CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

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Agriculture by Royal Example: Eighteenth-century representations of the emperor at work in China and in France

Session 14 The Other and the Foreign: Contact, Curiosity, and Creative Exchange

University of Hong Kong


In classical Chinese theories of governance, the ceremonial act of a monarch personally pushing a plow is equated with the promotion of agriculture. A regal demonstration of this act of agrarian labor publically testified that the ruler recognized the importance of agriculture as the basis of his kingdom’s prosperity. This ceremony was established during the Zhou era (c.1100–256 BCE) was revitalized with great enthusiasm by the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1722-1735). He recorded his devotion to agriculture in paintings and texts. Within years, descriptions of this ceremony travelled to France where artists and engravers were likewise inspired to pictorialize this act. This paper explores the motivations of such representations of imperial labor in both China and in France. For the Yongzheng emperor, his act of tilling was a means to consolidate his claims to the throne. In the case of France, the appeal of representations of the emperor plowing was aligned with the emerging discipline of economics and government efforts to reform agrarian policies. As men such as Étienne Silhoutte (1709-1767) and Franćois Quesnay (1694-1774) strove to re-evaluate the role of agriculture in generating the wealth of a nation, they found inspiration in China.



Roslyn Lee Hammers is an Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong in the Department of Fine Arts (art history). A specialist in Chinese painting, her research interests include imagery with technological content. She has written Pictures of Tilling and Weaving: Art, Labor, and Technology in Song and Yuan China (2011, HKU Press) and has published articles on other aspects of the presentation of labor, techniques, and tools in visual culture from the Song to Qing eras. She is presently working on a book-length manuscript with the working title, “The Qing Empire at work: Representing Chinese agrarian labor in the 18th to mid 19th century.”