Life Trajectories of the Yubi Zhiguolun: From Qing Dynasty to British Exhibitory Space

Si Xiao


Since the later stage of the Qing Dynasty, many imperial objects have been moved to Europe due to a series of Sino-European wars. Perceived as having less material value, Qing imperial books, manuscripts, and scrolls are studied less by contemporary scholars. The Yubi Zhiguolun (‘禦筆知過論’) is one example. The Qianlong Emperor wrote this introspective essay at the age of 71 (1781). Subsequently, it was reproduced as a scroll, carved in jade, presented in paper copies, and shared as a lacquered album. The lacquer album was originally stored in the Yuanmingyuan. It was brought to Europe after the Second Opium War. It is currently preserved in the British Library.

To understand the Zhiguolun’s history, the author uses the concept of the ‘social life of things’. Travelling over time and space, its aesthetic value, social meaning, and emotional efficacy changed, corresponding to changes in its social relations. Here, the framework of the ‘social life of things’ will be mobilized to follow the Zhiguolun’s life trajectories over three phases: an indigenous life in the Qing context; the moment of rupture, as it departs from China; and its subsequent life in Europe.


Cultural biography; Collecting history; Qing dynasty; Art history

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