“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 1)

This is the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name that ran at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from November 2005 to April 2006. I didn’t go to see it myself, but I’ve borrowed the book from my Dad who did. A lot of the book (as befits an exhibition catalogue) is full of pictures of the objects that were displayed. It starts with three general essays, then each section of objects has some introductory text. It also has a map of China, and of the Forbidden Palace. And a chronology which covers both the major events in China of this period and puts them in context with the rest of the world. So far I’ve read the general essays, so that’s what this post is about. The first essay is about the history of the period & is the one I was most interested in. The second is about the imperial art collection, and the third (and least interesting to me) is about the architecture of the palaces of these Emperors.

The Three Emperors of the title of the book are the Kangxi Emperor, the Yongzheng Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor who were the 2nd to 4th Emperors of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. This was the last Dynasty to rule Imperial China, and they held power from 1644 through to 1911. These three Emperors are the high point of Qing China. Previous post about this era of Chinese history: 7th part of “China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed”.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1649: Charles I beheaded.
  • 1688: Glorious Revolution (i.e. William & Mary take the throne of Britain).
  • 1714: George I took the throne of Britain.
  • 1720: South Sea Bubble (post).
  • c. 1760: Industrial Revolution begins in Britain.
  • 1776: US independence declared.

“The ‘Prosperous Age’: China in the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns” Evelyn S. Rawski

This essay covers the history of the period, and also looks at the way it has been discussed and summarised by historians both inside and outside modern China. Rawski starts by reminding the reader that the Qing dynasty were outsiders who conquered China, and that they regarded themselves as different from their Han Chinese subjects in China Proper (which is the name used for the area that the Ming Dynasty ruled over). They created a writing system for their Manchu language, and this was an official state language alongside Chinese. They regarded their subjects as divided into Han Chinese civilians and Bannermen (and citizens of the non-China Proper regions), and there were different political institutions involved in ruling over the two sorts of people. The people of China Proper were still ruled via the Ming bureaucracy, but the inner councils of the Emperors were derived from the Bannermen and the conquest elite. Intermarriage between the two groups of citizens was forbidden.

The Kangxi Emperor was the second Qing Emperor – he took the throne at 7 years old in 1662 after the death of his father the Shunzhi Emperor. Even though the Qing had been ruling China since 1644 the conquest wasn’t finished, so Rawski says that the main thrust of the Kangxi Emperor’s long reign was finishing the conquest and consolidating Qing power. Consolidation was required because a lot of Ming commanders & officials surrendered once the Ming dynasty was toppled, and so the Qing actually gained territory rather faster than they could assimilate it. The last of the Ming claimants to the throne was executed in 1662, the same year as Kangxi took the throne, but a loyalist rebellion lead by the Zheng family persisted until 1683. The Zheng family were maritime traders who had built a vast trading empire. Although nominally on the side of the Ming they were pretty much acting in their own interests, rather than under the control of a Ming claimant. Luckily for the Zheng, the Qing initially lacked a navy and anyway were more interested in land conquests. Also during this period there was a rebellion by three Han Chinese generals, who had been given control over parts of south & southwest China after joining the Manchu side early in the conquest. Attempts by the Kangxi Emperor to take back control of these regions sparked the rebellion which was eventually put down in 1681.

As well as finishing the conquest and putting down rebellions the Kangxi Emperor used political means to consolidate his power over both his Han Chinese subjects and his Bannermen subjects. For the first the Kangxi Emperor acted as a proper Confucian Emperor should. He kept the bureaucratic structure that the Ming Dynasty had used (including the examinations), and he participated in the Confucian rituals of the court. He was fluent in Chinese (unlike his father) which I thought it was interesting. After the Norman Conquest, for instance, French was the language of the English court for a couple of hundred years and there’s no sign that the monarchs learnt English. But the second generation of the Qing Dynasty have made a point of learning the language of their new country and demonstrating their fluency with it. Maybe it’s got something to do with the relative prestige of the conquered country? I mean the Qing probably conquered China because they wanted to be specifically Emperors of China rather than it being just somewhere conveniently nearby. Or maybe it was the easiest way to consolidate his rule over China Proper – by being just as “Chinese” as the last Dynasty? Relevant to this exhibition in particular is that part of being a “proper” Chinese Emperor was patronage of the arts.

