The Qianlong Emperor and a Yellow Teacup

7 minute read

If you climb up the stairs towards the Maudslay Hall in the museum, bear right, and find your way past the Chinese and the Japanese cases, you will find a case full of Tibetan objects. There is a copper tea dispenser figured with fish motifs, there is a great wooden table decorated with phoenix and flowers. There is a little silver teacup cover with a red ball at the top, and there is a large block of tea. There’s everything necessary for a tea party. In amongst these objects, and most vital for a tea party, there is a small cup that we might overlook at first, and which might strike us first as more Chinese than it is Tibetan

Figures 1 and 2. A china tea cup with yellow background and blue design depicting a dragon. Tibet. Donated by Lady Mabel Frances Holmwood. MAA 1942.20.1.

It is ceramic, it is yellow, and there is a dragon painted on it. [1] It is everything you might expect from a teacup. That kind of dragon we always associate with China. We might have heard that yellow was the colour of the Emperor, and perhaps that there were even laws, strict prohibitions that did not allow ordinary people to wear that colour when these cups were made. Suddenly the teacup seems a little more interesting; there is a time and place in which it would have been very outrageous, perhaps even dangerous, for you to drink from that cup in public.  

The inscription on the bottom of the cup reads: made in the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Qianlong 乾隆帝 (1735–1796). Qianlong was Emperor from 1711 to 1799. He was almost the longest serving monarch of any Chinese dynasty, [2] and only 12 years from being the longest serving ruler across human history (Louis XIV of France ruled for 72 years and 110 days). Qianlong was famous as a great patron of the arts, as China’s most voracious art collector, who conglomerated many private collections into the imperial collection. He is perhaps most famous for having composed some 43,000 poems, and still not being much of a poet. He was fond of adding his own poetic inscriptions to his treasures, and now collectors and art historians joke that on these lovely old paintings one finds great poetry added by a series of collectors (it was the practice to do so), and then always a rather mediocre poem from Emperor Qianlong. But one does wonder whether he was quite as bad as his reputation, and whether some of his poems from that vast number aren’t quite as bad as the others. Take the poem below, for example: 



Below the pavilion the drums resound with a tinkling sound,  

The bride sits coy in her sedan chair.  

Today in the bridal chamber there are flowers and candles for the night, jade hairpin pierces crab-apple flower and it grows red. 

One wouldn’t say it was terrible, perhaps a bit predictable. But nobody would say he wasn’t industrious. Alongside his collections of the arts, and his besmirchment of various paintings with poetry of questionable quality, Qianlong ordered the compilation of the largest collection of poetry, philosophy, and history seen in China. It is still used by scholars of these subjects today, and was published in 36,000 volumes, employing around 15,000 copyists. He also had a good number of buildings extended in dramatic fashion, for example, the Summer Palace at Chengde and the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was tragically destroyed and looted by British and French armies during the second opium war.  

But for someone so concerned with the preservation and collection of Chinese culture, and for someone so concerned to present himself as a great practitioner of Chinese arts, Qianlong had a surprisingly complicated identity.  

Returning to the bowl, that yellow has been the Chinese imperial colour for many years. The dragon has five fingers, which along with the colour yellow indicates that no prince or nobles would be allowed to use the cup. This combination of blue dragon and yellow background was adopted as the flag of the Qing Dynasty in 1862. Before that this same emblem had been used to identify the Qing Emperor’s forces under the Eight-banner system (a means of organising households and armies). 

Two flags with dragon designs, representing different cultures, fluttering in the wind.

Figures 3 and 4. Left – The flag of the Qing Dynasty. Right – The Manchu Bordered Yellow Banner of the Eightbanner system. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

These banners, now so closely associated with China generally, were first employed by Nurhaci ᠨᡠᡵᡤᠠᠴᡳ (or Qing Taizu 清太祖 [1559–1626]), khan of the Jurchens, who unified the Jurchen tribes and invaded the Ming Dynasty from the North-East. Though the Qing Dynasty began as an invading force, which initially spoke Manchu, a tungusic language, they were concerned from the outset to assimilate in order to increase their legitimacy. Nurhaci was Qianlong’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was a Manchu, born in Manchuria, and established a Dynasty called the Later Jin to the Northeast of the Ming Dynasty in China, before eventually invading the Ming and conquering Liaoyang and Shenyang in the north-east of the Ming.  

