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Playing host to cultural prestige : imperial agency in two Manchu kesi Kares, Jean Louise


Rice Planting and The Hunt, two rare kesi 緙絲 (silk tapestry) in the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (Victoria, Canada), dated to the Kangxi period (1662-1722), are part of a program to reshape Chinese culture in order to confirm the legitimacy of the new Qing regime. This thesis situates Rice Planting and The Hunt within the questions of how and why the Manchu played host to the prestige of kesi to reinforce their narrative of imperial lineage and command of high Chinese culture. As a pair, these works contain cultural contradictions as Rice Planting is set in southern China and refers to Confucian concerns, whereas The Hunt is set in the north and emphasizes Manchu cultural identity. While the kesi are noteworthy as individual works, their pairing extends their meaning and sharply foregrounds the political and societal tensions and aspirations of the time. This thesis argues that aspects of Song dynastic rule (960-1279) provided a model for the Manchu and tempered their approach to governing China and the personal demeanor of the emperor. The kesi are analyzed in relation to established themes and motifs within Chinese art, including the important Song genres of gengzhi tu, pictures of agricultural practices, and fanzu tu, depictions of nomadic tribes. Rice Planting and The Hunt are situated within the framework of relationships that existed between the works and their audiences through patronage and display. Alfred Gell’s theory of art and agency helps to contextualize how the works acted as social agents to communicate the state’s message, supported the authority and legitimacy of the dynasty, and were part of the network of the distributed personhood of the emperor. The kesi are further interrogated with regard to practices of copying, a key aspect of Chinese art, and posits that the transfer of conventions between media is more accurately considered translation. This case study of two Manchu kesi presents a new reading of the form and practice of kesi from the perspective of the study of visual culture in China, and contributes to rethinking traditional approaches to and topics in Chinese art.

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