China’s long 19th century is the topic of the British Museum’s summer blockbuster exhibition, looking at the lives of the last line of China’s emperors.

The “long 19th century’ is longer than a century, stretching from the accession in 1796 of the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Jiaqing, to the abdication in 1912 of the tenth, Puyi, making way for the modern Communist republic.

The exhibition will take a look at the lives of the people during this transition century as the country inched too slowly towards political and social reforms, while also dealing with civil and foreign wars, including Britain’s notorious Opium Wars. Tens of millions perished in the conflicts and the chaos they generated.

Despite the turmoil, it was a century of cultural modernisation, and the British Museum has brought together some 300 objects to highlight this transformational era. Most of the objects that are being included in the exhibition are being publicly displayed for the first time.

Empress Dowager Cixis robe China about 1880–1908 (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

The show is underpinned by the conservation and refurbishment of items never before placed on public display. Surviving objects from the 19th century – such as a water-proof straw cape made for a street worker, farmer or fisherman – offer fresh, direct insights into the textures of everyday life. Conservators had to brush each individual strand of straw and humidify each stalk to bring the garment back to its original shape; the piece and its restoration highlight the exceptional craftsmanship that flourished across all levels of late imperial Chinese society.

Waterproofs for a worker 1800–60 Southern China (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Visitors will also see a stunning robe – loaned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art – that belonged to the Empress Dowager Cixi, the de-facto ruler of China from 1861 to 1908 and a direct contemporary of Queen Victoria. The gown – featuring a swooping phoenix amid lush chrysanthemums and wide sleeve bands – is a combination of Manchu, Chinese and Japanese motifs, in purple, gold and turquoise.

The exhibition is the result of a four-year research project supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, led by the British Museum and London University. The show was made possible thanks to the collaboration of over 100 scholars from 14 countries.

The exhibition China’s hidden century runs from 18th May to 8th October 2023

It will be open daily, with late opening every Friday as well until 8:30pm.

  • Adults: £16
  • Concessions: £14
  • National Art Pass: £8
  • Under 16: Free
  • British Museum members: Free

Tickets should be booked in advance from here.

There is also a 2-for-1 offer for students on Fridays – select two tickets and you will be charged for one at the checkout.

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