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Julie Bellemare at the Forbidden City, Beijing, January 2019
Bowl with peacock in falangcai painted enamels, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng reign (1723-35) National Palace Museum, 故瓷013983. Photograph courtesy of NPM Open Data.
Mémoire du commerce de la Chine, f.442v: List of products exported from China to Japan, ca.1700, including polychrome enamels. BnF (Lorraine 456). Photograph by Julie Bellemare.
Inventory of precious metals leaving the imperial storehouses during the month of April 1726. National Palace Museum Library No.402021280.

I recently completed a four-month dissertation research trip in France, Taiwan, and China. My doctoral dissertation, titled “‘A New Creation of this Dynasty’: Color Technologies and Imperial Taste in Qing China, 1700-1735,” focuses on the material connections between glass, enamel, and glaze colors in China at the turn of the eighteenth century. Approaching this topic through the frameworks of global material culture, color studies, and materials science, it aims to answer how, and why, an imperially-sponsored effort to create a greater range of colors occurred at this historical juncture. While previous studies have tended to emphasize the role of European missionaries in the expansion of colorants and enameling techniques in China, scientific analyses have shown that these innovations may have also derived from related mediums through workshop interactions. To further explore this possibility, I began a detailed examination of the imperial workshop archives, leading to deeper insights into workshop organization, color vocabulary, materials, colorants, and patterns of production for court consumption. After exhausting most of the published archival materials accessible from New York, I was able to carry out the second phase of my research abroad thanks to Bard Graduate Center’s Dissertation Research Award and a grant from the China and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies.

In September 2018, I traveled to Paris to conduct research at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Archives nationales, and Archives jésuites de la province de France. Because they contain records of French naval and foreign affairs, as well as travel accounts and letters of missionaries sent abroad, these archives provided significant sources of evidence for the types of European objects brought to China to be traded or gifted. I was able to see firsthand the letters and travel accounts of missionaries, traders, and ship captains who sojourned or established themselves in China in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and also visit collections of French enamels in Paris and Limoges to determine if they might have served as models for a limited range of Chinese objects.

Next on my itinerary was Taipei, where I combed through volumes and databases from the National Palace Museum Library and Academia Sinica, gathering over 200 palace memorials and approximately forty other primary materials relevant to my research. These sources will inform the central chapters of my dissertation by providing textual evidence for the early development—and subsequent deployment—of new colors in Qing decorative arts. I was able to uncover significant texts that were either unpublished or had previously never been examined from this angle. For instance, an exhaustive Yongzheng-period (1723-35) list of raw materials, complete with their cost and taxation rate, will prove not only useful for identifying the specific colorants used at the time, but can also serve as a clear basis on which to assess scales of value for precious objects at the Qing court.

The third and final leg of my research trip took me to Beijing, where I was granted access to the China First Historical Archives, located within the walls of the Forbidden City, and to the archival divisions of the National Library of China. I found remarkable accounts of tribute of raw materials and colorants to the court, as well as gifts of polychrome objects bestowed by the emperor onto high officials. Memorials by workshop supervisors also shed light on their role as designers, and their awareness of the distinctiveness of the Qing dynasty in relation to its forerunners. While I was also confronted with restricted access to certain documents, overall these repositories have yielded many more sources than I expected to find. As I emerge from months of travel I am confident that the materials collected will provide plenty of fuel for my dissertation as well as future research projects.

—Julie Bellemare, PhD candidate