For the second half of his consolidation the Kangxi Emperor strengthened his control over the banner lords. Previously the leaders of each banner were pretty close to autonomous and were also involved in deliberating state decisions. Helped by some dismal performances during the putting down of rebellions in the early part of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign he took control of who the commanders of the troops were. And the administration of the banners was gradually bureaucratised and taken away from the traditional leaders – who were still princes, just with less actual influence.

One thing the Kangxi Emperor didn’t do well was organising the succession. The Ming had a rule that the eldest son of the Empress was the heir, but the Qing didn’t have this tradition. Their ancestors had permitted brothers to inherit as well as sons, but by the time of the conquest of China it was always a son that inherited. However they still had a tradition that it was the most worthy son that would inherit. The Kangxi Emperor first decided to follow the Ming custom, but then disinherited his eldest son, then re-inherited him, then dis-inherited him again and refused to name an heir until on his deathbed. At that point he is said to have named his fourth son, but there were rumours that this was fabricated. As a result the Yongzheng Emperor (this fourth son) instituted the (slightly odd to my eyes) practice of secretly designating an heir in a sealed casket which was hidden until after his death. This both made sure that the wishes of the deceased Emperor were known (and known to be true, due to the sealing) but no-one knew while he was alive so there would be less court intrigue.

The Yongzheng Emperor ruled for 12 years, and there’s only about 2/3 of a page of this 18 page essay devoted to him. The theme of his reign was reforming the fiscal administration of the state and finishing off the subjugation of the banner lords to the throne.

The Yongzheng Emperor was succeeded by the Qianlong Emperor in 1736, and he ruled for the next 60 years. Apparently traditional Chinese historians divide his reign into to three – roughly categorisable as good, OK, bad. And then after that it’s downhill all the way to the inevitable end of Imperial China. The Qianlong Emperor would see it differently – he was proud of his Ten Great Victories and that the territory he ruled stretched further than that of the Ming Dynasty (and further than the People’s Republic of China). He saw himself as ruling over 5 distinct peoples (Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and Chinese), only linked because he ruled them. His government had systems in place to balance the powers of the bureaucracy & the powers of the bannermen. China during this time was part of a lucrative intra-Asian trade network, and exports to Europe tilted the net balance of that trade in China’s favour.

Chinese society during the period was influenced by outside cultures as well as traditional Chinese ways. There were many Jesuits at court, and they were involved in introducing European science to the Qing and in negotiating treaties on behalf of the Qing with Russia. Russians too lived in Beijing, providing another avenue for cultural & commercial exchange. There was also increased social mobility, and apparently the literati worried about the rise of the nouveaux-riches. Contracts became the general way to organise your affairs (as opposed to institutions like hereditary slavery), and consumption of material culture including books increased. In the bits of the Qing Empire that weren’t China proper the Qianlong Emperor & his predecessors tried to promote their separate cultural traditions, but that doesn’t seem to’ve had particular success. Rawski discusses how the Manchu language influenced Chinese, and vice versa.

Traditional Chinese histories point to the last few decades of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign as the beginning of “dynastic decline” and cast the rebellions that were put down around this time in that light. But Rawski thinks that this is misplaced – instead of a rotten centre all the rebellions and unrest occurs at the edges of the Empire. So it’s the bits where the authority of the state is starting to run thin due to distance, not a breakdown of the state itself. And it was also a reaction to the attempts to extend state authority over those areas.

More recent Chinese histories of the era see it as the high point of China’s Imperial history, but also judge it ultimately as a failure. They compare it to the Industrial Revolution that kicks off in Europe around this time and see that as a missed opportunity that China should’ve seized. But outside China historians see the period differently. Rawski discusses the analysis of André Gunder Frank (a historian I assume …) who sees China as having been part of a global economy since the 1500s. And a core part of this economy until 1800 – metal flowed into China and goods flowed out. I got a little lost towards the end of this section, but I think the take home message was that Britain industrialising whilst China (and other countries) did not was not because of some difference in their history but was dependent on some specific circumstance in Britain at that time. Because of the global economy of the time China and other parts of Asia were as highly developed as Britain.

