40 Views of the Summer Palace


A review of “40 Views of the Yuanming yuan”: Image and Ideology in a Qianlong Imperial Album of Poetry and Painting, by John R. Finlay.

In his dissertation, John Finlay explores the life and afterlives of the imperial album, 40 Views of the Yuanming yuan, an album dated 1744 depicting and describing scenic sites in the imperial garden of Yuanming yuan (also known as the Old Summer Palace) in Beijing produced by the Qianlong (1735-1795) court. Ostensibly a single work of art, through Finlay’s discussion, the 40 Views quickly becomes many works: combining painting and poetry, the album was produced and reproduced in several iterations over the course of past two and a half centuries, a process involving numerous artists, authors and editors, including the emperor himself, and linking the emperor and his garden to a broad range of cultural and historic precedents. In doing so, Finlay argues, the 40 Views constituted a fusion of Chinese and Western pictorial techniques while demonstrating the extraordinary “diffusion of texts and images in the context of the Qianlong court” that is so characteristic of the period (p. 1).

As part of his introduction, Finlay opens the dissertation with a critical bibliography, a particularly valuable resource given the wide variety of writing on both gardens and visual culture in China. While the field of Yuanming yuan studies is perhaps more developed than that of other subfields in either Chinese garden or Qing imperial scholarship, this includes a huge body of descriptive literature meant for a popular audience. Further, even academic studies are highly inconsistent in terms of quality and rigor. Finlay’s literature review, therefore, not only provides an important service to the field, describing the strengths and weaknesses of what he sees as the most important research on the Yuanming yuan, but also offers the reader a clear sense of the sources that he depends on most and how he engages with them.

Chapter 1 outlines the planning and production of the 40 Views of Yuanming yuan, from painted album to printed book. Finlay tracks multiple related, overlapping projects through a highly detailed description of the complicated process of imperial production. Beginning with the original commission of a painted album, archival records permit Finlay to follow the 40 Views through drafting, review, revisions, and production to the finishing of the work and its formal presentation to the throne. As the project expanded from one to several painted and printed versions, one is struck both by the fertileness of Yuanming yuan as a subject for Qianlong artistic production and by Finlay’s parsing of the different sources and copies.

The creation of multiple iterations of a given artwork is a characteristic of Qianlong court production that has recently begun to receive scholarly attention, and Finlay’s contribution to our understanding of this phenomenon is significant given the relative prominence of Yuanming yuan as site and source for imperial self-presentation. Furthermore, the many editions and their movement, especially abroad, points to the importance of imperial garden images in Europe, especially France, during the latter half of the 18th century. This is of particular interest given the importance of Chinese gardening principles in Western Europe during this period, when the so-called Jardin Anglo-Chinois came into vogue. Finlay also notes the reemergence of the 40 Views in late 19th century domestic lithography, a phenomenon that presents intriguing, and as yet unanswered, questions about the constitution of a reading public for High Qing imperial texts and images during a time when the dynasty was very much under siege.

Chapter 2 traces the various artistic sources for the 40 Views of the Yuanming yuan, a diverse group of historical and more recent models that ranged from prototypical elite amateur paintings to court production and popular culture. Finlay begins by tying the 40 Views to Wang Wei’s (701-761) Wangchuan Villa, in which the Tang scholar, poet and all-around cultural paragon recorded his country retreat in poetry and verse. Lost since at least the Song, but known at least generically through a variety of copies, Wang’s composition was the prototype for garden portraits and the cultured interpretation of landscape they came to represent.

In an interesting juxtaposition, Finlay then notes the strong links between the landscape of Yuanming yuan, both real and represented, and the scenery of Hangzhou’s West Lake. Like Wangchuan Villa, West Lake was an example of a highly cultured landscape with a defined itinerary. Over the course of the Ming, however, it gradually became one of popular, as well as elite culture, reflected in the propagation of its Ten Views through woodblock printing, as well as paintings. Unlike Wang Wei’s landscape, which was evoked in the 40 Views primarily through Qianlong’s poetry, the Ten Views of West Lake were signaled in the court album principally through the names of the individual views or through pictorial quotations. Here, Finlay draws strong connections between the iconography of the 40 Views and the slightly earlier canonization of a particularly Qing reading of the West Lake landscape in the West Lake Compendium (Xihu zhizuan), a court publication of the Yongzheng (1722-1735) and Qianlong eras.

