An imported technology
The Chinese were making elaborate glass eye beads with blue, yellow and white designs from the Warring States period (471 BC – 221 BC), probably influenced by Egyptian/Mediterranean beads. These were made by dropping and trailing coloured glass onto the surface of a hot glass core whilst heating with a flame to melt the colours into each other. By the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) Chinese craft workers had learnt how to make opaque glass, usually white, which they cast in moulds, principally to make ritual burial objects as cheaper substitutes for jade. It was not until later that Chinese craftsmen learned to blow glass. Some scholars say it was during the Northern Wei period (AD 386 – 535), others say it was during the Tang dynasty (AD 618 – 906).
During the succeeding dynasties glass remained a minor material, and the finest pieces were those imported along the Silk Route from the Middle East. It was not until the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) that glass attained the status of a high art form under the patronage of the 3 early Qing emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, who employed French and German Jesuit glass-makers who brought with them European glass-making expertise. This altar set was made using a technique called carved overlay glass in which different colours of hot glass are blown together and the decorative effect is achieved by carving back through the top layer using a fast spinning wheel and abrasive sand when the piece is cold.
The Jesuits in China
The first western Christian church in China was built in Beijing by Franciscan missionaries during the rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (AD 1231 – 1368). Throughout the Yuan there were exchanges of envoys between the Emperor’s court and the Pope in Rome. In the following Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), China closed down to outside influences and Christianity declined, but in the later AD 1500s, leading members of the Society of Jesus visited China to try to re-establish the Christian church. Although the last Ming emperor is thought by some to have considered conversion to Christianity, overall the religion was tolerated rather than seen as a real alternative to Buddhism and Daoism. The Jesuits enjoyed their greatest success and influence during the early Qing dynasty, but it was not their religious convictions that most impressed. Rather they were welcomed and employed for the new scientific, technical and artistic knowledge they brought to China. Glass-making was just one amongst many of these desirable skills.
Continuity and adaptation
This altar set consists of vessels and equipment used to make offerings during rituals in honour of the Buddha or the ancestors. It illustrates both the continuity of Chinese artistic tradition and its ability to absorb outside influences and traditions and to use them in uniquely Chinese form across different art forms. The set is clearly identifiable as Buddhist from the scrolling lotus motif, but it is part of a functional and decorative tradition that goes far further back than the arrival of Buddhism in China. The tripod incense-burner in this group is a direct descendant of the ding, a ritual bronze food vessel first seen in the earliest Bronze Age dynasty, the Xia (2100 – 1500 BC), which in turn derived from even earlier Neolithic pottery vessels. Although the technology of making and blowing opaque, vibrantly coloured glass like this was new, the skilful carving of the glass reflects thousands of years of experience in working with jade and other hard stones. The scrolling foliage pattern comes most directly from porcelain and is familiar not just from Qing dynasty ware but from the preceding Ming and Yuan dynasties. Ultimately, however, it can trace some of its origins back along the ancient Silk Road to the decoration on metalwork and glassware imported from the Middle East.
The use of European technology in glass production is only one indication of the growing contact with western powers in the Qing dynasty. The fortunes to be made in the tea and porcelain trade were an irresistible lure to European merchants and to their expansionist colonising governments. The British creation of the opium trade to correct the vast imbalance in favour of the Chinese in the market for tea was the key that opened the door to aggressive European commercial exploitation of China. Ultimately this made a significant contribution to the destabilisation and fall of the Chinese imperial system with the abdication of the last emperor in 1912, almost 2200 years after Qin Shihuang declared himself First Emperor of China.
Information about Chinese glass
Information about the Jesuits in China
Article about the Jesuits in China
First three Qing Emperors
Student guide to a Royal Academy exhibition about the first three Qing Emperors.
An overview of the Qing dynasty
A summary of western influence on the end of the Qing dynasty
BBC History of the world in 100 objects
An ancient jade disc inscribed by the Qianlong emperor; listen to the programme or read the transcript.
BBC History of the world in 100 objects
A painting of a Chinese story with links to the Silk Roads; listen to the programme or read the transcript.
Part 1: Introduction to the Qing dynasty
Part 2: Introduction to the Qing dynasty