“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 3)

These are the next four sections of the catalogue – the first two cover international relations (with those they conquered and those they didn’t). If I had planned it out a little better I would’ve split this up differently because the next three essays are about each Emperor in turn – and better planning would’ve kept them together in a post, however I didn’t think of that till too late! 🙂

“Territories of The Qing” Evelyn S. Rawski

This essay covers the other places the Qing conquered as well as China and some of the politics that drove their conquest. First they unified the northeast Asian tribes under Manchu rule (this is in the 1620s & 1630s) and their first conquest was China. Rawski says that this started as a campaign to “defend the Ming” when a rebellion had captured Beijing & the Emperor had committed suicide but soon turned into outright conquest (as detailed in the first essay in this book (post)). After this was successfully completed the Ming moved to consolidate their northern borders, with Inner Asia and with Mongolia. Some of this involved some sabre-rattling with Russia resulting in a fixed border being negotiated (in 1689 & 1727).

The incorporation of Mongolia & Tibet into the Qing Empire involved taking advantage of the internal politics of those regions. In Mongolia they took advantage of a war between two different Mongol tribes – the one that was losing submitted to the Qing so that they’d come to their aid. The Qing interventions in Tibet also started with that conflict. The relationship between political leaders of the northern Asian tribes and Tibetan Buddhism goes back to the Mongol Yuan dynasty (about 300 years earlier, post) who established the lama-patron relationship. So the Qing backed other lamas than the Zunghar Mongols did. They also took advantage of a succession dispute over who was the true sixth Dalai Lama to not only get their prefered lama in charge, but also to reorganise the political leadership of Tibet as the first step towards true conquest.

The objects in this section of the exhibition catalogue are to do with war and conquest. They include ceremonial armour, weapons and paintings of the Emperor as a warrior. There are also paintings of processions and banquets, presumably to do with the conquest of various regions.

“Diplomats, Jesuits and Foreign Curiosities” Joanna Waley-Cohen

One reason the Qing Emperors collected foreign curiosities was as a means of legitimising their rule and proving themselves civilised. They had to know everything and possess everything for they were the universal rulers. This interacted poorly with the European colonial efforts which were reaching China at this time. The Qing Emperors tried to fit the European diplomats into the sort of tributary relationships they had with nearby non-Chinese states, such as Japan, Vietnam etc. They were also cautious in their dealings with Europeans because they could see evidence of what happened when you weren’t – they were aware of other colonial European adventures such as the British in India or the Spanish in Manila.

Missionaries were treated differently – the Qing apparently didn’t think they were connected to international politics. This strikes me as odd, because the Qing were busy using Buddhism as a means of taking over Tibet at the time. But perhaps that’s down to the Jesuits strategy of integrating themselves into the existing court structure and providing secular knowledge & gifts to the Emperors – including becoming court painters, like Giuseppe Castaglione who worked for all three of these Emperors. Christianity was tolerated to some degree, so long as Christians still acknowledged the Emperor as their pre-eminent ruler but emphasis on the Pope as supreme leader of the Catholic Church caused friction & a loss of tolerance.

Waley-Cohen also points out that the fashion for “western” curiosities & objects mirrors the European chinoiserie fashions of the time – both in the fascination with the exotic and in the way it’s not really authentic. The objects in this section of the exhibition include several paintings by Castiglione and other European court painters, as well as paintings of the court receiving foreign dignitaries & scientific instruments. There was also three pages of beautifully decorated snuff bottles – snuff was imported from Europe during this period.

“The Kangxi Emperor: Horseman, Man of Letters, Man of Science” Regina Krahl

Krahl’s thesis is that the Kangxi Emperor deliberately set out to make himself the quintessential Chinese Emperor, better than all that had gone before. As only the second Emperor of a conquest he didn’t have an obvious role model (his father, the Shunzhi Emperor was neither the conqueror of China (being a child at the time) nor an effective independent ruler, so doesn’t quite count), he also had non-Chinese ancestry which was important and needed acknowledged. The Kangxi Emperor took the throne at the age of 7 and took control at the age of 15, he reigned for 60 years in total. He honoured his Manchu heritage by participating in the various practical skills that were valued by Manchu cultures – archery, horseback riding etc. He was open to new ideas, and interested in the Western science (and art techniques such as perspective) that the Jesuits taught him.

As the Emperor of China with a Mandate from Heaven he had expectations to fulfil & a role to fill. Krahl argues that he set out to become educated in all aspects of this role – he learnt from leading scholars about Confucian philosophy, and about precedents in Chinese history for the imperial decisions he would be making. He learnt calligraphy, and became familiar with Chinese literature in order to phrase and write his decisions properly. He also demonstrated his learning to document his legitimacy as a true Chinese Emperor by publishing many writings on a wide variety of appropriate subjects including morals, agriculture, poetry. He also commissioned collections of writing by others – for instance an anthology of 50,000 Tang dynasty poems.

As well as this he patronised the arts, like a Chinese Emperor should. In fact he moved the various artists & craftsmen further into the Forbidden City than before and so they were in closer contact with the Emperor than before. Thus the material produced during his reign & his immediate successors reflected the personal tastes of the Emperor in question.

This section has a lot of examples of calligraphy done by the Kangxi Emperor, and beautifully decorated writing instruments and accessories. There are also many objets d’art that he had made for him during his life time – I was particularly struck by the peach-bloom porcelain, which is simple & elegant porcelain vases etc with a particular copper-red glaze.

“The Yongzheng Emperor: Art Collector and Patron” Regina Krahl

The Yongzheng Emperor gets overshadowed by his father and his son – he ruled for a much shorter time (13 years instead of 60 years) and Krahl says there is little positive proganda available from his reign. There were questions about the legitimacy of his inheritance of the throne and he had to take measures to prevent instability such as eliminating his enemies. His official persona was secretive, distant and ruthless – which did lead him to make the government more efficient and China was prosperous under his rule.

Less official sources indicate he was more interesting than that sounds – he had a sense of humour & whimsy, and apparently sometimes expressed himself in “colloquialisms that he must have learned […] from soldiers”. Informal portraits of him in Manchu dress show him ill at ease, but portraits in Chinese dress show him looking at ease. He didn’t go hunting or travel as much as either his father or son, another indication that he was more a product of his Chinese role than his Manchu heritage. Unlike his father his art collection was down to interest rather than because that was what an Emperor did. He commissioned many stands and display boxes for pieces of art from his collections, and inspected his collection frequently. During his reign he also commissioned many new works of art, and encouraged his artisans to rediscover & further develop old techniques. Krahl ends by discussing how the Qianlong Emperor gets credit for some of the Yongzheng Emperor’s works of art – because he was better at cultivating his image than his father and because he stamped them with his seals etc. Also styles that first show up in the Yongzheng period are often known from more examples in the Qianlong period and so again the son’s reign gets credit for the art.

This section of the catalogue contains paintings of the Yongzheng Emperor in a variety of costumes, and many beautiful objets d’art (including some porcelain vases with bluey-purpley glazes that I particularly liked). It also has a couple of sections from a scroll called “Pictures of Ancient Playthings” – which is paintings of his favourite antiques.