MA History of Art

Beijing and Beyond: Art and Empire in Early Modern China

Detail of ‘Ten Thousand Countries Come to Court’, (Wanguo laichao tu), Qianlong period, Qing artist, The Palace Museum, Beijing, China. i Detail of ‘Ten Thousand Countries Come to Court’, (Wanguo laichao tu), Qianlong period, Qing artist, The Palace Museum, Beijing, China.

As the imperial capital of the Ming and Qing dynasties, early modern Beijing was a thriving metropolis and truly global city. The largest city in the world throughout much of the early modern period, the human, artistic, and cultural currents that circulated within its walls extended throughout the empire, into East and Southeast Asia, and across Eurasia.

This MA Special Option explores the production and circulation of art within and beyond the early modern cosmopolitan centres of High Ming and especially Qing Beijing (ca. 1600–1800+). Contrary to reputation, the courts and societies of early modern China were deeply engaged with popular, elite, and global cultures of their periods. People, objects, and ideas from throughout the empire and around the world passed through Beijing, engendering a visual and material culture in mutually productive dialogue with a rich variety of intellectual and artistic sources. Through an exploration of images, objects, and spaces, this course considers how the court conceived, created, and deployed works of art as vehicles for ideological and cultural expression; the transcultural encounters both within and beyond the empire’s borders that contributed to these processes, including those with the pan-Asian Islamic and European worlds; and the circulation and consumption of objects among the court’s diverse audiences.

The course takes full advantage of the rich collections of London, offering first-hand study from original works of art and architecture in the UK and, where possible, overseas, as well as extensive primary and secondary sources, and published works of art. Particular attention is given to the visual culture of the court in painting and print, and to its self-presentation through representation and spectacle; to the roles of diplomatic exchange, trade, and elite and popular cultures in histories of court art; to understandings of gender, ethnicity, and the exotic during the period; and to the historical and historiographic questions raised by shifting understandings of genre, medium, style, and artistic technology across the early modern world.

Shifting away from Chinese art’s traditional emphasis on Southern culture and discourses, Beijing and Beyond recentres the period and its artistic production within emerging discussions of connected histories of art. Taking the artistic activities and cultural currents of the court and capital as its points of origin, Beijing and Beyond explores overlapping imperial, regional, and global networks of interchange as it presents an alternative perspective on early modern art in China.

The course is furthermore integrated into a larger interest in the analytical methods that explore Trans-asias and early modern urbanity. As part of the coursework, students join the Strolling Isfahan cohort to produce publishable work for Things That Talk.

Please note: site visits in the UK and further afield are subject to Covid-19 guidelines.

Course leader: Dr Stephen Whiteman

In the event that a course leader is on sabbatical, takes up a fellowship, or otherwise is not able to teach the course, they will be replaced by another experienced course leader either for a semester or, in some cases, the academic year.

Please note: whilst many Special Options will include site visits within the UK and further afield, these are subject to confirmation.


Special Options 2024/25

You can either make a general application for the MA, or you may indicate your preferred Special Option(s). Many applicants choose to make a general application for the MA in History of Art at the Courtauld. If you do this we will match your application to a Special Option that matches your interests and has space. Alternatively you may indicate your preference for up to three Special Options, tailoring personal statements in relation to each Special Option.

Our Special Options change from year to year as we seek to refresh and expand our offer.

We aim to confirm these at least twelve months in advance, and will always contact applicants immediately in rare instances where changes have to be made. In 2024/5 we are especially pleased to include new or returning Special Options, including Art and Empire in the Indian Ocean World, c.1800–1900, Architectural Legacies of Empire at Home and Abroad, c.1620- c.1920, Violent Materials: Art and War in the Early Modern World, ca. 1500–1800, Court and Commerce: Arts of Islam and the Great Mongol State, 1206-1368 and The Surrealist Century: Mediums, Madness, Magic and the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924).