Qianlong was not the first ruler to recognize the potential for organizing an imperial landscape along the same lines as the canonical views of famous sites, however, as Finlay notes in his third model. The Eight Views of Beijing are a series of handscrolls produced by officials in the Ming Yongle court shortly after the court moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421. Seeking to establish a cultural landscape worthy of the new imperial capital, Yongle officials followed earlier models recording regional scenery, particularly the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, a tradition Qianlong sought to continue to build upon.

Finally, Finlay explicates in great detail the most proximate model for the 40 Views, namely, the 36 Views of Bishu shanzhuang, a work of the Kangxi (1661-1722) period. Even while commissioning albums of views for his Beijing garden, Qianlong was actively engaged with his grandfather Kangxi’s legacy through the 36 Views, including ordering new copies of the original paintings, composing matching poems to his grandfather’s verses, and designating a further 36 views of his own. Together, these diverse sources broaden our understanding of the 40 Views in terms of subject matter, genre, medium, context of production, and historical reference, offering Qianlong an extraordinary range of ideas upon which to draw.

Chapter 3 explores the biographies and artistic styles of the three artists responsible for the painted and printed versions of the 40 Views of the Yuanming yuan: Tangdai (1673-ca. 1746), Shen Yuan and Sun Hu (both act. 2nd qtr. of the 18th c.). The three present an interesting study in contrasts, not only stylistically, but also in terms of their positions within the court, contrasts which Finley suggests are indicative of the variety present within Qianlong-era court artistic production. Tangdai, for instance, was both a stylistic and professional follower of the Kangxi-era artist Wang Yuanqi, in that he was an official who painted in the so-called Orthodox manner and worked at the behest of the emperor, rather than being a formal member of the painting academy. Highly esteemed by Qianlong, Tangdai largely followed the colorful variant of early Qing Orthodoxy that dominated within the court and is reflected in the depiction of landscape in the 40 Views. Tangdai was also interested in the effect of certain Western elements, such as sunlight and shadow, on Chinese-style landscapes.

Shen Yuan, with whom Tangdai collaborated on the paintings of Yuanming yuan, was a leading court painter of architecture set in landscape during this period, especially within imperial gardens and idealized capitals, and as such carried on a key genre from Kangxi-era painting. He, too, was interested in the possibilities of Western techniques within Chinese painting, experimenting with single-point perspective in the depiction of architecture. Finally, Shen Yuan was a key collaborator on many highly important imperial commissions, particularly monumental works combining figures and architecture in garden settings, working with Giuseppe Castiglione, Chen Mei, Ding Guanpeng and Sun Hu, among others.

The last of this group, Sun Hu, joined Shen Yuan in transforming the original paintings of the 40 Views into woodblock designs. Like Shen Yuan, Sun Hu was a typical, albeit particularly prominent member of the court painting establishment, a jack-of-many-styles whose most prominent surviving works are collaborations. Together, the work of these artists on the 40 Views exemplifies the court art establishment’s diverse origins and collaborative processes through which they produced works that “help define an early 18th-century Qing court style that is an amalgam of Chinese traditional modes – drawn from both historical styles and the creative reworking of earlier styles by Orthodox-school painters – with European painting techniques of perspective and modeling” (p. 189).

Chapter 4 surveys various texts associated with and included in the 40 Views, offering a contextualized discussion and critical translation of each. These include two imperial records of Yuanming yuan by the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors, three of the forty imperial poems, and the postscript to the 40 Views, composed by its editors, Oertai (1677-1745) and Zhang Tingyu (1672-1755). For each, Finlay offers a substantial introduction drawn from various textual sources, including an anecdotal history of the famous sites of Beijing, the Rixia jiuwen kao, and related poetry by the Qianlong emperor and his predecessors. Together, these documents serve to amplify the context in which a given text would have been read by its audiences, extending our understanding of meaning beyond that offered by a straightforward translation.

