|"Strange machines" from the West : European curiosities at the Qing imperial courts, 1644-1796 / by Stephanie Braun.|
Thesis (M. Phil.)--University of Hong Kong, 2011.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 263-270).
Online at HKU Scholars Hub.
Local access dig.pdf. [Braun-Western Machines.pdf]
During the early to middle Qing period, from 1644-1796, Manchu
emperors were keen collectors of so-called ‘strange machines’ from Europe.
These included scientific, primarily astronomical, instruments such as globes,
armillary spheres or sundials, as well as mechanical clocks, watches and
automata. European missionaries and trade delegations introduced these items as
gifts to the Qing imperial emperors to further their respective religious and
commercial agendas. Manchu rulers initially appreciated clocks and scientific
instruments as a means of facilitating the control of time and space, essential in
asserting imperial legitimacy. By incorporating European objects into the
multicultural identity cultivated at court, they confirmed their status as universal
This thesis examines the changing role of European objects within the
visual and material culture of the Qing courts across the reign periods of emperors
Kangxi (r.1662-1722), Yongzheng (r.1723-1735) and Qianlong (r.1736-1796). It
will show their transformation from statecraft instruments of high political and
ritual significance to decorative domestic collectibles, ultimately rejected as
insignificant toys. European clocks and instruments will be investigated not as
technical, but as art objects in their own right in an examination of Qing court
painting, architecture and decorative arts alongside key examples of the objects
As patronage and collecting were regarded as an essential imperial duty,
requiring high personal involvement from each emperor, the way in which
European objects were integrated into Qing court culture varied considerably
under each ruler. Kangxi created the foundation for the role of clocks and
instruments at court through his engagement with the European sciences, which
he employed to fully consolidate his emperorship. Yongzheng maintained, but did
not further develop, his father’s legacy with regard to objects from Europe.
Qianlong embraced the ‘strange machines’ from Europe, albeit less as tools for
statecraft, but as highly decorative collectibles, which appealed to his taste for
foreign exotica. Over time, and with flourishing production in the imperial palace
workshops, curiosities from Europe became highly integrated into the visual
culture developed under each emperor, remaining foreign by nature, but appearing
increasingly as familiar court objects, enhanced with symbolic ornaments
reflecting the different cultures within the Qing empire, or merged with traditional
signifiers of imperial power.
This development highlights the way in which the concept of Europe, and
its representation through certain types of objects, was actively used to shape the
‘otherness’ that defined the visual identity of the Manchus, thereby promoting the
emperors’ legitimacy as universal rulers. Each emperor’s personality and taste
influenced the visual expressions of their reign through patronage and collecting
habits. In their roles as collectors and patrons, Qing emperors exercised their own
form of time and space control over the ‘strange machines’ they owned through
manipulation of their context, form and original function.