Qing dynasty life and culture

What can the Adelaide Corridor wallpaper tell us about life and culture in Qing dynasty China?

Find out with an interactive slideshow or read the longer stories below.

Slideshow

Stories

After reading the story, see if you can find the detail on the hi-res image of that section of wallpaper.

Lychees

The red, delicious-looking fruits in the bamboo baskets on the boat are lychees – you can tell by their leathery, rough skin. In contrast to their skin, the fruits have smooth, juicy, translucent white pulps.

Lychees are native to Southern China, including Guangzhou, and its consumption has been documented since at least the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). Guangzhou’s love of lychees continued into the Qing dynasty.

In the 19th century a Cantonese scholar called Wu Yingkui even wrote a monograph on the Cantonese (Guangzhou) lychee, in which he boastfully described more than seventy species.

Calligraphy

This young man holds an elegant folding fan. Folding fans — depicting poetry, plants and calligraphy — were handy and essential accessories for the ancient Chinese literati and enabled gentlemen to suggest their refined taste and noble nature.

This young man deliberately shows the audience his folding fan featuring poems and orchids. Orchids are known in Chinese art as one of the ‘Four Noble Ones’ of plants for their grace and beautiful appearance. They are a metaphor for humility and nobility.

The ‘characters’ on the folding fan are actually scribbles written by the painter to imitate Chinese calligraphy. Although they have no real meaning, the artist has kept the format of the seven-character verses faithful to the classic fan-decorating layout of four-three-four-three.

Acrobats

‘She was seen lying on her back on the table…. and a small wooden ladder was placed vertically on the soles of her feet. Then she made the boy called Little San’er climb up the ladder and somersault on it. Suddenly, the boy was heard to cry out and fall off the ladder when a strong man next to the table calmly stepped forward and caught the boy in his palm, with the boy standing upside down there like a dragonfly.’

This story, collected by the late Qing scholar Xu Ke in Anthology of Petty Matters in Qing, depicts how Li Sai’er, a famous Qing female acrobat deliberately created an “accident” to keep the audience in suspense when juggling with her feet.

Various kinds of acrobatics were popular in Qing dynasty China, with many female acrobats performing foot juggling. Not only could they hold ladders, they could even make vats rotate smoothly on the soles of their feet.

Now look at the female acrobat in the picture – you can tell this by her hairstyle and petite feet – and her little partner. Can you feel the nervousness of the audience watching her performance in the painting?

Visiting officials

In this image, we can see a subordinate official named Chen visiting his superior, an official named Song. The attendants of the Chen official are holding lanterns displaying his title ‘Grand Master Exemplar’. One of them carries two geese as gifts.

‘Song’ was a typical Manchu surname in the Qing dynasty. In 1811, a Manchu minister called Song Yun served as the Governor of Guangdong (also known as Canton) and Guangxi in the area, indicating the Song family was a rather powerful family in the region.

Play: The Illustrious Consort Goes to the Frontier

The actress on horseback is performing the classic story of Lady Zhaojun, one of China’s legendary ancient beauties.

The play is set in the Han Dynasty (206BC – AD220). To establish friendly relationships with the Xiongnu Empire, a neighbouring nomadic regime, Lady Wang Zhaojun, a beautiful and intelligent imperial consort, was sent to marry the ruler of Xiongnu.

In this scene, Lady Zhaojun is leaving her hometown on horseback and heading northward. She is extremely sad and begins to play sorrowful melodies with her pipa lute.

The actress’s costume adds detail to the scene: although she is still wearing her Han clothing with typical cloud-shaped collar, her furry cap with pheasant feathers indicates her future destiny.

The Eight Immortals

‘The eight immortals cross the sea, each demonstrating his or her special skill.’

This Chinese saying illustrates that everyone has their own solutions when faced with difficulties. The immortals (there are three others in the upper left and upper right) in the scene are the Eight Immortals of Taoism mentioned above.

They are said to have been ordinary people who became long-lived immortals through their noble virtues and dedicated Taoist practice. At a gathering, the Eight Immortals agreed to use their respective skills to cross the sea, so each one took out his or her unique vessel — a donkey,  a flute, or even a lotus flower — to successfully reach the appointed immortal mountain.

Taoism was one of the main folk beliefs in Guangzhou during the Qing Dynasty. The only female immortal, He Xiangu, was particularly beloved as legend has it that she was born in Canton. In this wallpaper, mortals stand on the riverbank looking delightedly at the gods in the middle of the river, creating a marvellous combination of reality and imagination.

He Xiangu is often seen as the only female among the Eight Immortals. Her vessel is usually a lotus flower (In this painting she is holding lotus seeds).

Lan Caihe is an immortal whose magical vessel is a basket of flowers. He is often described as a young man skilled in brewing.

Tieguai Li is an immortal on crutches. He is said to be the most senior of the eight immortals. His gourd contains elixirs and he is seen as the patron of pharmacology.

Lü Dongbin is a legendary scholar and poet, Lu Dongbin is said to have been popular with the people as he often carried his legendary Chunyang sword on his chivalrous trips.

Han Zhongli was also known as Zhongli Quan. He was originally an army officer whose symbolic object was a palm-leaf fan. It is said that he had the ability to turn stones into gold and was thus seen as an immortal of wealth.

Cao Guojiu had the highest social status of the Eight Immortals and had a close relationship with a Song dynasty emperor. Cao is often depicted dressed in glamorous official robes and holding a jade tablet. He is also seen as the patron of the theatre.

Han Xiangzi is said to have been a young musician reincarnated from a white crane. His symbolic object was a flute.

Zhang Guolao is said to have been a long-lived immortal who lived for hundreds of years. He is often described as holding a fish drum and riding a donkey — in this wallpaper, however, he rides a horse.

Credits

Written by Yixin Xu, MA  History of Art (Bejing and Beyond: Art and Empire in Early Modern China), The Courtauld Institute of Art.

In collaboration with Dr Josepha Richard Associate Lecturer in Chinese Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.