Ink and colour picture showing the head and shoulders of an elderly Chinese woman with her hair tied back. She is wearing green earrings and a blue jacket decorated with gold leaves around the neck.

An introduction to 19th-century China

By Jessica Harrison-Hall, Head of the China Section, Curator of the Sir Percival David Collection, Chinese Decorative Arts and Ceramics at the British Museum.

Publication date: 28 February 2023

How did Chinese cultural creativity demonstrate resilience in the face of unprecedented levels of violence in the long 19th century?

Four years ago, the British Museum and London University embarked on a new project involving a network of over 100 scholars across 14 countries. The aim was to try and understand the experiences of individuals living through a period of tumultuous change that included a civil war in which at least 20 million people died, as well as the Opium Wars. There had never been a 19th-century Qing China exhibition before which went beyond paintings or photography so the team scoured the world for materials and uncovered some of the extraordinary stories from China’s long 19th century.


Colourful calligraphy on parchment.
Bilingual imperial document, Bejing, 1806. © The British Library.

In 1796, the Qing ruled over one-third of all humanity and was one of the most prosperous empires in world history. By 1912 it had collapsed, bringing an end to some 2,000 years of dynastic rule and giving way to a modern Chinese republic. The Manchu dynasty that ruled at that point was challenged by internal uprisings and foreign invasion. Despite this, the 19th century was an era of extraordinary cultural creativity and of political, social and technological innovation.

In the shadow of these events lie stories of remarkable individuals – at court, in armies, among artists, in booming cosmopolitan cities and on the global stage – which this exhibition brings to life. An impressive 300 objects and paintings from 30 lenders are arranged into five themes:

The court

Red robe with butterfly pattern.
Woman’s informal court robe, China, 1895–1911. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Six emperors ruled in succession between 1796 and 1912 – three adults were followed by three children, whose reigns were dominated by Empress Dowager Cixi as regent. Representations of people at court changed dramatically as styles were absorbed from photography, and as the Manchu imperial family increasingly adopted Han-Chinese culture. This auspicious red robe was a late addition to the show from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is embroidered with dozens of different butterflies representing happiness, golden characters which wish the wearer long life and plum blossom borders which refer to Spring.

Working with students from SOAS, the London School of Economics, London College of Fashion and the exhibition designers Nissen Richards, the show will bring a new character to life in each section through their portraits or clothes through movement and sound.

The military

Colourful depiction of battle scene.
The defeat of the Taiping, Nanjing, about 1864.© SOAS University of London (CWP 13). 

Civil conflicts including the White Lotus Rebellion (1774–1805), Xinjiang wars (1820s and 1860s) and Taiping Civil War (1850–64) broke out across Qing China. International imperialism brought the Opium Wars (1840–42 and 1856–60), Sino-French War (1884–85), Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and Boxer War (1898–1900). Disaffection led to unrest among the educated classes and the poor. As a result of warfare in their home regions, people migrated to safer cities and to the borderlands in search of food and work. This created local tensions, ethnic alienation and conflict over resources. Further civil uprisings would end the imperial era in 1912. This print from SOAS shows the final Qing victory over the Taipings – a Christian group who built their capital at Nanjing and tried to overthrow the Qing.

We were able to visit Toronto, New York, Paris and many UK cities before the global pandemic. Museums, libraries and collectors showed us a vast range of 19th century materials. Additional items were chosen through online discussions with specialists around the world.


Women looks out of window onto tree view.
Ren Xiong (b.1823–1857), Autumn shadow in Liangxi (Wuxi), China, 1840–57. © Michael Yun-Wen Shih Collection.

Even as the Qing empire found itself under exceptional pressure from violence in the 1800s, landscape paintings, fans and albums demonstrate that artistic traditions were not in decline but sat alongside more ‘modern’ art. New Western techniques such as lithography were embraced by artists trained in traditional woodblock printing design, and by new magazines and newspapers in the coastal cities. An educated gentry class mediated between the state and the people from AD 650 to 1905. As the likelihood of attaining an official job dwindled, men sought alternative forms of financial and social support, establishing new artistic and literary groups.

