Celestial Empire—part four

Celestial Empire—part four
The Rambling World 紅塵
20 February 2016

Under the Qing, print culture took many forms. The growth in economic activity resulted in increased literacy and the expanded consumption of books as more people had the time and money for leisure activities. Furthermore, education aimed at the civil examinations produced many highly literate individuals. Those failing to pass and gain official position turned to popular literature, medicine or other pursuits. This led to a great variety of printed material circulating in society, much of it reflecting great inventiveness and skill. The evolution of these works over the life of the dynasty reflected the social and political changes of the time.

Image of flowers and rock from Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden

Wang Gai (1645–1707) et al., Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, Nanjing, 1679, National Library of China

The expansion of the educated class was reflected in the growth of interest in painting. Manuals on the subject had become popular in the late Ming period, a large number appearing over a short time. Some were produced through multi-coloured printing techniques, with different woodblocks for each colour. In the early decades of the Qing dynasty this interest continued, exemplified with the appearance of Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden. Incorporating material from Ming texts and printed in five colours, it became one of the most renowned works on painting in East Asia. The manual’s first section, by Wang Gai (1645–1707), appeared in 1679; it gave examples of the content of landscape paintings – trees, hills, buildings, distant people – followed by examples of the work of famous masters. The remaining sections of the work, produced in association with other members of Wang’s family, appeared in 1701 and contained examples of plants, flowers, birds and insects. Few later editions matched the quality of the first.

Illustrated paper was produced for exchanging poetry. This paper featured delicate images with generous blank spaces for individuals to record their own thoughts in verse. Simple images could express great elegance, and scholars shared these in correspondence with friends. Since it became highly prized, collections of this paper were published in pristine form.

Image of flower from Hundred Flowers Poetry Paper from the Studio of Literary Beauty

Zhang Zhaoxiang (active 1892–1907), Hundred Flowers Poetry Paper from the Studio of Literary Beauty, Tianjin: Studio of Literary Beauty, 1911, National Library of China

But much cruder works also had a place in society, providing information to people of more humble means. Popular almanacs, produced annually, recorded the various influences operating on all days throughout the calendar, giving recommendations on activities to be carried out on each. Their covers displayed an ox accompanied by a herdsman, which represented spring ploughing and the desire for a bountiful harvest. In the columns of text on both sides of the picture are to be found pronouncements on the harvest, silk production and the prosperity of the community. Almanacs also explained a range of divinatory methods and a wealth of practical tools for people hoping to understand the meaning of events around them. These included the celestial influences on an individual according to the eight characters corresponding to his time of birth, the meaning of omens occurring at different times of day (for example, barking dogs or ringing in the ears), a means of determining fate by calculation on the fingers, and talismans to see off baleful influences. These were accompanied by information providing moral guidance, such as account of a child’s dialogue with Confucius and the 24 exemplars of filial piety. The images and text are simple, the carving of the blocks rough and the paper thin and cheap, as befitted works printed for commercial benefit and circulated in large numbers. As with the example illustrated here, many almanacs were published in south China.

Image of spring ox and herdsman from Complete Almanac

Complete Almanac, Hall of Prosperous Culture, 1816, nla.obj-48163634

A range of other popular works also taught readers how to undertake their own investigations of life in their communities, and to deal with everyday uncertainty. Books on physiognomy explained how to determine a person’s fate through inspection of the face. They contain pages of illustrations detailing different shapes of eyes, eyebrows, noses and ears, explaining the meaning of each. The page appearing here gives the meaning of facial spots in different places (‘wealth dissipates’, ‘death in battle’, ‘high official’, ‘treacherous official’, etc).

 Image of faces from Complete Physiognomy of the Hemp Robe

Qiu Zongkong, Complete Physiognomy of the Hemp Robe, 19th century, nla.obj-49748029

As with faces, landforms were also examined for their significance. Burial of the dead required careful consideration, since the positioning of a tomb could affect a family’s fortunes for generations to come. This need produced a ready market for texts such as Popular Guide to Geomancy, from whose pages emerges a complex categorisation of the land’s contours. The work begins by explaining the geographical structure of China as a whole; its great rivers are shown to break the land up into three main trunks. Because dragons were thought to dwell in the earth, the types of dragons associated with various features are then examined. It also outlines the various places where a tomb could be built, and describes external structures and the locations of ritual offerings. Furthermore, it offers examples of tombs throughout the Jiangnan region and the rank of the person associated with each, perhaps as a guide to what to expect. But books setting down practices on paper such as this crystallised merely one interpretation, since they could not hope to represent the full range of possibilities in popular lore and related practices.

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