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A Bourdieusian Take on the Imperial Patronage of Cloisonné in Qing China

Julie Bellemare relates the imperial patronage of cloisonné objects for religious and secular purposes in eighteenth-century China to an increased taste for colorful and dazzling surfaces. She uses the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu and Alfred Gell to unpack the significance of this technical enchantment, and to clarify and complicate questions of taste, class, and ethnic identity in the Chinese production and consumption of cloisonné. Bellemare argues that the non-Chinese origins of the medium made it adaptable to the evolving needs of display and an ideal canvas for imperial decoration.

MLA citation format:
Julie Bellemare
“A Bourdieusian Take on the Imperial Patronage of Cloisonné in Qing China”
Web blog post. Material Religions.30 June 2017. Web. [date of access]

Shrine with an Image of a Bodhisattva, 1736-1795. Shrine: Cloisonné enamel on copper alloy; Image: Copper with semiprecious stones, 25 1/4 x 14 3/8 x 10 5/8 in. (64.1 x 36.5 x 27 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Samuel P. Avery, Jr., 09.520a-b. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum).


The following thought experiment is an attempt to explain the Qing taste for colorful cloisonné objects through the patronage practices of Qing rulers, more specifically the Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1735-1796) emperors, whose embrace of this medium warrants closer examination. It is worth noting that the Qing was a foreign dynasty with its roots in the north of China, and that its rulers considered themselves ethnically different from Han Chinese, identifying instead as Jurchen or Manchu. They conquered most of China by unifying Manchu and Mongol tribes and allying with Northern Chinese, organized into banners of different ranks. I want to explore how these rulers could have utilized cloisonné to differentiate themselves from traditional Han Chinese elites. I will argue that because it was technically difficult to produce, cloisonné was used to demonstrate superiority, while its patterned surfaces indexed the diversity at the heart of the Qing Empire. I will mainly use Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) to clarify and complicate some of these questions of taste, class, and ethnic identity in the production and consumption of cloisonné in eighteenth-century China.

As much as Bourdieu’s detailed examination of class hierarchies and consumptive practices is relevant to these questions, the exercise of applying it to eighteenth-century Chinese society comes with several pitfalls. Importantly, Bourdieu’s project tackled the power dynamics within his own contemporary society, which do not necessarily map onto the social class distinctions of eighteenth-century China. His notion of “habitus” is particularly difficult to address. Bourdieu’s approach takes into account both social and cultural structures as well as individual practices. The former he terms “fields,” networks of relations animated and constrained by systems of power, while the latter he calls “habitus,” unconscious cultural conventions of behavior that reflect individual sensibility and agency. He states that taste is social necessity made second nature, “turned into muscular patterns and bodily automatisms”.[i]

These embodied practices can hardly be extrapolated from texts alone. Ming and Qing writings about taste admittedly fall more securely within the category of “fields,” since people’s practices are difficult to reconstruct accurately within a historical framework. It is not clear whether the prescriptive writings of the literatus and arbiter of taste Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645), for instance, reflected actual practices, or if they enshrined idealized forms of consumption. It is therefore more realistic to address the normative structures of class tastes than to infer people’s actual behaviors and actions from limited or biased historical records. To this end, perhaps Michael Baxandall’s “period eye” is also a useful model for reconstructing ways of seeing and experiencing the material world in Qing China. Baxandall defines the period eye as the mental equipment a person uses to order his or her visual experience; this equipment is culturally relative and determined by the society that influences this experience.[ii] It consists of variables such as the “categories with which he classifies his visual stimuli, the knowledge he will use to supplement what his immediate vision gives him, and the attitude he will adopt to the kind of artificial object seen”.[iii] In short, it hinges on the viewer’s “cognitive style” (mental habits parallel to Bourdieu’s embodied ones) and his or her interpretive frameworks, which align (or not) with those of the artist or maker to produce either appreciation or misunderstanding. Looking at cloisonné, it appears that some members of the literati elite did not appreciate its vibrant colors and dense patterns, interpreting them as a form of gaudiness unsuitable for the austere interiors of their studios. Qing emperors, however, could have seen the complexity of these objects as technological innovations that surpassed all that had been produced in the past. This point will be developed in more detail later.

