The language of love in Chinese export paintings


I am reading Kristina Kleutghen’s fascinating new book Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces. It analyses the surviving illusionist paintings which enjoyed a vogue at the Chinese imperial court in the eighteenth century, in particular those in the private quarters of the Qianlong emperor in the Forbidden City.

As part of that analysis Kleutghen also discusses the genre of ‘beautiful women paintings’ (meiren hua), which until recently have received scant scholarly attention. It is now becoming clear that what used to be regarded as generic and bland images of Chinese ‘gentlewomen’ are actually about desire and longing.


Chinese mirror painting depicting a lady in an interior gazing at a pair of doves and about to write something, mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall, NT 1270824. ©National Trust Collections/Sophia Farley

These ‘beautiful women’ are shown in private spaces such as gardens or the inner rooms of mansions. In a society where respectable women were kept from public view, this already made these images somewhat suggestive. In addition, the pictures contain various hints that the women are in fact waiting for or are about to welcome their lovers. They may be high-class courtesans or concubines, objects of desire surrounded by other luxury objects.

This imagery was also used in Chinese paintings made specifically for export to the west. In the mirror painting at Shugborough Hall, for instance, the lady is looking tenderly at a pair of cooing doves, who are presumably mirroring her own thoughts and feelings. The room contains two barrel-shaped ceramic seats, suggesting that she is expecting someone, or hoping that someone will visit. She stands next to a table poised to write something – perhaps a letter to her lover, or a love poem.


Chinese mirror painting depicting a lake with a couple and a single lady in the foreground, in the Hoare collection, Stourhead, but currently on display at Dyrham Park, NT 452429. ©National Trust Collections/Seamus McKenna

When seen in this light, another mirror painting, from the Hoare collection at Stourhead, also seems to be about love and longing. On the left a couple is seated on a bench, closely entwined, reading a book together – perhaps a love story? The lady on the right, by contrast, sits on her own, with only a servant girl for company, her head forlornly resting in her hand, again gazing at a pair of doves who seem to mock her loneliness.

The European buyers of these pictures probably understood very little of all that and likely regarded these scenes as just innocuous Chinese genre paintings. But now this new scholarship is allowing us to understand some of the meanings hidden almost in plain sight within these pictures.


4 Responses to “The language of love in Chinese export paintings”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    Now that you point it out it all seems so obvious 🙂 It seems to me that anyone exposed to 16th century European paintings would have had some inkling of the semiotics since they would be well aware of similar messages in the European examples. But that’s with the advantage of hindsight. However, I’m not up to speed with who exactly was buying these Chinese works in the 18th century and what their collecting background really was. And perhaps the sheer foreign-ness of the fashion and landscape was enough to mask the similarities in message.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes I imagine that eighteenth-century Europeans would have recognised these as ‘genre paintings’, but the finer points of the iconography would not have been ‘readable’ for them – just as it wasn’t readable for me until I read Cahill and Kleutghen on Chinese ‘beautiful women’ paintings!

    You could have bought these pictures in luxury and exotic goods shops (sometimes called ‘India merchants’) in London and in other major cities in Britain. They would have been fairly expensive, but at the same time fairly widely available.

    We need more research into the market for these Asian objects and their spread through Europe in the eighteenth century. Evidence from Chinese wallpapers shows that this sort of product spread quite fast into quite remote corners of the British Isles and the Continent, so presumably it was ultra-fashionable.

    I suppose it was similar to the workings of fashion now: we don’t necessarily need to understand the exact mix of iconographies in an Alessandro Michele outfit, as long as it has a thrilling frisson of exoticism and looks fabulous.

  3. columnist Says:

    I have a pair of Chinese export paintings, but they are more maritime-related. There was another pair sold at Christie’s last week, which were very tempting:

    but I resisted and had to remind myself that I’m selling a rather larger one with them in December:

    I’m de-cluttering, as sadly there is no space to hang them.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I like the way these pictures show how paintings were used in Chinese interiors, almost like ‘Chinese wallpaper’, but not quite.

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