Cultural Identity in the Informal Portraits of the Qing Emperors

    • Lucca November 2016
    • Presentation speakers
      • Youngmin Kim, Seoul National University, South Korea


    An identity crisis is bound to occur when a political community finds that what it had once unquestionably accepted as the definitions of its collective self are no longer acceptable under new historic conditions.The rise of Qing China (1616-1911) posed exactly such a challenge. Indeed, the Qing was radically different from the previous dynasties in that it represented a much more extensive empire which possess a wide variety of peoples. To make sense of the complex cultural identity of the Qing, one needs to turn to informal portraits rather than public statements and formal court portraits. As I hope to show, the informal portraits of the Qing emperors reveal the cultural identity of Qing China in a way different than in earlier dynasties. To analyze which strategies are used to construct the complex cultural identity visually, this paper focuses on the Qianlong emperor’s informal imperial portrait known as One or Two and an album of fourteen leaves portraying the Yongzheng emperor. In the paintings, the emperors constantly change dresses and assume different nationalities and roles. They appear as a Persian warrior, Turkish prince, Daoist magician, Tibetan Monk, Mongol nobleman, and many more including one in a European wig, vest and breeches. Taken together, the informal imperial portraits suggest that the ruler should not be committed to any of the moral, cultural, or ethnic outlook. At the same time, they embody the theories and strategies that made the Qing rulers come to terms with a wide range of different constituencies without letting the empire fall apart.This type of visual narrative helps us ask better questions about what people were doing when they were forging their cultural identities.