China’s hidden century

A new exhibition at the British Museum explores an important period of cultural change in China’s history. Amy Brunskill visited to find out more.

China’s Hidden Century tells the stories of resilient people in all parts of society living through this eventful period. Image: © Trustees of the British Museum 2023

China’s ‘long 19th century’ begins in 1796: the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Jiaqing, had just come to the throne, and the empire he commanded was vast, far larger than modern China, encompassing a third of all humanity at the time. But just over 100 years later the country had changed dramatically, transformed by devastating civil and foreign wars, and major technological and social upheavals. In 1912, the final Qing emperor, Puyi, was forced to abdicate, and China entered a new era. China’s Hidden Century explores the highs and lows of this tumultuous period, and reveals the strength, resilience, and creativity of people in all parts of Chinese society.

Two-thousand years of dynastic rule

The Qing dynasty, which had been in power since 1644, was part of a dynastic tradition in China stretching back more than 2,000 years. Under this system, the emperor was all powerful: believed to hold the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, which gave him the divine right to rule. The imperial court lived in lavish palaces filled with luxurious objects – from tiny snuff bottles to huge cloisonné vases – and wore ornately decorated robes, which they changed up to ten times a day. Popular court fashions shifted throughout the 19th century, with royal portraiture influenced by new technologies like photography, and clothing transformed by the introduction of new aniline dyes from Europe, popular motifs from Japan, and the trend towards slimmer silhouettes in the West.

This ornately decorated silk robe, which belonged to the Empress Dowager Cixi, incorporates Japanese motifs from contemporary kimono designs. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

But imperial power was also starting to shift. During the long 19th century, China saw six Qing rulers – three adults and three children. The last ruler with real power was Empress Dowager Cixi, who acted as de facto ruler of China from 1861 to 1908. The concubine of the Xianfeng emperor (r. 1850-1861), Cixi began her reign as co-regent for her young son, and retained a position of power until her death 47 years later. An influential if controversial figure, Cixi’s words about her British contemporary echo above a display of one of her extravagant silk robes: ‘Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria… Still I don’t think her life was half as interesting and eventful as mine.’ Initially resistant to change, as social unrest and military conflicts threatened the dynasty’s power towards the end of century, Cixi allowed some changes to the structures of government and tried to improve foreign relations with gifts. However, these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and the child emperor Puyi was deposed in 1912, which marked the end of China’s imperial era.

A time of conflict

For both the imperial court and its 400 million subjects, life in this period was shaped by a string of devastating military conflicts, both domestic and international. Attacks by foreign powers, including the Opium Wars (1840-1842 and 1856-1860), forever altered China’s culture and economy, forcing the country into a series of unequal treaties, and destroying historic buildings like the Summer Palace in Beijing. At the same time, unrest among the population was reflected in the growth of movements like the Taipings, a Christian group whose attempt to overthrow the Qing dynasty led to the deadliest civil war in human history, causing the death of at least 20 million people.

After China’s unexpected defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the loss of Korea as a vassal state, it was decided that the country needed to modernise, and quickly. This prompted a mass restructuring of the army – at the time still dominated by traditional roles like bannermen, wearing the same uniforms they had for centuries – and new systems of diplomacy were introduced to try to stave off external threats. While reformers and revolutionaries debated the best ways for the country to move forward, one thing was undeniable: China had changed forever.

Cultural changes

For the exhibition’s curator Jessica Harrison-Hall, it was vital that the ordinary people who lived through these turbulent times were given a voice. Indeed, it is their stories that speak the loudest throughout the exhibition.

Waterproof capes and hats like this one made of bamboo, palm, and rice fibre, were worn by poorer urban workers. This 19th-century example was painstakingly restored for the exhibition. Image: A Brunskill

The long 19th century was a time of mass migration, as people from all parts of society were displaced by war and the scarcity of food or jobs. Those affected range from artists compelled to leave their homes and create new networks in emerging cosmopolitan centres like Shanghai, to rural workers who took on new urban roles in order to survive. Often overlooked, the art of this period is interesting and insightful, incorporating new technologies like photography and lithography, and reflecting the changing world in which it was created. Meanwhile, a straw raincoat of the type worn for hundreds of years by farmers and fishermen, and now adopted by urban street cleaners and porters, reflects the quality of craftsmanship found at all levels of society.

People’s lives were also revolutionised by the growing influence of other cultures. Until the 1840s, international trade was permitted only in Guangzhou (Canton), but after the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 more ports were forced to open to foreign trade. Many products created in China reflect this increased interaction with the West, in particular: luxury fans with phrases in English (in case you encountered a foreign person and needed to speak to them), a round fan replicating Western maps of the world, and a traditional robe with borders decorated with steamships, inspired by the boats from across world that travelled up and down the Yangtze River.

The border of this jacket, which features waterscapes with paddle steamers, three-masted ships, and steamboats, reflects the influence of modern technology and foreign trade on Chinese society. Image: © Trustees of the British Museum 2023

China’s place in the global market led to an increase in the use of new technologies, many of which drastically changed the way people lived, from telegraphs and railways to new printing techniques. They gave rise, as well, to a new middle class of businessmen and bureaucrats who could afford luxurious homes, expensive portraits, and the latest fashions. A taste for new dyes, silhouettes, and fabrics spread beyond the walls of the royal palace, while objects like clocks – in the 1700s, owned exclusively by the imperial court – feature extensively in images of the ideal middle-class home, and were even a popular pattern in textiles.

It would be impossible to cover every aspect of this turbulent and highly complex period, but China’s Hidden Century brings to life the stories of the people who lived through it, and highlights the rich culture of this pivotal moment in China’s history.

China’s Hidden Century
The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
Open: until 8 October 2023