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The „Battle Copper Prints“ of the Qianlong 乾隆 (1736-1795) Emperor
The so-called “Battle Copper Prints” comprise a series of prints from copper engravings (tongbanhua 銅版畫) dating from the second half of the 18th century. They were produced under the aegis of the Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and depict his military campaigns conducted both in the inner provinces and along the country’s frontiers.
Large paintings served as master illustrations for the copper engravings and the ensuing prints. They were painted by Europeans employed at that time at the court in Peking, namely, the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione S.J. (1688-1766), the French Jean-Denis Attiret S.J. (1702-1768) and the Bohemian Ignatius Sichelbarth S.J. (1708-1780) as well as the Italian Augustinian missionary, Jean-Damascène Sallusti (d. 1781).
The copper engravings of the first set of sixteen paintings, however, were not produced in China, but were executed, under the commission of the Qianlong emperor, in Paris which at the time was home to the best European artisans working in this technique. The Chinese emperor even decreed to emulate the style of the Augsburgian copper engraver Georg Philipp Rugendas the Elder (1666-1742), whose work was known to him. Thus, small-scale copies of the larger paintings of Castiglione and his Peking colleagues were sent to Paris to be transferred into copperplates, printed and subsequently sent back to China along with the plates and prints. All following sets of copper engravings were executed in Peking by Chinese apprentices of the Jesuits. They differ markedly in style and elaborateness from those of the “Paris Series.”
Qianlong's battle copper prints were just one amongst a wide range of means employed by the Manju emperor of China to “document” his successful campaigns of military expansion and suppression of regional unruliness. They served to glorify his rule and exert ideological control over Chinese historiography.
In the history of Chinese art, copper printing remained an episode. Seen in their political context, the Qianlong prints represent a distinct and exceptional pictorial genre and are telling documents of the self-dramatization of imperial state power.
The East Asia Department of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), holds a set of five series with a total of 64 prints of these „battle copper prints”, which are presented with a small search interface in a digital exhibition.
We would like to express our particular gratitude to the East Asia Collection of the Asian Art Museum - Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, in Berlin, for the support and the fruitful cooperation between both of the Foundation’s institutions, State Library and Museum, and the permission to reproduce the images of a copper plate and a carved red lacquer plate.
Last Update: 02.03.2010 lh
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