Images, Knowledge and Empire: Depicting Cassowaries in the Qing Court
How did Qianlong understand the increasingly globalised world? And what role did visual imagery play in his understanding? This paper tracks the production at the Qianlong court of images and writing describing an exotic bird known as emo. The bird proves to be a cassowary, a creature which fascinated Europe during the Age of Exploration after it was brought back by the first Dutch voyage to Indonesia.
This paper argues, firstly, that Qianlong’s Imperial Inscription for the Picture of Emo Birds is derived from a French anatomical report published by Claude Perrault in 1671-1676. Secondly, by analysing the Qing court’s images of the cassowary, this paper aims to show how Qianlong accessed, selected, and transformed information and images from Europe. Most importantly, the appropriated European information and images contributed to his innovative construction of a universal system of knowledge, helping him to rewrite the traditional narrative of emperorship.
The paper was translated from the Chinese by Philip Hand.