Pictures of Cotton: Labor, the Economy, and the Imperial Production of Technological Knowledge in 18th-century China.

Fellowship : September 2022 to june 2023

Discipline(s) : Art History

Pays : USA


Le séminaire de résidence de Roslyn Hammers aura lieu le lundi 28 novembre 2022 :

Revising Labor in the Pictures of Cotton: Art and Science in Eighteenth-Century Qing China

This seminar explores the history of knowledge on cotton in the visual culture of China with a special emphasis on the Pictures of Cotton (Mian Hua Tu 棉花圖). This work of art constitutes a suite of sixteen images that delineate steps of labor necessary to produce cotton fabric. Each scene is accompanied by an explanation and two poems. The Pictures of Cotton date to 1765 during the Qing dynasty when Manchus or peoples from beyond the northern borders ruled. They are unusual in that they are a product of collaboration between Governor-General Fang Guancheng (1696/9–1768) and the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-1796). Typically historians and historians of science and technology regard the Pictures of Cotton as an engagement with classical political theories in which the emperor and his officials are to “encourage agriculture” (quan nong 勸農) and to “know the hardships of farm work” (zhi jia se zhi jian nan 知稼穡之艱難). Undoubtedly the paintings are greatly informed by such ideals; they also provide scientific information about best practices for the production of cotton. In this presentation, however, the import of the imagery and poetry, integral components of the Pictures of Cotton, is re-evaluated. In Qing-dynasty China, an era contemporaneous with the European Enlightenment, the construction of knowledge was not as detached from art and poetry as modern theories of science may advance. The mode of image making used in the Pictures of Cotton draws upon revered traditions in which the Qing emperors were highly invested. The appearance of the Pictures of Cotton functioned in part to remind contemporaneous viewers about the grand agricultural heritage of China and the authoritative vision of Manchu governance. Moreover, the poems seek to lay claims to the valuation of labor and the dignity of the farming families. Through a consideration of the visual culture of the Qing court, this seminar seeks to reclaim some of the complexities of envisioning cotton. 

Suggestions de la semaine :

Film : The Rice Bomber (Bai mi zha dan ke) de Cho li  (2014, Taïwan)


Lecture : The Imperial Patronage of Labor Genre Paintings in Eighteenth-Century China, Roslyn Lee Hammers (2021)


Image :  

Research project: Pictures of Cotton: Labor, the Economy, and the Imperial Production of Technological Knowledge in 18th-century China.

This research project focuses on the pictorial reprensentation of cotton production in China during the 18th century. It concentrates on the Pictures of Cotton, a type of imagery that depicts the sequential steps of labor involved in the growing, harvesting, and the weavering of cotton. The study considers the motivations for the novel formation of this pictorial genre that was sponsored by Fang Guancheng (1696 / 1698 - 1768), a prominent beaureaucrat. Fang advocated for the role of cotton in the economy as he supplied explanatory texts for each of the steps, clarifying the procedures for presentation to the emperor. Classical Chinese theories of governance dictacte that the emperor needs to evince concern for the wellbeing of farming families. The Pictures of Cotton can be regarded as a means to advance displays of imperial benevolence while articulating innovations in technological knowledge. Both text and imagery work to incorporate claims to the classical heritage of China while drawing upon aspects of European empiricism. The Pictures of Cotton provide an alternative example of technological knowledge inspired by direct observation of laborers at work.


Roslyn Lee Hammers is an Associate Professor in the Art History Department of the University of Hong Kong. She earned her Ph.D in art history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Before taking on her position at the University of Hong Kong in 2006 she taught art history and Asian studies at Whitman College, Washington. She also was an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge University, UK.
Roslyn conducts research on the history of Chinese art and art theory. Her main interest is in the representations of labor and technologically informed imagery. She applies an interdisciplinary approach to her studies, incorporating the history of science and technology, literary studies, economics history, and history. Through her research she aims to foster greater understanding of the roles of artistic production to shape discussions on social and cultural issues both past and present.


HAMMERS, Roslyn Lee. The Imperial Patronage of Labor Genre Painting in Eighteenth-Century China, Art History & Visual Studies series, Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2021. 321 p.

HAMMERS, Roslyn Lee. "The Peony in Painting and Verse in China from the Eight to the Thirteenth Centuries", in David Michener and Robert Grese, eds., Passion for Peonies: Celebrating the Culture and Conservation of Nichols Arboretum’s Beloved Flower, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020: 133-142.

HAMMERS, Roslyn Lee. "Agriculture by Royal Example: Eighteenth-century Representations of the Emperor at Work in China and in France", in Proceedings of the 34th World Congress of the History of Art, Beijing, vol. 2, Shanghai: Commercial Press, 2020: 643-654.

HAMMERS, Roslyn Lee. "Khubilai Khan Hunting: Tribute to the Great Khan", Artibus Asiae, 75 (2015): 5-44.

HAMMERS, Roslyn Lee. Pictures of Tilling and Weaving: Art, Labor, and Technology in Song and Yuan China, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011. 304 p.