“The Qianlong Emperor as Art Patron and the Formation of the Collections of the Palace Museum, Beijing” Gerald Holzwarth

What was once the Forbidden City is now the Palace Museum, and it houses over a million items 80% of which were previous held by the Qing court. Holzwarth divides these into four groups according to their original function. The first group is things that were collected as works of art both ancient and newly created at the time. These were catalogued and kept boxed up – only taken out to be looked at or shown off, they weren’t exhibited as a matter of course. These include paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, jades etc. The second group is propaganda and was displayed on the palace walls – these were also works of art by our modern standards but the purpose at the time was the political message. The third group is the ritual and religious objects, for the Confucian state rituals as well as Buddhist & Daoist objects. And the fourth group consists of the clothing & accessories of the court, including things like the Emperor’s writing instruments & other everyday objects.

Holzwarth then discusses the first group, and the Qing Dynasty & the Qianlong Emperor’s role in developing the collection. The basis of the collection was the Ming Dynasty collection, and that was part of a continuous tradition of collecting going back 1600 years. The forerunners of this collection go back as far as the Shang Dynasty (post) c. 1500BC.

The Kangxi Emperor’s main legacy was to set up imperial workshops to create more art works for the collection. He was also a keen calligrapher, and wrote poetic inscriptions on pictures from the Imperial Collection. I’m the sort of person who hates the thought of writing in books, so this tradition of writing inscriptions on paintings fills me with horror. The Kangxi Emperor wasn’t much of an art historian, and relied on an expert who was a collector himself … and so the expert kept the best for his own collection and gave the Emperor the cheap ones or the fakes. His collection did later get amalgamated into the Imperial Collection by the Qianlong Emperor.

The Yongzheng Emperor gets about a paragraph in this essay – he was the best calligrapher of the three.

And then we move on to the Qianlong Emperor, whose influence on the collection is the subject of the bulk of the essay. Holzwarth calls him the last of the great imperial art collectors, and unlike his grandfather he was an expert in his own right. He inspected the new works of art while they were still being drafted, and he inspected the ancient ones and gave them his seal of approval. Literally – he had various collection seals, and marking a collected painting (or other artwork) with one’s seal was a traditional thing for collectors to do. This tradition actually grew out of authenticating written documents by putting imperial seals over the seams where pieces of writing were pasted together to form a hand scroll. He also wrote inscriptions on paintings, not just poems but also on some paintings he wrote notes on the experience of enjoying them. And he also wrote art-historical essays on some paintings, discussing who had painted them and correcting any misattributions. He did take care to consider the aesthetics of the painting when adding his inscriptions, but it still feels so alien to my attitude towards art.

As well as general collecting the Qianlong Emperor was consciously trying to create a canon of approved art. And as part of this aim he instituted cataloguing projects. Eventually these catalogues stretched to about 22,500 pages and covered over 5000 paintings and several thousand works of calligraphy. The best quality ones had highly detailed entries – including a list of all inscriptions and seals on the work. Other artifacts were also catalogued, with explanatory notes where appropriate.

The end of this essay harks back to the end of the first essay. Holzwarth notes that while the Kangxi Emperor was interested in European sciences, the Qianlong Emperor concentrated on renewing classical Chinese cultural heritage. So at a point where science & industrialisation was taking off in Europe, in China the man who set the cultural fashions was interested in the preservation & the equalling of the arts of the past.

“Imperial Architecture of the Qing: Palaces and Retreats” Frances Wood

The bulk of this essay describes the layout and building materials of the Forbidden City. The Qing inherited this from the Ming. Although there was some (unknown amount of) destruction during the events at the end of the Ming Dynasty, it was clearly still intact enough for the Shunzhi Emperor, his regents and government to move in immediately in 1644. They didn’t really alter the plan of the various buildings, even tho they did alter the use of some of them and tastes in interior decoration changed. Because it was mostly constructed of timber there were frequent serious fires, the essay describes how the library buildings were protected to some extent by pools of water in front of them & ornamental rockerys both of which acted as fire breaks.

Although the Forbidden City was the official main residence and the ceremonial seat of government the three Emperors spent several months of each year either on the move or in their summer palaces. These were generally north of Beijing closer to or in the ancestral Manchu territory, with countryside around them where the Emperors & their court could hunt and hold archery & horse-riding contests.