not ruled by the Han people. The founders of the Qing dynasty came originally from Manchuria, a northern region sandwiched between China, Mongolia and Siberia. In the early 17th century, the Manchu people, who were from a different tribal-ethnic group called the Jurchens, began to unite against the Ming dynasty. They formed a somewhat military society and mobilized a large army. In April and May 1644, the Manchu army crossed the Great Wall, marched south and entered Beijing. With a Manchu takeover of Beijing imminent, the last Ming ruler, Emperor Chongzhen, hanged himself in a tree near the Forbidden City. In November 1644, a Manchu prince (a five-year-old boy) was crowned as the Shunzhi Emperor: the first Qing ruler of China.

Under the Qing dynasty, China remained somewhat isolated from the outside world. The Qing emperors introduced elements of Manchu language and culture to China. Many of the new Han subjects faced discrimination. Han men were required to cut their hair in Manchu queue (a male hairstyle featuring a high shaved forehead and a long braided ponytail) or face execution. In society, the Manchu people were considered at the top of the social class. The Han Chinese were generally discriminated against. For example Han Chinese and Manchu were not allowed to marry. Han people were also relocated from the power centers of Beijing.

This conservative shift reflected on the arts, and there was a general turn against literature and stage plays that were deemed subversive. Despite this opressive atmosphere, some creative work did gather attention, including painting, sculpture, poetry, opera, and porcelain.

In the 19th century, the British began selling opium in China. Opium was used medically in China for centuries, but by the 18th century it was popular recreationally. Many Chinese people became addicted to opium and the goverment soon made the the drug illegal. The British, however, continued to smuggle in opium. When the Chinese government boarded British ships and dumped their opium into ocean, a war broke out. At the time, China had a small and outdated navy. The British ships defeated the Chinese in both the First (1839-1842) and the Second (1856-60) Opium Wars.

In the early 20th century, the Qing dynasty began to crumble. The last emperor, Puyi (a six-year-old-boy), officially gave up his throne in 1912 and the Republic of China took over.

This exceptional pith painting (c. 1840-1860) depicting an full armored Emperor Qianlong with soldier at the military parade in 1739. The oldest known Chinese pith painting dates from the mid-1820's and they were popular until 1860's. Pith comes from the central column of spongy cellular tissue in the stem of a small tree called Tetrapanax papyrifer, native to Southern China and Taiwan. At the imperial court both men and women wore coloured flowers made of pith in their hair. For use in painting, it is cut by hand with knife into thin sheets. The sheets are dried, trimmed and used for painting without any further processing. Watercolour and gouache paint readily absorb into the plant cells of the pith to create a rich, velvety depth of colour, and then paint pools in relief on the surface, producing exquisitely vibrant raised details, of sprakling, jewel-like intensity.

Watercolour and gouache on pith paper. Unsigned. The extremely fragile pith edges are held down with a light green silk ribbon. Simple glass frames. Good condition. The image is bright, clear and pristine. Age-related minimal wear. Minor tears at the corners. Visible size 32,0cm x 22,0cm.