The Production of Cloisonné 

The public furnishings [altar set] currently at the Temple of Benevolence are not good. Basing yourself on the cloisonné of the Hall of Long Life, make one set, and ensure its size matches that of the supporting table. Respect this imperial order.[iv]

This order for a new set of cloisonné ritual vessels is a typical example of a commission to the Imperial Workshops given under the Yongzheng emperor in the early years of his reign. As opposed to his immediate predecessor and successor, the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors, Yongzheng was not particularly fond of cloisonné, yet there is evidence of his continued patronage of this medium for ritual and religious purposes. In the Qing period, cloisonné objects were used for secular purposes as wine containers or desk decorations, but they were also commissioned in sets for religious altars and sacrificial halls. Although they were mainly used in Buddhist contexts, they were also appropriate for Daoist temples.[v] Known for its colorful and variegated surfaces, cloisonné is a complex technique that requires the collaboration of several specialized craftsmen. The body of a cloisonné piece is first cast in bronze, and metal wire is then welded onto its surface, creating small enclosures (cloisons in French), that are then filled with colored enamels. The piece is fired in a muffle kiln, polished, and gilded. This process requires advanced technical knowledge, division of labor, and access to resources, all of which can only be realized in a highly organized production line.

The technique originated in the Mediterranean basin as early as 1500 BCE, but flourished in the Byzantine Empire between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. It attained a high degree of sophistication in the Islamic world before slowly reaching China during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The earliest source testifying to the presence of cloisonné enamels in China is the Gegu yaolun (The Essential Criteria of Antiquities), written by Cao Zhao in 1388. Of cloisonné, he writes: “The body is made of copper; for the decoration in five colors, molten substances are used, similar to inlay work from the Frankish Lands [Folang]. I have seen incense burners, flower vases, boxes, small bowls, and the like, appropriate for a lady’s chamber but not for the study of a scholar of cool, reticent taste” (Fig. 1).[vi] This bias against the aesthetics of cloisonné continued through the rest of the Ming period (1368-1644). Gao Lian (1573-1620) referred to it as “Muslim ware,” (dashi yao) and ranked it the worst of all kiln wares, while Wen Zhenheng saw it as too ostentatious and vulgar to put next to a painting.[vii] It is interesting that these authors saw cloisonné as feminine, foreign, or just too colorful. Generally speaking, Chinese literati tended to prefer a more subdued aesthetic, epitomized by monochrome ink painting. Color was not rendered literally, but implicit in the gradations of black ink, as Tang-dynasty scholar Zhang Yanyuan noted: “One may be said to have fulfilled one’s aim when the five colors are all present in the management of ink [alone]”.[viii]



Figure 1. Bowl with the Eight Buddhist Treasures, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 16th century, China, cloisonné enamel, H. 5 5/8 in. (14.3 cm); Diam. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward G. Kennedy, 1929, 29.110.88.


While in the Ming dynasty, cloisonné was patronized on a small scale by the imperial court and collected by private individuals,[ix] the Qing period (1644-1911) saw an expansion of the imperial workshops and a tremendous increase in the production of cloisonné wares, which were created in workshops located in Guangdong province, and near Beijing at the Summer Palace (Yuanming yuan), where six more locations for the Enameling Workshop were added in 1741 in order to meet the demands of the imperial court.[x] Cloisonné was held in particularly high esteem by Qing emperors, who ordered large quantities of objects to furnish newly built courts, palaces, and temples. This growth is surprising, considering the aforementioned assessments of cloisonné by literati and tastemakers belonging to the Chinese educated elite.

