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Emperor Qianlong 'Battle Copper Prints' Suite [page 3] , 1778– 1785
Copper print, 86.4 x 50.2 cm

The “Battle Copper Prints” are a series of prints from copper engravings dating from the second half of the 18th century. They were commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty, who ruled from 1735 to 1796. They depict his 1772–76 military campaigns, led by General A-Kuei, against the Jinchuan tribes in China’s inner provinces and along the country’s frontiers in the ethnically Tibetan mountain regions of Szechuan. The master illustrations for the engravings were large paintings executed by European missionary artists employed at that time at the court in Beijing. They included the Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), Jean- Denis Attiret (1702–68), and Ignaz Sichelbarth (1708–80), as well as the Augustinian missionary Giovanni Damasceno Sallusti (d. 1781).

The engravings of the first set of 16 paintings were not produced in China but in Paris, at that time home to the best European artisans working in this technique. The Emperor even decreed that the work must emulate the style of the Augsburg engraver Georg Philipp Rugendas (1666–1742), whose work he knew. Small-scale copies of the paintings by Castiglione and his Beijing colleagues were sent to Paris to be transferred onto copperplates, printed, and then sent back to China, along with the plates and prints. Later sets of engravings were executed in Beijing by Chinese apprentices of the Jesuits and differ markedly in style and elaborateness from those of the Paris series. In the history of Chinese art, copper-print engraving remained an episode. Qianlong’s “Battle Copper Prints” were just one of the means the Manchu emperor employed to document his campaigns of military expansion and suppression of regional unrest. They served to glorify his rule and to exert ideological control over Chinese historiography. Seen in their political context, they represent a distinct and exceptional pictorial genre and are telling examples of the self-dramatization of imperial state power.

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