Unifying Spirit between East and West: Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), Jesuit painter in the Forbidden City.

By Matthew Ehret-Kump

“In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should ensure that when it comes to different civilizations, exchange will replace estrangement, mutual learning will replace clashes, and coexistence will replace a sense of superiority. This will boost mutual understanding, mutual respect and mutual trust among different countries”

-Xi Jinping, Belt and Road Summit, 2017

Now that a new paradigm of trust, mutual respect and cooperation amongst the various cultures of the world has taken on a new empowering life led by Xi Jinping’s vision of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS+, thinking citizens must take the opportunity now to embody the best character of this new renaissance spirit. This means that instead of looking only at what separates the various cultures of the world as distinct from their neighbours, the time has come to commit ourselves to a true universal renaissance whereby each culture finds what is most beautiful, good and truthful in themselves and also in their neighbours. The best discoveries of each culture when cross pollinated in this way will create new and incredible wholes that will always be more than the sum of their parts, and contain greater degrees of potential for creative expression and understanding than each could sustain on their own.

A Renaissance Mind in the Forbidden City

Figure 1 Giuseppe Castiglione (aka: Lang Shi Ning), scientist and court painter to three emperors featured with scientific instruments introduced by the Jesuits into China

For those who are not familiar with the figure of Giuseppe Castiglione (aka: Lang Shi Ning 1688-1766), it is extremely rewarding to explore his works and incredible life as the court painter of three emperors during the Qing Dynasty (Kangxi, Yongzhen and Qianlong) from 1715 to his death in Beijing in 1766.

Although very little today remains of Castiglione’s original letters and writings, his genius can still be strikingly felt and studied. Born in Milan and having been trained in the renowned Botheghe Degli Stanpator art studio by master painters Carlo Cornara, and Andrea Pozzo, Castiglione found himself painting Jesuit churches in Italy [see Appendix] before heading off to China by the age of 19 to fulfill a request by Emperor Kangxi who had requested the services of Jesuit specialists in optical perspective, painting, mechanics, clock making, medicine, enameling and topographical projections.

Figure 2 Castiglione’s style of Xianfa provided a fusion of western and Asian techniques and aesthetics unparalleled to this day.

Castiglione’s style harmonically blended the most powerful discoveries of the west with the east, including linear perspective, chiaroscuro (albeit in an extremely subdued form to satisfy Chinese aesthetic tastes), and refined Chinese pigments and poetic symbolism. Although missionary painters had been trying since the time of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) to introduce western artistic styles into China, painting never found an organic form to take hold until Castiglione[1].

Upon arriving in China, Castiglione was immediately called into the royal court and asked to paint a bird for Emperor Kangxi who was so impressed with the young man’s work that he soon assigned him ten students. Sadly, none of Castiglione’s works from this period have survived (1715-1722).

Figure 3 Gathering of Auspicious Signs (1723) the earliest known work by Castiglione which masterfully blends chiaroscuro and renaissance realism with Chinese aesthetics

His use of oil techniques, renaissance realism with Chinese pigments and styles had never been accomplished in an organic manner before and his style became known as Xianfa or ”line method” [see Appendix]. This technique while beautiful was incredibly challenging as the tempura on silk process was much more unforgiving to mistakes compared to traditional canvases used in Europe. Castiglione not only revolutionized painting but also copperplate engravings, architecture, and even enameling, crafting new techniques and blending styles in eastern and western aesthetics in all domains[2].

The earliest works preserved by Castiglione begin in the reign of Kangxi’s son Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735) and include the 1723 hanging scroll “Gathering of Auspicious Signs” [see figure 3] produced for the new emperor’s inauguration and his famous One Hundred Steeds (1728) [see detail in figure 4 and more in Appendix]. During Emperor Yongzheng’s reign, Castiglione worked intensively on flowers, birds, landscapes and other animals taking each subject to new poetic and technical heights along the way.

Figure 4 detail of One Hundred Steeds features a stunning example of Castiglione’s achievement of three dimensionality. The large (94cmx7.5 meters) silk scroll features three vanishing points to allow for the immersion of the viewer into the rhythm of each part of the painting which they could experience at once while still harmonizing with the whole.

During this process, Castiglione’s works on portraiture also attained incredible realism never before seen in China, despite the challenge of not being permitted the right to employ chiaroscuro (light and shadow) techniques as Chinese aesthetics during the Qing period considered such uses of shadow in portraiture as morally low. Even with this set back, Castiglione was able to convey a deep realism and spirit in the personalities of his figures, more of which will be discussed below.

Following in the footsteps of Leonardo Da Vinci, Castiglione is also credited for producing the first treatise on Perspective in China The Science of Vision (Shixue) in 1729 and designed many murals in the Forbidden City for Emperor Qianlong using the Trompe l’oeil effect (Quaduratura) which was popularized in European cathedrals and theatres [see figure 5]. Castiglione’s collaborator in the publication of Shixue was a brilliant Chinese mathematician, painter and government official named Nian Xiyao who wrote in the book’s preface:

“China has cultivated a great tradition of depicting nature in landscape paintings but neglected the accurate representation of projection and the measurement of buildings and implements. If one desires to depict these objects correctly, one must use the western technique.”

Figure 5 One of the many examples of the “Trompe l’oeil effect” in the Forbidden City painted by Castiglione features the illusion of a much greater space than the physical boundaries of a room provide.

Qianlong Emperor: Castiglione’s Protector and Patron

Figure 6 The Qianlong Emperor painted by Castiglione

The fact that Castiglione was so admired by the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796) gave the arts a degree of protection and popularity at a dangerous time where the effects of the Rites Controversy had crippled much of the cultural harmony between east and west… especially in the sciences. The important, albeit flawed figure of Emperor Qianlong [see figure 6] who was the Qing dynasty’s 4th and longest reigning Emperor, deserves more work, but it suffices to say that the Emperor saw himself walking in his grandfather`s footsteps as an ecumenical unifier of the diverse multi-ethnicities, religions and language groups in China.

His grandfather Kangxi was a scientist-poet-philosopher king of the highest order whom Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz described as a monarch ”who almost succeeds human heights of greatness, being a god- like mortal ruling by a nod of his head, who however is educated to virtue and wisdom, thereby earning the right to rule.”[3]

A Brief look at the Rites Controversy

Figure 8 Kangxi Emperor- painter unknown

While Ricci’s program reached its peak effectiveness under Emperor Kangxi whose 1692 “Edict of Tolerance Towards the Christian Faith[4] clearly gave full support and freedom to missionaries operating in China, his grandson Qianlong had failed to fully grasp the power of Renaissance Christianity or inversely the fraudulent agenda behind Venetian intrigues active in both his court, as well as courts and churches across Europe[5]. These intrigues led to several Popes’ divisive edicts banning all participation of Confucian rites and rituals if any Chinese officials were to become Christian. It was very well understood that the success of Christian missions in China absolutely depended upon respecting the Confucian traditions and Rites of honoring citizens’ ancestors, a practice which was mis-characterized in Europe as being a form of pagan worship. Several papal representatives went so far as to state publicly that all emperors of the past were burning in hell for not having become Christian.

This divisive agenda steered by agents of Venice within Rome as well as Franciscan, Dominican and even several Jesuit missionaries in China beginning in 1640 and leading to the eventual expulsion of missionaries except for those in Beijing in 1724[6]. At this time the Christian faith was labelled an “elicit religion”, and remained so until the mid-19th century. This destructive policy known as the “Rites Controversy” was specifically designed to undermine the ecumenical policy of Ricci and destroy the potential fusion of Confucian and Christian renaissance forces which would have the power to usher in a new universal age of reason[7]. This potential was expressed by the scientist/statesman Gottfried Leibniz who wrote in his journal Novossima Sinica (News from China) in 1697:

“I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent, in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the Earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life. I do not think it an accident that the Russians, whose vast realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of their present ruler [Peter I].”[8]

The damage inflicted upon China by the Rites Controversy and the expulsion of missionaries from various leading scientific positions[9] caused irreparable harm to both east and west alike and resulted in the eventual undermining of both societies by the Venetian-centred financial oligarchy during the 19th century.

Qianlong’s Resistance to the Reactionaries

While Qianlong failed to properly defend the missionaries as his grandfather would have, he did go far to resist his more radical advisors who demanded that the Jesuits be fully banned, and that all Jesuits be expelled from the Imperial Board of Astronomy which they had led since the early days of the Qing Dynasty. Not only did the Emperor defend the Jesuits’ leadership in the Imperial Board of Astronomy, but also promoted Castiglione to 3rd civil official rank and Vice President of the Six Boards[10]. The Emperor also sponsored the fusion of western-eastern mixing of the visual arts and architecture in ways never before seen. The National Palace Museum of Taipei features the following description of Qianlong’s outlook on the arts:

“Qianlong, who perceived detailed, naturalistic painting as a means of propagating the magnificence of the Qing empire was a particularly strong proponent of this mixing of eastern and western artistic styles”

One of Castiglione’s close allies in Beijing was Ferdinand Augustin Hallerstein (1703-1774), who served as a leading diplomat between the east and west as well as the head of the Imperial Board of Astronomy from 1746-1774. Hallerstein’s letters provide insight into the tense atmosphere of the court and the Emperor’s resistance to the anti-Christian pressures being applied by his advisors. Early in the Emperor’s reign all efforts made by the missionaries to speak with the Emperor and plead for leniency had been blocked by the court eunuchs and mandarins. Hallerstein documented how a memorial letter of leniency had been presented by Castiglione to the Emperor in 1736 with the following account:

“The Emperor came as usual to sit by him and watch him paint. The Brother laid down his brush and, suddenly assuming a sad expression, fell to his knees and after uttering a few words Sacred Law drew from his breast our Memorial wrapped in yellow silk. The eunuchs of the presence trembled at this Brother’s sudacity, for he had concealed his purpose from them. However, the Emperor listened to him calmly and said to him in a kindly way: “I have not condemned your religion; I have simply forbidden the people of the Banners to embrace it”. At the same time he signed to the eunuchs to receive the Memorial and turning to Castiglione he added: “I shall read it, do not worry, and go on painting”[11]

It was in this same year that China’s first painting Academy was established which heavily promoted the Xianfa style and Castiglione was made “official court painter”.

Governance and Art

Since Castiglione’s art is very much connected to the governance of China, it is important to briefly look at the political environment shaping his art from several angles.

After putting down Mongol uprisings in 1755-59, and extending the empire’s territories to include Tibet and Central Asia, the Qianlong Emperor did not enslave the Mongol Buddhist or Zunghar (central Asian) peoples but rather worked to build, beautify and protect their temples, mosques and other cultural treasures. In mastering their languages, and even adopting many of their customs as his own, the Emperor, who was fluent in 5 languages, described his approach to cultural diplomacy in the following terms:

“When the rota of Mongols, Muslims and Tibetans come every year to the capital for an audience I use their own languages and do not rely on an interpreter… to express the idea of conquering by kindness.”

In the various portraits which Castiglione was commissioned to paint of the Qianlong Emperor for display in the various regions of China, the Emperor consciously projected himself differently to each constituency. The National Palace Museum of Taipei described the strategy thus:

”To the Tibetans, Qianlong portrayed himself as a re-incarnation of one of the most important bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism, Manjusri; for the Mongols, he took on the role of a Steppe prince who understood their steppe traditions; and to the Han Chinese he portrayed himself as a scholar and a great patron of Chinese Learning and art” [see figure 9]

Figure 9 Three examples of Qianlong Emperor’s portraits as he projected himself to various constituencies in the Chinese kingdom.

Most importantly, however, the Emperor saw himself not as an elite dictator, but as a humble servant. In many of his portraits, Qianlong ensured that Castiglioni portrayed him with his family, studying paintings or practicing calligraphy, or hunting deer rather than formal imperial styles [see figure 10].

Figure 10 Castiglione Portraits of the Qianlong Emperor in His Study (at left-date unknown) and detail of Qianlong and the Royal Children at right (1736-37)

A Return to Castiglione

Considering all of the insanity and controversy raging about him, the Emperor promoted a Confucian policy of political harmony through the advancement of arts and culture. For this reason, Qianlong loved his friend Castiglione more than all other missionaries and advisors, assigning him as the official court painter during his entire reign with Castiglione being the only foreigner ever permitted into the personal bedchambers of the Emperor and his wife in order to paint their portraits[12]. He made Castiglione Administrator of Imperial Parks and commissioned him to design the decorations and western-styled pavilions inside the gardens of the Old Summer Palace in the Yuanmingyuan in 1747. The British made sure to destroy these works during the 2nd Opium war of 1860 and only relics remain today, although artistic reconstructions do exist which feature a glorious image of a classical fusion of eastern and western architecture [see figure 11].

Figure 11 Castiglione’s designs of the Old Summer palace now exist only as destroyed relics (on the left). An artist’s reconstruction of the Palace at the height of its grandeur is featured (on the right)

When Castiglione died on the 17th of July 1766 in Beijing, the Emperor personally wrote his obituary, erected a tomb stone and ensured that he was buried alongside the two greatest Jesuit missionaries who paved the way for a new paradigm of universal renaissance thinking, Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell.

Since the destructive consequences of the Opium Wars, followed by the closing up of China under Mao Tse Tung, the school of Xianfa has fallen idle and largely forgotten. However, now that President Xi Jinping is leading a new era of ecumenicism and cultural exchange under the New Silk Road, the spirit of Castiglione and other great renaissance visionaries can finally be revived and taken to a new level.

Let us close with the wise words of Helga Zepp-Larouche who recently summarized this potential in the following way:

“The Confucian tradition is experiencing a great renaissance in China right now, led by President Xi Jinping, who has made it a point that Confucian teaching must be taught on all levels of society. We could turn back to the European high tradition at will. We could go back to Plato, the Classical Greeks, the Italian Renaissance, the German Classical period. And this is the European culture which is the New Paradigm of the New Silk Road, and if it is revived with a dialogue of culture with it, then at any time we can make it alive and with it a new Renaissance. If each nation and each culture makes alive again their highest cultural achievements, presenting to themselves and other nations their best aspect, it is certain a new renaissance will come—seizing upon the best from universal history, but beyond that, enthusiastically creating new corresponding concepts for mankind achieving maturity.”[13]

Appendix 1:

The Revolution in Copperplate Engraving

The 1754-59 battles to subdue the insurrection, and expand China`s territories was immortalized in a series of 17 elaborate copper prints which were designed by a team of missionaries led by Castiglione and produced in the finest engraving center of the world in Paris. King Louis XV directly ensured that his finest engravers led by Charles-Nicolas Cochin produced the works which were then sent back to China. The project took an incredible seven years to complete and the quality of the design and execution was recognized as some of the best in the world. Above are featured two of the 17 copperplate engravings are featured above with “The Lifting of the Siege of the Black River Camp” (left) and “Battle of Qos-Qulaq” (at right)

Appendix 2

A Gallery of Giuseppe Castiglione’s work

One Hundred Steeds (1727) 94x776cm
Horse study 
One Hundred Steeds Detail 1
One Hundred Steeds Detail 2

One Hundred Steeds Detail 3










Chrysanthemum Bird (detail)
Birds and Cherries
Figure 2 Paired Cranes in Shade

Pine, Hawk and Glossy Ganoderma
Cochin Lemur 1761
Golden Pheasant in Springtime
A Peony in a vase of flowers
Vase with Flowers
Qianlong Emperor and his Wife (detail from the long scroll “The Emperor and his 12 Consorts” painted between 1736 and 1775. The first three portraits (The Emperor, his Empress and Consort Ling) were done by Castiglione while the rest by anonymous court painters following the Xianfa style of Castiglione over subsequent years.
Qianlong Empress
Consort Ling
Ayusi Sweeping Bandits with Lance 1755
Qianlong Emperor hunting deer (detail). The several members of the hunting party looking at the viewer while the majority ride on seeking their prey went very far into incorporate the “subjective” viewer as an active member of the “objective” painting they are admiring.
Qianlong Emperor Receiving Tribute Horses (detail)
Qianlong Emperor inspecting paintings. A close
up of this painting reveals another Castiglione painting within a
Ayussi Assailing the Rebels 2


[1] Matteo Ricci introduced several instruments to the Chinese court during his pioneering work in Beijing, including the clavicord (“gukin”). He also composed eight moral poems titled “Songs for Western Keyboard” (Xi qin Quyi), each being rendered into a musical composition utilizing counterpoint. Today only Matteo’s text survives though not his music. Ricci also introduced many religious paintings which did not resonate with the Chinese at the time.

[2] Marco Musillo, Reconciling Two Careers: The Jesuit Memoir of Guiseppe Castiglione, 2008

[3] Leibniz recognized in the Emperor’s enlightened outlook towards governance and appreciation for renaissance culture, the potential to flank the system of “divide and conquer” wars, which had kept Europe fighting itself for hundreds of years.

[4] Under the condition that Confucian rites and traditions were also respected

[5] Michael Billington, “Matteo Ricci, The Grand Design and the Disaster of the Rites Controversy”, Fall 2001 Fidelio Magazine http://schillerinstitute.org/fid_97-01/013_ricci_rites.html

[6] Those who were already in Beijing were exempted from this expulsion, although their freedom to proselytize their Christian faith was revoked.

[7] Michael Billington, “Towards an Ecumenical Unity of East and West: The Renaissance of Confucian China and Christian Europe”, Fidelio Magazine, Summer 1993

[8] G.W. Leibniz, Preface to the Novissima Sinica (News from China), translated by Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr., in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s “Writings on China”, Open Court, 1998, pp. 45–46. For the full story of Leibniz’s extraordinary design and efforts to unite Europe and China, see The Leibnizian Roots of Eurasian Integration by Jason Ross, Executive Intelligence Review, April 29, 2016

[9] Especially the government engineering bureaus which had driven many of the boldest internal improvements and technological progress which characterized the dramatic population growth experienced under the Qing Dynasty.

[10] This was the highest rank ever achieved by a Jesuit. See Friederike Biebl, The Magnificence of the Qing – European Art.

the Jesuit Mission in China

[11] Natasa Vampelj Suhadolnic, “Ferdinand Augustin Hallerstein on Giuseppe Castiglione’s Art”, 2015

[12] In an anonymous, unpublished biography of Castiglione written soon after his death, the anecdote of the Emperor’s admiration for the painter is described as well as Castiglione’s humility and disdain for honors: “Since he was a child, he was an admirer of Castiglione and developed a great love and filial affection for him. As soon as he became the Emperor, he could not stand the fact that the worthy old man did not have any honors, so he decreed that he would enter the Order of Mandarins. […] A lot of people started to congratulate him openly on what they thought was a settled fact, but the virtuous old man abhorred these kinds of honors, […]. So while asking God for what he had to do to avoid those honors […] he looked unusually sad so that his friends took it as a clear sign of his unwillingness to accept such a favor: a clear sign indeed also for the Emperor, who as he did not want to afflict the very person he wanted to gratify, recalled the decree, something which rarely happens. Castiglione’s humility had prevailed.” (Musillo, 2008, p. 54).

[13] Helga Zepp-Larouche, East and West: A Dialogue of Great Cultures, April 28, 2017, Executive Intelligence Review

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