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Berlin battle copper - The 34 printing plates of the Emperors of China

Research into the history, creation process and provenance of 34 copper printing plates from the holdings of the Ethnologische Museum of Berlin. The research is being undertaken as part of the Qianlong Engravings project by the School of Culture & Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, coordinated by Professor Nicholas Pearce.

Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1795), who considerably expanded the borders of the Chinese empire in ten campaigns, was aware of the political-representative dimension of pictorial representations. Already during his first major campaign against rebels in Dzungarei (the western part of Mongolia) and East Turkestan, he ordered his military commanders to make sketches of the battles. These were later painted as 16 monumental battle paintings (4 x 8 metres) and presented in the "Hall of Purple Splendor". With the help of the printing technique of copper plates, which was relatively new for China at the time, it was then possible to produce more prints in a reduced format in a quick and easy way, which enabled the emperor to better disseminate his successful military expansions on a large scale.

The originals for the copperplate engravings were produced by Jesuit missionaries. These works are evidence of early European-Chinese cultural transfer long before China opened up to the West. Through copper engravings like these, on the one hand the European courts learned of China's expansion in the late 18th century, and on the other hand, pictorial reproduction techniques developed in Europe penetrated as far as China. The plates are thus a testimony to the history of missions in China, the campaigns and politics of Chinese emperors, transnational cultural and craft interconnections and ultimately the copperplate engraving craft itself.

A total of 88 such plates existed in China, produced during the reigns of Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1795), Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820) and Emperor Daoguang (1820-1850). They depicted scenes from the important Chinese campaigns between 1755-1829. Today, only 37 plates are known worldwide, 34 of them in the Ethnologische Museum Berlin.

The aim of the project and the resulting publication is a comprehensive research of all the most important facts about the copper printing plates. The provenance history of the copperplates will be researched, the history of copperplate engraving in China will be presented and a short introduction to Emperor Qianlong and his campaigns will be given, accompanied by map material. Furthermore, the background to the first "Paris series" of plates, the East Turkestan campaign of 1755-1759, will be illuminated, including the commissioning by the emperor. The process of creation will be explained (the division of labour in the workshops, tools used, equipment, printing press, types of paper, etc.) and the differences in Chinese and French techniques will be presented. Furthermore, the motifs on the battle scenes of the 34 plates of the Ethnologische Museum are explained in detail.

Project management: Niklas Leverenz, Henriette Lavaulx-Vrécourt
Project coordinator: Henriette Lavaulx-Vrécourt
Project team members: Pastukhov Alexey Mikhailovich, John Finlay
Project sponsor: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin