Celebrating beneficent rule with both broadly-recognized and subtle cultural symbols, Qing dynasty court paintings create the impression that the empire was peaceful and well governed with scarcely a ripple of contention. By contrast, paintings produced outside the court display a wider range of concerns, both private and social, inauspicious as well as auspicious. The paintings are more subdued in colour, often ink monochrome, more varied in style, bolder in brushwork and more individual in expressive content than court works. Not only did the educated élite share the materials and techniques of calligraphy when painting, they viewed it as an extension of composing poetry. In the hands of intellectuals, painting was imbued with sophisticated content that elevated it, in their eyes, above the work of professional practitioners.
Indirect expression was valued in genteel society and routinely practiced by Chinese scholars, who often expressed ideas through historical anecdote and cultural symbols. Because they were charged with providing rulers with practical and moral guidance, scholar-officials learned how to deliver critiques without causing offense or precipitating harsh punishment. Under scrutiny and with retribution a certainty, indirect expression became circuitous. Some of these paintings are examples of the ‘hidden transcripts’ that James Scott has described: a subordinate group’s concealed discourse at variance with their public pronouncements.
For those who personally experienced the destruction wrought by the Manchu conquest, who mourned the lost dynasty of the Ming (1368—1644), or who opposed the literary inquisitions, painting could be a vehicle for expressing grief, loss, oblique criticism or disdain. Whether loyalists or not, most Chinese intellectuals actively mingled with each other. For those who co-operated with the Manchus by taking positions in the Qing government, painting and its accompanying text could serve another purpose: collaborators could signal sympathy and negotiate a relationship with Manchu resistors.