Private collectors from all over the world have played a major role in the exhibition, sharing exquisite objects with the public for the first time. Chinese handscrolls and hanging scroll paintings can only be shown for a few months within a 10-year period as their colours are vulnerable to light exposure. This exhibition provides a rare glimpse of some of these extraordinary creations including this painting of his patron’s wife by the famous artist Ren Xiong. 

Urban life

Blue headdress.
Elaborate headdress, 1800–1900, China. © The Teresa Coleman Collection. 

By the 1850s, China's population reached a staggering 450 million but average life expectancy was just 40 years old. Fleeing conflict and in search of work many people migrated to the cities – and cosmopolitan centres such as Shanghai emerged. While life for many people was extremely difficult, some enjoyed incredible wealth. 

Women were mostly hidden from the official records, unless made famous by the actions of their husbands or sons. Yet there is so much that survives that helps us to re-imagine these women and the worlds in which they lived. Paintings, prints, costumes, luxury furnishings and entertainment equipment add a richness to the textural records. This hairband is decorated with pearls, semi-precious stones and bright blue kingfisher feathers. 

Straw coat with matching hat and bag.
Waterproofs for a worker, China, 1800–60.

Representing the millions of people who were not wealthy is a challenge as so little survives. Rural fishermen and farmers had worn this type of waterproof raincoat and hat for centuries. In urban settings, poorer people including porters, street cleaners and labourers also wore such garments as protection from the elements. Regional variations existed, depending on which plants were available locally. In the far south palm leaves or coconut fibres were used instead of rice or millet. This coat was made by folding layers of straw or leaves, then stitching them to the layer above using rice-straw thread. From 1870 onwards the Royal Botanic Gardens (now Kew) transferred objects from across the world to the British Museum. Specialist organics conservators transformed its appearance over months from a rigid bundle of straw to the beautiful garment visitors will see in the show.

Global Qing

Open fan with flower design.
Luxury fan, Guangzhou, 1800-40. © The Teresa Coleman Collection.

Until the 1840s, Guangzhou (Canton) was the only place in China where international trade was legal and foreigners could live. Merchants in Guangzhou interacted with Europe, the Americas, Japan, Russia, Parsi merchants in South Asia and diaspora communities in Southeast Asia.

Shiny silver punch set.
Treaty port silver punch set, Shanghai, 1905.

The signing of the unequal Treaty of Nanjing (1842) led to more ports being forcibly opened to foreign trade. Modern technology and transport revolutionised industry and changed people’s lives. Inventions such as electricity and the new postal system transformed the way people worked and communicated. Printed media and translations of foreign books provided a two-way window onto the world through travel, industry and education. 

An exhibition like this brings together a large group of scholars but it also relies on the skills of about 100 people with other specialisms including conservators, photographers, graphic and 3D designers, lighting experts, publishers, film and sound specialists and other technicians. 

Reformers and revolutionaries

After Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the loss of Korea as a vassal state, the Qing faced further carving-up of its territory by Western imperialist forces. In response, a new national identity was sought. Army and naval weapons, uniforms and organisation were modernised. The imperial court established a series of new ministries for foreign affairs, commerce, the police and education. Beyond China, there was a diplomatic search for alternative methods of governance. However, after a violent revolution emperor Puyi abdicated in February 1912, ending 2,000 years of imperial rule. 

Some people were incredibly brave throughout these changes and at the end of the exhibition we tell the story of the revolutionary, poet and feminist Qiu Jin who dedicated her life to encouraging women to take action to change society.

Black and white photograph of a woman in a kimono.
Qiu Jin in Kimono, Carrie Chapman Catt diaries and photographs 1911-1912, 1910. © Wisconsin Historical Society,WHI-111120. 


Come and see for yourself who we have chosen as the people to represent the court, military, artists, city dwellers, global communities, reformers and revolutionaries of 19th century China.

The Citi exhibition, China's hidden century opens 18 May 2023.

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Lead supporter Citi.

Additional supporter The Huo Family Foundation. 

This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [Grant Number AH/T001895/1].