Domesticating the Global and Materializing the Unknown: A Study of the Album of Beasts at the Qianlong Court

  • Yu-chih Lai
Part of the Transcultural Research – Heidelberg Studies on Asia and Europe in a Global Context book series (TRANSCULT)


In 1750, three projects of image-compilation were embarked upon by the court; namely, Official Tributes (Zhigong tu圖), Album of Birds (Niao pu 鳥譜), and Album of Beasts (Shou pu 獸譜). All were initiated around the same time (1750) and finished around the same time (1761), and they also share the same format and size. In contrast to the relatively well-studied Official Tributes and Album of Birds, the Album of Beasts (Shou pu 獸譜), a six-volume work containing 183 images, preserved in the Beijing Palace Museum, is almost unknown to the field. Significantly, this Album of Beasts contains a considerable amount of rewritten styles, elements, and even images from the natural history writings of Renaissance Europe, especially Renaissance Europe’s depictions about the New World.

Why were these European images of animals on a global scale incorporated into the Album of Beasts? What was the purpose and agenda behind producing this Album of Beasts, which took the Court Painting Academy and related imperial workshops a total of eleven years to accomplish? And what are the roles that the European images of animals play in shaping the album? This paper focuses both on how images and knowledge of natural history from Renaissance Europe were appropriated in the Album of Beasts, and on analyzing the implementation of new techniques, styles, and even application of colors, to explore how the original woodblock prints of European images were materialized and domesticated alongside other images of Chinese origins. This paper seeks to demonstrate how the material aspects of the global circulation of images helped Emperor Qianlong to construct his vision of the “World” and “Empire,” in dialogue with the traditional rhetorics of Chinese politics.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yu-chih Lai
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Modern History, Academia SinicaTaipeiTaiwan

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