Taste, Enchantment, and the Imperial Use of Cloisonné

I had started this essay by invoking Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus”—one that he applied in a specific analysis of the tastes of the “bourgeois,” “middle-brow,” and “popular” classes of 1960s and 1970s France, with correlations to relative levels of education, income, upbringing, and occupation. This class division applies remarkably well to late Ming society, which consisted of a powerful educated elite increasingly threatened by a rising merchant class. Both French bourgeois and Ming Chinese literati derived their position from their high level of education and economic power. Bourdieu defines modern, European bourgeois taste as favoring a combination of ease and asceticism, austerity and restraint, all of these seen as manifestations of excellence.[xi] This attitude is clearly present in Wen Zhenheng’s admonitions, as articulated for instance about furniture design: “[For natural tables], use pieces of thick, wide timber…hollow them out and carve them lightly with designs such as cloud scrolls and ruyi heads. They must not be carved with such vulgar patterns as dragons, phoenixes, flowers, and grasses”.[xii] This literati taste for elegance, antiquity and refinement arose simultaneously or in partial reaction to an upwardly mobile merchant class that benefitted tremendously from the increased maritime trade and economic activity during the latter half of the sixteenth century. In response to this class of nouveaux riches who could afford to purchase expensive luxuries, the educated elite began to differentiate themselves by advocating restraint in ornamentation. The lavishly carved tables derided by Wen Zhenheng were, of course, those preferred by rich merchants who favored conspicuous consumption. Just as Bourdieu’s “middle-brow” class, these tastes were often seen by members of the educated elite as an illegitimate acquisition of cultural forms.[xiii] Middle-brow and popular forms of cultural consumption, according to Bourdieu, involve the viewer and offer more direct and immediate sensory satisfaction.[xiv] In Ming China, this taste translated into a preference for lavish materials, saturated colors, richly carved and lustrous surfaces, whereas in 1960s France, it favored agreeable images such as a sunset over the sea.

If Bourdieu’s class distinctions map relatively well onto those of Ming China, they fail to explicate the tastes of a new social class that takes power and ultimately forms the Qing dynasty. This stratum of the population is less educated than the literati elite, but nonetheless assumes political and economic power. Bourdieu acknowledges that other states of power relations can exist, resulting in a different configuration of consumptive patterns.[xv] He directs the reader to the work of Norbert Elias on eighteenth and nineteenth-century Germany, which deals with the opposition between the attitudes of the court and those of the intelligentsia. This provides an intriguing parallel for the study of the relations between the Manchu rulers and the literati during the Qing period. Elias observes the sharp social divisions and lack of mobility between the two classes, arguing that this division fostered a rift in values between the courtly “civilization,” characterized by courtesy, ceremony, and formal conversation, and the educated “culture,” defined as “inwardness, depth of feeling, immersion in books, development of individual personality”.[xvi] He quotes Goethe as an exemplar of the intelligentsia: “The people around me had no idea of scholarship. They were German courtiers, and this class had not the slightest Kultur”.[xvii] Manchus and other northerners were at a similar type of disadvantage, not having the same level of access to—or benefitting from a strong cultural emphasis on—education, as opposed to Han Chinese from the south. In the early years of the Qing dynasty, quotas were implemented to increase representation of Manchus in the palace examinations, the meritocratic system that attributed government positions according to one’s knowledge of the classics, history, and government policy. The system, operating intermittently since the Tang dynasty, favored those who could afford the right education and tutoring, and during the Ming, tended to favor Han elites from the cultural powerhouse of the Jiangnan region in south China. In order to give his bannermen a chance to compete, the first Qing emperor put forth a 40:60 Manchu to Han ratio for the palace examination, which was later replaced by completely separate sets of examinations for Han Chinese and all northern bannermen.[xviii] Even with these advantages in place, after 1655, no Manchu ever finished among the prestigious top three places in the palace examinations until 1883. Manchus possessed political and economic power, but not the same level of cultural and academic capital as the literati elite groups traditionally hailing from the south. They were regarded as culturally inferior to the Han Chinese although overt criticism of this status quo was rare and dangerous. Searching for other forms of legitimacy, Manchu rulers explored appropriating symbolic forms of literati culture such as calligraphy and classical learning to finding new sources on which to model their artistic taste.

Even if alternative models might be more closely related to the social structure of Qing China, some of Bourdieu’s key insights are still useful for understanding imperial taste. For Bourdieu, taste is defined relationally. Consumers choose certain cultural goods over others in order to either identify with or defy the dominant aesthetic. He argues that “Goods are converted into distinctive signs, which may be signs of distinction but also of vulgarity, as soon as they are perceived relationally… a class is defined as much by its ‘being-perceived’ as by its ‘being’, by its consumption—which need not be conspicuous in order to be symbolic—as much as by its position in the relations of production”.[ixx] The Manchu rulers, as a new social class superimposing themselves on top of the existing Chinese social structure, had to find a way to simultaneously inscribe themselves within the larger continuity of Chinese aesthetics in order to gain legitimacy as rulers of China, but also distinguish themselves from these same elites in order to assert their dominance and superiority. They achieved this in part by choosing to consume cultural goods endowed with more flamboyant visual qualities, and reorganized workshop production to suit the demands of their tastes. In doing so, they reframed the perception of cloisonné and other colorful forms of material culture from a vulgar to an acceptable, or even desirable, form of display. It is also important to take into consideration the fact that the Manchu rulers were the representatives of a diverse group of northerners that also included Mongols and northern Chinese. Through diplomatic exchange and conquest, Qing emperors also incorporated Tibetan kingdoms as well as western Turkic and Muslim territories. This diversity was visually translated into several decorative endeavors, such as the construction of palaces at Rehe, and at the Summer Palace in Beijing (where enameling workshops were conveniently located). These architectural projects recreated on a smaller scale the lands conquered by the Qing emperors within large imperial parks, as microcosms of the empire.[xx] The act of naming palaces according to famous sites from China or Tibet, for instance, laid claim to the far reaches of the empire and promoted an incorporation of diversity into a single realm. What ensued in the decorative schemes of these new palaces was not a single coherent style, but an amalgam that suited the purposes of a diverse dynasty.[xxi]

The impetus to create integrated interiors came with the Yongzheng emperor, and was brought to an extravagant level by the Qianlong emperor, who was more attracted to exotic themes from the outside world. Eclectic, ambitious, and “baroque”, the Qianlong style of cloisonné was a stark departure from most pieces produced during the Ming period. Cloisonné was an important part of the decorative schemes of the newly built palaces. As a hybrid technique that was understood simultaneously as Western, Muslim, and Chinese, it encapsulated the unifying aspirations of the Qing dynasty. This is also seen in the patterns and forms of Qing cloisonné objects, which drew inspiration from a wide array of cultural and geographical sources. Some shapes directly reference ancient Chinese metalwork, while others borrow patterns and iconographies from Himalayan Buddhism and even Italian architecture. This is represented quite strikingly in a large shrine with an image of a bodhisattva (in Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners or deities who delay their own enlightenment in order to help others achieve it), now in the Brooklyn Museum (Fig. 2). While the dragons coiling around the posts and the stylized floral decoration are Chinese, the central figure is modeled in a revival of the Pala style, often seen as a classic mode of Indian Buddhist sculpture, and the shrine’s four posts and canopy are clearly based on the baldachin of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, a sculpted bronze canopy covering the high altar and marking the location of the tomb of St Peter, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini a century earlier (Fig. 3). This piece evinces the potential of the medium of cloisonné to take on any shape or form. Because of its non-Chinese origins, it is not constricted by centuries of normative practices, and remains adaptable to the evolving needs of display. Cloisonné is from nowhere and everywhere at the same time, which makes it an ideal canvas for imperial decoration.


Figure 2 (above) Shrine with an Image of a Bodhisattva, Qianlong period (1736-1795). Shrine: Cloisonné enamel on copper alloy; Image: Copper with semiprecious stones, 25 1/4 x 14 3/8 x 10 5/8 in. (64.1 x 36.5 x 27 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Samuel P. Avery, Jr., 09.520a-b. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum).

Figure 3 (below) Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baldachin of St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1623-34.


In addition to this semiotic malleability, Qing cloisonné exhibits technical mastery. As mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, the production process requires advanced technical expertise and access to specific materials of a high quality. The result is meant to dazzle the eye with intricate motifs, strong color contrasts, and golden highlights. In this sense, it operates on a psychological and perceptual level, achieving its effect, in the words of Alfred Gell, “via the enchantment cast by its technical means, the manner of its coming into being”.[xxii] No one looks at cloisonné and thinks, “I could make this.” The technical power to make this kind of object is beyond any viewer’s individual capacity, and becomes symbolic of the power of the emperor, enhancing his authority.[xxiii] But beyond visual enchantment, what do the dazzling displays of cloisonné achieve in the minds of their viewers? Perhaps, in addition to indexing the ruler’s general prestige and wealth, they might have specific social implications as well.

A lot of cloisonné objects were displayed in palace halls, where they would be viewed not only by courtiers but also by visiting dignitaries from different parts of the empire as well as from Europe. As part of larger decorative schemes with visually stunning patterns and surfaces, perhaps they also functioned as reminders of the complexity and diversity of the realm, and the power of the emperor to unify it, both territorially and on the surface of his objects. Upon seeing these hybrid objects, perhaps dignitaries felt both a sense of familiarity with the shapes and designs they identified with, while still being dazzled and intimidated by the foreign ones. If this were the case, the Qing style of cloisonné functioned as a simultaneously inclusive and distancing mechanism, one that could invite close relations with dignitaries of any origin, while upholding the superiority of the emperor.

