Celestial Empire—part three

Celestial Empire—part three
Inheriting the past 文風
25 January 2016

For people imbued with the Chinese cultural tradition, to move through space is also to move through time. People travelled around the Qing empire by various means, but usually along routes followed by centuries of travellers. Some left their mark on the literary record; by adding layers to the past they produced a world rich in cultural significance. As a result, each stop on a journey through a landscape haunted with myriad voices could stir historical associations. The most famous journeys taken under the Qing were the southern imperial tours. Emperors spent much of their time travelling, but the imperial tours of the economic and cultural heartland in the lower Yangzi region, or Jiangnan, were grand events, widely celebrated. Those undertaken by the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors, ostensibly for the inspection of waterways and public works, reinvigorated the role of the south in the continuous reinvention of Chinese culture.

One site that benefitted from imperial patronage was West Lake, near the modern city of Hangzhou. The lake had gained form and fame from the time of the Tang dynasty (618–907) onwards. It enjoyed particular popularity under the Ming dynasty. But in the first decades of the Qing, political and social disorder prevented proper management of the lake and much of it was reclaimed for use as farmland. The early southern tours of the Kangxi emperor prompted its rejuvenation. With the prestige that accrued from his visits, West Lake quickly regained its status as a favoured destination for the wealthy. Around its shores were a series of spots celebrated in poetry and prose.

Detail of West Lake

The Scenery of West Lake (detail), Jiaqing period (1796–1820), pigment on goatskin, National Library of China

During the Qing period models of conduct were laid down for both men and women. But it was a particularly exacting time for women of high social standing. Appropriate behaviour was understood to be fundamental to the maintenance of social order; it was also essential for retaining a reputation. In texts demonstrating models of behaviour for women, self-sacrifice was considered the finest of acts. Those women were most honoured who put the comfort and safety of the male members of their family ahead of their own. Biographies of Women contains 310 short accounts of women who had protected their family, their masters and their honour from bandits, enemies and other dangers to reputation, often suffering physical mutilation or death. It draws on episodes throughout Chinese history to suggest the values advocated were unchanging. A text bearing this title had been written in the Han dynasty; this was used as the foundation of an expanded work under the Ming. The printed edition of this work was illustrated by Qiu Ying (1494–1552), a famous court painter; the elegant lines and form of these images echo his paintings. The edition of 1779 is highly valued because it is thought to have been printed using the woodblocks prepared under the Ming.

Page image from Biographies of Women

Wang Daokun (text, 1525–1593), Qiu Ting (illustrations, 1494–1552), Biographies of Women, National Library of Australia

The material world under the Qing offered numerous possibilities for engaging with the past. But, just like the present, the past was not unchanging. And as new techniques evolved, new means of reinterpreting it were adopted. The rise of lithography and photography in the last decades of the nineteenth century saw a retreat of long-established methods. One of the last woodblock-printed books published by the court, Biographical Sketches for the Heir Apparent, appeared in 1896. Based on a work by Wang Yun (1228–1304) that was presented to a son of the emperor during the Yuan dynasty, the edition by Xu Yong (1838–1907) and Lin Wentian (1834–1895) shown here added images to illustrate texts outlining the standards of proper behaviour for those set to inherit the throne. These accounts date from antiquity down to the Ming dynasty. In the last years of the Qing, the precedents set by past dynasties remained essential to guiding decisions, even as they were reinterpreted to meet the needs of the present.

Page image from Biographical Sketches for the Heir Apparent, depicting a official bowing on steps before a hall

Xu Yong (1838–1907), Li Wentian (1834–1895) after Wan Yun (1228–1304), Biographical Sketches for the Heir Apparent, National Library of China

This is an edited excerpt from Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644–1911 by Dr Nathan Woolley—available through our online bookshop.