History of Chinese Calligraphy – Modern Period: Development of Chinese Calligraphy During Qing Dynasty

The Qing Dynasty (清朝/Qing Chao/Ch’ing Ch’ao): From Prosperity to Ruin

As had been so often the case in Chinese History, the Ming Dynasty fell victim to increasingly calcified politcal systems and fragmenting power structures. Following a series of military defeats, the last Ming Emperor took his own life, leaving the incumbent Manchu forces to assert complete dominance over China in 1662. The next three hundred years would see the Manchu, at the head of the Qing Dynasty, rule in a fashion not unlike that of previous dynasties. Nevertheless, strict political control was the norm as the ethnically separate Manchu struggled to keep a stranglehold on what was essentially a captured territory.

While the political and social climate of the late Ming and early Qing share many similarities, factors both interior and exterior would lead to incredible strife in the dynasty’s later years. With the world rapidly changing around it, China would be confronted with situtations that its historically inward-looking perspective would struggle to adequately address. In essence, reliance on the historical successes of the Chinese administrative and political systems, as well as on increasingly antiquated technologies, left the Qing ill-prepared for a modernizing world.

The final years of the Qing were typified by intense armed conflicts, each of which saw China, and the Manchu rule itself, lose face. The Taiping Rebellion lasted almost a decade and a half, and resulted in the second largest number of casualties due to any single armed conflict in history, second only to World War II. The rebellion, headed by a megalomanical heterodox Christian convert, forced the Qing dynasty to seek aid from both France and England. This aid, however, came at the cost of forcing open the Chinese markets to unprecedented foreign exploitation. Later, China would be defeated by the English and Japanese, as well as continuously losing ground to the advanced maritime trading networks of the numerous maritime Western empires.

The Qing Dynasty would finally fall to the republican Xinhai Rebellion in 1912. Motivated by the incredible corruption and international ineffectiveness of the regime, a modern revolutionary movement formed with the goal of creating a republican state. The Qing establishment, already exhausted from almost a century of internal and external strife, succumbed an abdicated to the revolutionaries after less than half a year.

Early Ming Dynasty Calligraphy and Art: Dealing with Dynastic Change

While the Qing would end in defeat, it must be recalled that at its outset it was itself a conqueror. In the early Qing, survivors of the Ming royal family and those loyal to them were sought out as political rivals. Moreover, the Qing went to great lengths to quash political dissent, especially any sentiments that sought to recover the defeated regime. Nevertheless, it was possible for the amateur artist to create works that obliquely suggested a dissatisfaction with the present and a longing for the past. The calligraphy of Fu Shan (傅山) is a good example of this. Fu Shan deliberately eschewed the refinement of courtly aesthetic sensibilities and, in so doing, rejected the idea of accommodating the new regime. Less ambitious nobles found other avenues: while commemorating the Ming was definitely not permitted, the works of ancient China could be copied or emulated in order to assert ownership of a deep cultural tradition.

The Popularization of Calligraphy During Qing Dynasty – Elite Scholars versus Professionals

The theories of Dong Qichang were further developed in the Qing to the extent that a very definite ideological divide between the amateur and the professional arose. While courtiers and nobles of a certain standing would staunchly prefer the works of the literati class, focused as they were on the valued precedents of previous dynasties, the Qing nevertheless saw the rise of a surprisingly prosperous community of professional artists. By the late 17th century, artists such as Zheng Xie and Luo Ping were able to fetch very high prices, likely from the very scholars and officials who publically condemned ‘professional’ works. Added to this, an unprecedented production and distribution of painting and calligraphy manuals meant that the number of people versed in the traditional motifs and methods of the Chinese literati arts reached unparalleled heights. Indeed, it is probably a function of this popularization and promulgation of previously elite aesthetics that made the elites themselves so dogmatic in their pursuit of the ‘amateur’.