Although the imperial taste of Qing-dynasty emperors bears similarities to Bourdieu’s middle-brow aesthetic by virtue of appealing to the viewer and providing sensory stimulation, it is far more than an aesthetic of agreeableness. The Qing mixture of technological, cultural, and political power departs from Bourdieu’s framework entirely, and functions to promote the Qing ruler as a universal emperor. By fully embracing and adapting this ‘foreign’ medium to their needs, the Manchu elites found a way to differentiate themselves from the Chinese literati class. The use of different motifs and shapes of cloisonné made it familiar to a wide range of viewers, while its level of intricacy showed the Qing dynasty’s unsurpassed technical superiority, impressing on viewers the desire of the emperor to foster harmonious relations across a highly diverse empire.




  • [i] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 474.
  • [ii] Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 40.
  • [iii] Idem.
  • [iv] Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [Archives of the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department], Vol. 1 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2005), 752. My translation.
  • [v] Pengliang Lu, “Beyond the Women’s Quarters: Meaning and Function of Cloisonné in the Ming and Qing Dynasties,” in Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, (New York, New Haven, London: Bard Graduate Center and Yale University Press, 2011), 70.
  • [vi] Cao Zhao, translated by Sir Percival David and Béatrice Quette, from Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (New York, New Haven: Bard Graduate Center, Yale University Press, 2011), 7. The use of the term “five colors” (wucai) requires some explanation. In a strict sense, it refers to a porcelain decoration technique in which colored enamels are applied over a plain background, but it also has cosmological ramifications, whereby each color is associated to a cardinal direction. The term may therefore refer not just to a set of colors, but to every possible color, just as in English the ‘four corners of the earth’ is used to mean ‘the whole world.’ “Five colors” (wucai) could therefore also be translated as ‘all colors,’ ‘multicolored,’ or ‘polychrome.’
  • [vii] Gao Lian, Zunsheng bajian, (Beijing: Shumu wenxian chubanshe, 1988), yuan 14; Wen Zhenheng, Zhangwu zhi, (Hong Kong: Dizhi wenhua chuban youxian gongsi, 2002), yuan 5.
  • [viii] Zhang Yanyuan. “Li dai ming hua zhi (ca. 847),” in Early Chinese Texts on Painting, edited by Susan Bush, Hsio-yen Shih, and Hsüeh-yen Shih, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985), 62.
  • [ix] Sun Chengze (1592-1676), a Beijing-based statesman and art collector, notes in a memoir that cloisonné pieces from the Jingtai reign (1449-57), seen as the zenith of quality, fetched the highest prices at the local antique market, indicating that antique cloisonné was valued in certain contexts outside the court. Pengliang Lu, “Beyond the Women’s Quarters,” 64. For Ming court patronage of cloisonné, see Zhang Rong, “Cloisonné for the Imperial Courts,” in Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, (New York, New Haven, London: Bard Graduate Center and Yale University Press, 2011), 151–70.
  • [x] Zhang Rong, “Cloisonné for the Imperial Courts,” 159.
  • [xi] Pierre Bourdieu, Ibid., 176.
  • [xii] Wen Zhenheng, from Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things, (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 43.
  • [xiii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, 91.
  • [xiv] Pierre Bourdieu, Ibid., 34.
  • [xv] Pierre Bourdieu, Ibid., 73.
  • [xvi] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, (New York: Urizen Books, 1978), 16.
  • [xvii] Norbert Elias, Ibid., 21.
  • [xviii] Benjamin A. Elman, “The Social Roles of Literati in Early to Mid-Ch’ing,” in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 9, Part 1: The Ch’ing Empire to 1800, edited by Willard J. Peterson, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 381-82.
  • [xix] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, 483.
  • [xx] Cary Y. Liu, “Archive of Power: The Qing Dynasty Imperial Garden-Palace at Rehe,” Guoli Taiwan daxue meishushi yanjiu jikan [Taida Journal of Art History] 28 (2010): 43–66.
  • [xxi] Jonathan Hay, Sensuous Surfaces, (Honolulu, HI; London: University of Hawaiʻi Press : Reaktion Books, 2010), 37.
  • [xxii] Alfred Gell, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” in Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics, edited by Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton, (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1992), 47.
  • [xxiii] Alfred Gell, Ibid., 52.

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