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Past exhibition

Special Exhibition
War From Afar: The Copperplate Prints of Battle Scenes Commissioned by the Qing Court
After a century-long competition for dominance in inland Asia, the Qing Empire had never once turned away its coveting eyes from its distant borders. The ten most pivotal battles of the empire in the eighteenth century took place on the remote frontiers and the empire eventually defeated the the Mongolian Junggar in the north and south of the Tianshan Mountains, a turning point of history. In order to commemorate the victories of conquering Dzungar and Muslim regions, Emperor Qianlong ordered Western missionaries to draw sketches which depicted battle scenes and sent them to even more distant France to be transformed in copperplate engravings.
Copperplate engraving refers to a type of intaglio printmaking method which requires a complicated process of production and delivers intricate final results. The Qing court not only placed the order for the first batch of copperplate battle prints but also introduced the technology back home in preparation for the commemoration of the battle victories ensued.
This exhibition is divided into three sections: "Traveled by Sea from France", "In-House Production of Battle Prints by the Qing Counrt" and "Whose War It Is? " The exhibition takes us back to 1760, not long after the conclusion of the war, and presents the process and results of war prints production project initiated by Emperor Qianlong, from the ordering of the drafts, completion of the sketches to placing the order of copperplate engravings in France. A comparison between the development and collection of traditional war images and the copperplate battle prints of Qianlong's time helps the deductions about the purposes and significance of theses battle prints. The display of war related artifacts, including the ceremonial attire wore by the conquerors and ritual vessels, rare local treasures like gold, jade, and horses as tribute from the conquered, allows the viewer to reflect upon the brutal reality of history and the nature of war.

Traveled by Sea from France
In the 1760s, the Qing Empire successively defeated Dawachi (? -1759), the khan of the Dzungar Khanate of Mongol, Amursana (1723-1757), the Taiji of the Khoid, and the two Altishahr Khojas of the Muslim regions, consequently expanding its territorial reach to inland Asia, an area which is called Xinhiang today. To commemorate such a significant triumph, the court commanded its European missionaries like Giuseppe Castiglione, Ignatius Sichelbart and Jean-Damascène Sallusti to draft realistic drawings of the warfare and the sketches were delivered via distant sea route to France through Guangdong Customs and Thirteen Factories where copperplate engraving artist Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790) and engraver Jacques Philippe Le Bas (1707-1783) were put in charge of the production of copperplate engravings.
Over the course of 12 years, 16 copperplate engravings were successively shipped back to China in ten batches. To better illustrate the event, Emperor Qianlong wrote the preface poems himself and the ministers' postscripts were engraved with woodblocks, forming a total of 34 complete battle prints, called The Victory in the Pacification of Dzungars and Muslims. These battle engravings were mostly sketched according to battle reports with intricate carvings and breathtaking grandeur. Composed in deep perspective, these prints present vivid and lively figures and horses with powerful three-dimensionality, cementing their place as one of the best copperplate engraving masterpieces at that time. After the completion of these battle prints, Emperor Qianlong awarded these battle prints to royals and ministers and divided the prints up to be collected by various imperial residences and government offices for wide circulation.

In-House Production of Battle Prints by the Qing Court
It has been a long tradition in China to present war scenes through paintings or woodblock prints. Emperor Kangxi also once commissioned missionary Matteo Ripa to try ccopperplate engraving at Qing court.
After seizing Xinjiang, the Qing Empire did not stop from purging it borders. It waged multiple wars, resulting long lasting consequences and produced battle prints to document these conflicts in the same fashion.
After the ordered battle prints were completed in France, the tools for copperplate engraving were shipped back together with completed pieces. Afterwards, the copperplate engravings which commemorate triumphant campaigns against the Jinchuan region, Taiwan, Annam (Vietnam), Gurkha (present-day Nepal), Miao Region and the Miao People were produced in-house by the Qing court. Comparison between battle prints produced in different times helps us understand the development of copperplate battle prints in terms of techniques and artistic expression. Qianlong's court produced seven sets of copperplate battle prints in total. In addition to being given away as rewards or distributed to other places for safekeeping, they were also housed by the Wenyuan Pavilion, the imperial archive library of symbolic significance.

Whose War Is It?
In addition to the production of copperplate battle prints, another way to commemorate war is to produce portraits celebrating the victorious war heroes. The tribute horse paintings and artifacts presented by neighboring regimes such as jade ware now in the NPM collection outlines the development of shifting relationships between the Qing Empire and other inland Asian powers and regions. These could be seen as memorials from competitive relationships. On the other hand, documentary archives and mounting steles with inscriptions are both important forms of advertising the military prowess of the empire. By further upgrading these forms of honoring military success through ceremonial military rituals, the cultural status of military accomplishments was elevated. It is worth noting that however sublimated and glorified they are, these gorgeous memorials, the numerous dismembered cadavers scattered in the battle scenes, the frightened expressions of the conquered in flight, and the ceremonial Kapala bowls made of enemy skulls can hardly conceal the cruelty of war.
Exhibition Information
  • Event Date 2021-07-30~2021-12-26
  • Location 1F S101