Celestial Empire—part two

Celestial Empire—part two
The culture of rule 聖治
15 January 2016

Complete Map of the Everlasting Unity of the Great Qing was designed to impress. Spread over eight scrolls, this early nineteenth-century work is representative of traditional Chinese cartography and reveals the extent of the Qing dynasty following a period of confidence and expansion. Administrative regions throughout Qing territory are identified with symbols denoting their size. Two meandering lines dominate the centre of the map: the Yellow River in the north and the Yangzi River in the south. The Great Wall can be seen winding its way inland from the sea in the north-east.

Complete Map of the Everlasting Unity of the Great Qing

After Huang Qianren (1694–1771), Complete Map of the Everlasting Unity of the Great Qing, Jiaqing period (1796–1820), National Library of China 

The Qing dynasty ruled China for nearly 270 years, lasting from 1644 until 1911; it was the last of China’s so-called conquest dynasties, the country being governed in this period by the Manchus, an ethnic group from beyond its frontiers. The Manchu people had been forged in Manchuria over the century preceding their capture of Beijing in 1644.

In establishing their dynasty, the Qing rulers adopted traditional Chinese institutions of government. They took up residence in the imperial palace in Beijing and over several generations they expanded the garden palaces to the northwest of the capital. Overseeing work on imperial buildings, gardens and tombs were members of the Lei family. This family produced imperial architects over seven generations, starting in the seventeenth century. Surviving material from the family archives provides an insight into the design of numerous iconic sites around Beijing. The Leis were also involved in making arrangements for imperial spectacles, including birthday celebrations and weddings. Plans of tents for celebrations in the late Qing give an indication of the splendour of such events.

Plan of Decorated Tent Installed before the Hall of Complete Tranquillity from the Lei Family Archives

Plan of Decorated Tent Installed before the Hall of Complete Tranquillity, Guangxu period (1875–1908), Yangshi Lei Archives, National Library of China

The sheer size of the dynasty’s territory led to the Qing sensibly adopting a flexible approach to governing. The border regions around Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou were home to a variety of peoples that had long resisted central control. Qing administrators adopted the proven strategies of their forebears, ranging from alliance to suppression. Yet, here as elsewhere, the Qing court initially adopted a positive attitude and tried to learn more about their subjects. One of the products of this engagement was the so-called ‘Miao albums’, illustrated works that introduced the customs of ethnic groups in these border regions.

Page image from Miao Album, depicting a musical troupe on a mountain path

Miao Album, late 19th century, nla.obj-76773136

Prosperity for the Qing was underpinned by agriculture, a major source of revenue. From time to time the court expressed its recognition of the importance of agriculture in artistic form. During a southern tour in 1689, the Kangxi emperor was presented with a copy of Illustrations of Tilling and Weaving. A collection of verses with this title, describing rice and silk production, had first been produced by Lou Shu (1090–1162) under the Song dynasty. Later versions over the centuries added illustrations, but now the Kangxi emperor commissioned his own. The result has illustrations by Jiao Bingzhen (fl. 1671–1726), a noted painter in official service believed to have been influenced by Western techniques of representation through exposure to the Jesuits at court. A verse by the Kangxi emperor appears at the top of each page.

Image from Imperially Commissioned Illustrations of Tiling and Weaving, depicting farmer driving an ox pulling a plough in a paddy

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