European-style portrait painting was introduced into China long before the advent of photography. In the 17th century European oil painting had become very popular in southern China, particularly in cities such as Macau and Guangzhou, where Jesuit missionaries were active in training Chinese pupils to reproduce European religious paintings. In the imperial capital, Beijing, the Manchu emperors had also become fascinated by this novel Western art, which, by the use of perspective and light and shade, could result in reproductions of horses or people that looked almost real. It did not take long for them to fully embrace European portrait painting, and by the 18th century it had become an 'imperial tradition'.
Thomson was wrong to presume, as he did, that Chinese artists were simply trying to copy the artist George Chinnery, who was a resident at Macau in the 19th century. Even after the introduction of photography, many Chinese continued to prefer to have their portrait painted. This was partly because at the time photographs always came in black and white, and in a fairly small size, and to have them enlarged was far too expensive. Even for those Chinese who did embrace photography, it was often the case that because they did not have the patience to sit through a long portrait-painting session, they would have a photo taken, and then ask a portrait painter to make a bigger reproduction of it in colour. As a matter of fact, at the time the Chinese word 'xiezhen', to transcribe the real, referred to both photography and portrait painting, suggesting there was little differentiation between the two.