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Research project

Cultural creativity in Qing China, 1796−1912

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Key project information


12 January 2020 – 14 July 2024

Contact details

Email: jharrison-hall@britishmuseum.org


Birkbeck, University of London

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Grant number

AHRC Research Grant AH/T001895/1 

How was resilience demonstrated through cultural creativity within China under the Qing Dynasty between 1796 and 1912, despite unprecedented levels of violence?

This project will examine how social and political upheaval, together with war and external aggression, catalysed the innovation of different forms of material and visual culture – including print, painting, calligraphy, ceramics, textiles, architecture and photography. This happened during a century in which China's art, literature, crafts and technology faced unprecedented exposure to global influences. 

The research will explore the distinctive ways in which material culture illuminates changing political and social identities. In particular, it will consider groups that are often excluded from the written record, including those with lived experience at many levels of society. It will also examine how material culture supports or subverts the textual narratives of this time.

Find out about the latest project news

About the project

This innovative project unites museum and academic expertise in late imperial China in an effort to fully integrate material and visual culture from this time. This collaborative research will address the following questions:

  • Court: How does 19th-century material culture illuminate changes to imperial and court culture, in the face of prolonged international and domestic challenges? Did the official portrayal of the Qing emperors and empresses change? 
  • Military: How did the conflicts of the period 1796−1912 shape Qing material culture? What was the impact of foreign and civil violence? What role did ethnic identities and tensions play in these conflicts?
  • Educated elite: How did the emergence of new urban communities and consumers (especially in Shanghai) interact with and challenge older political and cultural identities, and types of traditionally elite cultural production?
  • Local life: What is the lived experience of political, cultural and technological change, especially that of groups often marginalised by textual records? How is this reflected in 19th-century vernacular culture and entertainment?  
  • Global Qing: How did interactions with other parts of the multi-ethnic Qing empire and the world shape Qing material culture on international, imperial, regional and local levels 1796−1912?
  • Reform to revolution: What does Qing material culture show us about attempts to reform and modernize politics, education, statecraft, industry and everyday life in Qing China between the late 1800s and early 1900s?


In addition to its major exhibition and accompanying book of essays, the project will have a lasting impact through an international conference and edited volume. These will examine material culture via key themes in late imperial Chinese history: war, empire, localisation and globalisation.

The questions raised will help shape the next generation of scholarship. Relying on global collaborations, the research will facilitate dialogue among and between international experts on 19th-century Qing China, and general audiences.

The project will enable both established and early career scholars to conduct research that will enhance their careers and forge strong links between museums and universities across Asia, Europe and the US. It will highlight individual responses to the century's challenges and crises, charting the diversity of experience across Qing society and landscape.

Meet the team

Headshot of Jessica Harrison-Hall

Jessica Harrison-Hall

Principal Investigator
Department of Asia
British Museum

Headshot of Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell

Department of History, Classics and Archaeology
Birkbeck, University of London

Headshot of Wenyuan Xin

Wenyuan Xin

Department of Asia
British Museum

Advisory group

Project supporter

Project supporter

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China's hidden century: 1796-1912


A book to accompany China's hidden century exhibition. 

Edited by Jessica Harrison-Hall and Julia Lovell

Published in May 2023

Creators of Modern China: 100 Lives from Empire to Republic (1796-1912)


A book to accompany China's hidden century exhibition. 

Edited by Jessica Harrison-Hall and Julia Lovell

Published in May 2023