Celestial Empire—part one

Celestial Empire—part one
An introduction to our latest exhibition
23 November 2015

Celestial Empire: Life in China 1644–1911 opens to the public Saturday 2 January, 10am in Canberra. The exhibition presents a unique selection of works from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), drawing together collections of both the National Library of China and the National Library of Australia. Together the books, maps and other items in the exhibition form a series of vignettes drawn from different levels of society. Celestial Empire uses these works as markers in a tour of life in China over the last centuries of imperial rule.

Page image from Scenery of Ancient She County

Wu Yi (active late seventeenth century), Scenery of Ancient She County, Ruanxi: Garden of Water Fragrance  1757, National Library of China

Among the items draw from the collections of these two institutions, some have already been subjected to extensive research, but others have had little or no attention from modern scholars.

On our blog, we will take a closer look at the items and stories in the exhibition. While illustrations and maps feature throughout the exhibition, here we look to provide a greater emphasis on the content of the written word—including materials produced at court by officials and popular texts that circulated in the provinces, as well as the records of foreign visitors.

The Qing dynasty was a world governed by words, often deployed with great sophistication and complexity. Texts existed in a realm that resonated with a long cultural tradition. In undergoing their training for careers in officialdom, students were required to commit to memory classical texts and master the proper idiom for self-expression. They wrote predominately in literary Chinese, a language modelled on texts dating back two millennia and shaped by the history of dynastic China. As a result, Qing texts are often foreign to even the modern Chinese reader. Some texts, such as those embodying popular literature, were written in the vernacular—which only became widely acceptable in the years of the Republic that followed Qing rule—but even these were informed by China’s cultural heritage and can only be properly understood in relation to it.

Map of the prefectural seat of Luoyang

The Ten Counties of Luoyang, Jiaqing period (1796–1820), ink and pigment on silk, National Library of China

The amount of Chinese literature that has been translated into any other language is minuscule in relation to the whole. Works of enduring significance tend to receive the attention of translators, their choices often shaped by the demands of the Chinese canon or by the expectations of their foreign readers. Why engage in efforts to present more common works, such as a religious tract describing practices no longer in use or even a calendar? Yet such everyday materials can provide great insight into the texture of lived experience. They speak to how the world was ordered and understood, and provide a counterpoint to the elite culture of the court that so often finds a place in exhibitions in the West. For this reason alone, they deserve our attention.

The last of China’s imperial dynasties was a complex polity. Ruled by the Manchu court at Beijing, the Qing dynasty at its zenith controlled a vast territory, standing confidently at the eastern end of the Eurasian landmass. It drew together peoples of different cultures under a small administration, creating a unique entity that was for a time one of the richest and most powerful states in the world. It is generally accepted to have lasted from 1644, when Manchu forces entered Beijing, until 1911, when the Xinhai Revolution finally brought an end to its rule.

Despite the decline and inevitable fall of the Qing dynasty, its achievements over nearly three centuries were profound and enduring. Life in China underwent fundamental changes. Modern scholars continue to reassess the significance of Qing rule, but what is indisputable is its lasting impact on the nature of society in modern China. Events under the Qing led to the various political and cultural tides that swept through China in the twentieth century. Their effects continue to this day. A timely look back at China’s recent dynastic past will help us understand the nation’s current position in the world.

Keep your eye out for the next chapter in the series on Celestial Empire—The Culture of Rule, on our blog

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

Would anyone like to comment on the origin of the four Chinese characters on the cover, da qing shi xiang?