One, or Two? A Discursive Reading of the Qianlong Emperor’s Double Portrait

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University Club, Room 212
@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

A figure is seated on a platform seat surrounded by antique objects, tea paraphernalia, and writing utensils. Behind the seated figure is a standing screen painted with a landscape. On the screen hangs another bust-length portrait of the seated figure.
One or Two, Qianlong period (1735-1796). Ink and color on paper, 90.3 x 119.8 cm. The Palace Museum, Beijing.

Young Kim

Dana-Allen Fellow (2022-2023)

Ph.D. Candidate Art History, UW–Madison


One or Two is one of the most famous portraits of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-1796), the Manchu ruler of China during the eighteenth-century golden age of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The emperor inscribed on the portrait: “Is it one, or is it two? Neither together, nor apart. Confucian is fine, Mohist is fine. What is there to worry, what is there to think?” Scholars have long debated the meaning of this inscription and the double portrait of the emperor in One or Two: the full-length emperor seated on a platform seat, and the bust-length portrait of him hanging on a standing screen. This talk introduces and engages with the existing interpretations of One or Two, focusing on the one that interprets the portrait as painted by the Milanese Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) and functioning as an illusionistic painting. In doing so, I discuss the historical context of European pictorial techniques in eighteenth-century China and disclose some problems in the customary assessment of the role of European pictorial illusionism in the current scholarship. Then, I offer a non-illusionistic, discursive interpretation of One or Two. In this new interpretation, the painting is meant to be ‘read’ through the relations between its parts rather than ‘perceived’ as a whole, illusionistic scene.


Young Kim is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests center on agency and efficacy of images, theories of depiction, realism, and artistic exchanges and innovations in eighteenth-centuryEast Asia. She received a B.A. in Chinese from Yale University in 2012 and an MPhil in Chinese Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2015. As a 2022-23 IRH Fellow, she will complete her dissertation on the status and function of auspicious images at the eighteenth-century Qing imperial court. Prior to the IRH Fellowship, her research has been supported by the Killin Fellowship for Asian Art, the Chinese Object Study Workshop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pantzer Award, and the Interdisciplinary Training Program at UW–Madison. In 2019-2020, she worked as a curatorial assistant at the Chazen Museum of Art and led the Borghesi-Mellon Humanities Workshop entitled “Engaging Nature in Asia.”

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