A fine example is the first of the three poems Finlay translates and annotates, “Zhengda guangming,” or “Upright and Pure in Mind.” Through a close reading of associated texts, we come to understand the image that the Qianlong emperor sought to convey not only of the architecture, but of himself through the representational evocation of the architecture. “Upright and Pure in Mind” was, in the emperor’s formulation, the proper state for a ruler cleaving to the Middle Way, a point tied through repeated references to a range of classical Confucian texts. The Qianlong emperor further tied himself to his imperial ancestors, the Shunzhi (r. 1644-1661), Kangxi, and Yongzheng emperors, through the use of the phrase as a building name, the act of inscription represented by the nameboards hung above each site’s primary entrance, and significant imperial performances tied to the sites, specifically a banquet for important officials held each year on the fifteenth day of the first month, the Lantern Festival. Thus, Qianlong established “Zhengda guangming” as descriptive of the Qing imperial articulation of proper rulership, to which he was the observant successor.

This chapter is one of the richest portions of the entire project, as Finlay catalogs textual references in extraordinary detail, not only giving the modern reader important information with which the original audience would have been expected to be already familiar, but also recreating the experience of reading the imperial texts, which were a dense construction of references to, and quotations from, classical sources. Each line of the poems in the 40 Views is accompanied by extensive annotations helping to explain the quotations – though whether or not the emperor’s audience would have needed that help, as the modern reader does, is an open question – resulting in a long, visually varied and highly didactic verse form that Finlay effectively captures through a combination of clever formatting and exhaustive footnoting.

As Finlay makes clear throughout his dissertation, unpacking a work of art in the Qianlong era is a challenging project, as individual works were enmeshed in a complex network of connections stretching across styles, cultures, artistic media, and time. Further, these works often stand as the most fully articulated visions of rulership left by the emperor, yet they are also some of the most highly rhetorical. Long scholarly disinterest in the artistic and cultural production of the Qing court has mirrored broader opinion of the material as overly decorative, unskillful, derivative or otherwise unworthy of serious attention. Yet, as Finlay demonstrates, these works are not only carefully calibrated ideological expressions, but are also essential to understanding the state and the empire during this period. We can no sooner propose to comprehend the Qing court absent an appreciation of its engagement with cultural production than we could a modern government without an exploration of its use of mass media. Although there are still relatively few works of critical scholarship on Qing court art, the number is growing, and Finlay’s research on representations of the Yuanming yuan sheds valuable light on new material.

Stephen H. Whiteman
Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts
National Gallery of Art

Primary Sources

First Historical Archive of China, Yang Naiji, et. al., eds., Yuanming yuan. 2 vols. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1991.
Siku quanshu
[Complete Works of the Four Treasuries], electronic edition. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong & Digital Heritage Publishing, Ltd., 1999—.
Shiqu baoji [Precious Record of the Stone Moat] (1745, Zhang Zhao, et. al., eds. Reprint: 2 vols.), xubian (1793, Wang Jie, et. al., eds. Reprint: 8 vols.) and sanbian (1816, Hu Jing, et. al., eds. Reprint: 10 vols.). Taibei: National Palace Museum, 1969-1971.
Tangdai, Shen Yuan and Wang Youdun, 40 Views of Yuanming yuan, 1744 . Album of eighty leaves, ink and colors on silk, each leaf approx. 62.3 x 63.3 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Yu Minzhong, et. al., Rixia jiuwen kao [Investigation of Old Anecdotes of the Capital], preface dated 1773 (Beijing: s.n., 1785-1787). Reprint, 8 vols., Beijing; Guji chubanshe, 1981.

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2011. 515 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard M. Barnhart.


Image: Tangdai (1673-after 1751) and Shen Yuan (act. ca. 1728-1748), “Zhengda guangming,” no. 1 of the Forty Views of the Yuanming yuan, album page, ink and color on silk, image 62.3 x 63.3 cm, 1744. Collection: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Estampes et Photographie, call no. B-9 rés.

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