When he died, his son, Hong Taiji 皇太極, founded the Qing, which at that time comprised the area taken by his father. Hong Taiji expanded the territory into Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, and invaded Joseon Korea, having them cut off relations to the Ming and begin to pay tribute to the Qing. When he died suddenly, he was replaced by the Shunzhi Emperor 順治帝, who conquered the Ming Dynasty, which by then had been mortally weakened by droughts, famines, rebellions, and consequent fiscal disasters.  

From the outset, the Qing were multilingual. They encouraged the study of Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uyghur (reflecting the languages spoken within their Empire). Official documents were written in Mandarin, Manchu, and Mongolian. Commemorative monuments were usually inscribed with these three languages as well as Tibetan. The Qing were also culturally syncretic. As we have seen, Qianlong took great pains to collect, patronise, and understand Chinese art. His grandfather, Kangxi, ordered the collation of the largest dictionary of Chinese characters to date, and also had the complete Tang poetry collated, regarded now as the peak of Chinese poetry. On the other hand, Qianlong also had Manchu language genealogies compiled, alongside histories and ritual handbooks. He ordered the Shamanic Code, based on the Manchu Imperial rites, to be completed in secret. And, of course, there was the more immediately visible symbol of the queue haircut, the braided ponytail and the shaven head. This was a Manchu haircut, and it became a symbol of submission to the new rulers.  

The extent to which Manchu Emperors ‘sinicised’ (became Chinese) has become very controversial in scholarship in recent years. Some scholars point to the Emperors’ voracious collection and patronage of Chinese arts as proof of their ‘sinicisation’. Some point to the adoption of Chinese language and culture, and some to the fact that the Qing were able to be successful rulers of China from 1644 until 1911 as evidence of their firm absorption into the orbit of Chinese culture. They might also point out to practices of intermarriage, to the fact that in the dynasty fewer than a million Manchus ruled over hundreds of million ‘Han’ Chinese people. And they might of course point out that the Qing Dynasty was explicitly established as the successor to the Ming. Others counter with moments in Qing history in which rulers became very concerned about preserving their former Manchu cultural practices, and to their later efforts to define different ethnicities within the empire. And they might also point to the different guises that the Qing Emperors adopted when facing different areas within their empire. 

Qianlong was famous for being able to present himself in different manners. As patron of the arts, as we have seen, he presented himself much like an ideal Confucian gentleman. But it is also now well known that to his Mongolian and Tibetan subjects he used the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, famously commissioning a thangka (a type of sacred painting), which showed him as Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Part of his renovation of the Imperial Summer Palace at Chengde was a replica of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. So, while it has been clear that these early Qing rulers played the role of the Son of Heaven, the sacred ruler of the Chinese sovereign, which tied them into a lineage stretching back to the 11th century B.C.E., they adopted other faces when appealing to other parts of their empire. 

A Tibetan thankga showing the many forms of Emperor Qianlong.

Figure 5. Tibetan thangka of the Qianlong Emperor as Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Source: The Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

So, returning finally once more to the yellow cup and the dragon. In a sense, this is one of the most timeless images within Chinese iconography. Qianlong is one of the greatest historical patrons of Chinese art, literature, and culture recorded in history. This is but a tiny example of the arts that flourished under him and other Qing emperors. But in another sense, in the context in which the teacup was made, it formed part of a rich metaphorical landscape by which the Qing were consolidating their rule over a vast land mass, shaping their identity to appeal to its many different facets. The cup represents a synthesis of culture, a cooptation of culture, and is part of the material remnants of Qing power


[1] We call it a dragon, but of course we should mention that dragons do not exist, and that this creature existed, with the name 龍 (long) in text and image, in a different place to texts and images of ‘dragons’, until the second word was eventually used to translate the former. In a sense, they are different imaginary animals, brought together by a simple act of translationLongon the whole, are not unfriendly beasts, they don’t steal princesses, they are associated with water, they dwell in rivers and lakes, and they are kings of the scaly things. They cannot breathe fire. ‘Dragon’ is a good translation for them, based on a visual similarity, but these distinctions ought not to be forgotten. Just as the ‘Chinese lion’, or  獅子 (shizi) existed long before anyone in China could have ever seen a real lion, and just as how the ‘phoenix’ and the ‘unicorn’ were also linked to the 鳳凰 (fenghuang) bird and the 麒麟 (qilin) by later acts of translation, after existing for a long time before their middle eastern anEuropean counterparts. 

[2] He held power for the longest, he abdicated in a gesture of filial piety in order not to reign for longer than his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor. 


  1. Bernadette M says:

    Is it just me or Qianlong made a pun about the bride being deflowered on her wedding night 😅🫣🫣🫣

    Very beautiful teacup 🍵

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