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Bad History: Qianlong, Xinjiang, and Western Aesthetics

I’m used to having history get mangled in the newspapers, goodness knows the People’s Daily does it all the time, but this piece in the New York Times by IHT art editor Souren Melikian probably deserves a special award of some kind.

For example:

At the height of its maximum extension around the first or second century A.D., the Chinese empire ruled by the Han dynasty nominally controlled the area. Many centuries later, the Mongols overran Uighur lands in the course of their conquests, which embraced territories stretching from the borders of present-day Poland in the west to the Pacific shores of China and included the Middle East. But the great Song dynasty, under which Chinese culture rose to an apex around the 11th or 12th century, showed no interest in such undertakings. Neither did the Ming, who re-established Chinese unity after defeating the Mongol dynasty, who ruled China from 1279 to 1368.

Calling the Song the “apex of Chinese history,” especially from the perspective of an art historian, is a judgment call, but the Song were certainly not much of a military power.  Hemmed in by a bevy of hostile groups and eventually overrun, the Song hardly had an opportunity to extend their control to Xinjiang.  The Ming too, faced recurring problems on their western flank from the Mongols and were never in a position to stretch their authority westward.  If the Ming could have they probably would have, but it was hardly an option at the time.  Cue the Manchus.

Melikian is writing about a set of prints done in France at the behest of Qianlong commemorating the Qing conquest of Xinjiang.  I admit it’s a curious case worth exploring.  The larger argument about a flood of Western influence swamping the Chinese art tradition seems a bit overstated, but the prints themselves remain an interesting subject.  What was the purpose of these prints? Why design them in the ‘Western’ fashion? Melikian looks for the answers, takes a big swing, and comes up with answers so daft I’d almost believe it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke on the China historical community except that nobody cares that much about the China historical community:

How the massive intrusion into China, not just of foreign motifs but of aesthetics fundamentally alien to her art, came to pass has never been seriously discussed.

One factor seems obvious. While born in China, Qianlong was not Chinese. A scion of the dynasty founded in the mid-17th century by the Manchu invaders, the emperor spoke Manchu to his close relatives, dressed like a Manchu and had the tastes of a Manchu prince, hunting included. Even though he was thoroughly at home in Chinese letters to the point of composing impeccable poems and producing passable calligraphy, Qianlong was a traveler through cultures. As an outsider, he looked at them and their conflicting art forms with equal curiosity.

Yes, Qianlong was a Manchu.  He spoke Manchu and to a certain extent saw himself as an “outsider,” although he would probably have preferred the term “conqueror” had he thought about it all…BUT to then say that Qianlong’s Manchu identity would cause him to pursue a westernizing trend in palace art is just too big of a leap.  I suspect the new interest in “Western motifs” was more due to increasing contact with the West, particularly in terms of trade, during the 60-odd years that Qianlong was on the throne. But hey…that’s just me.

Qianlong, like many of the Manchu emperors, was a master at deploying culture through performance (especially in terms of ritual), patronage, and presentation but I’m not sure we can call him a “traveler through cultures.” Let’s just move on…

“The emperor’s foreign roots might even account for his conquering endeavor in Turkistan. Invading foreign lands is alien to the authentic Chinese tradition, molded by Confucianism, which does not hold the military in high esteem.

Ancient rivalries in the steppes and a taste for physical triumph inherited from his nomadic ancestry were perhaps the motivations behind Qianlong’s strange expedition that made so little political sense.”

We’ve had this debate before, and it depends a bit on what you mean by “invade foreign lands.”  The expansion of the Han and Tang didn’t happen by accident (hey look, Han Wudi tripped and ended up with Southern China! What a guy!)  and just because those territories are TODAY part of China doesn’t automatically mean that the people who were living there AT THE TIME welcomed in the armies of Han Wudi or Tang Xuanzong with open arms…but that’s not my main problem, it’s the essentializing of Confucianism, where a poorly understood factoid from the Confucian tradition is declared an inherent characteristic of all China at all times because, you know, Confucius was Chinese and, uh, the Chinese are real traditional, like.  Especially the “authentic” Chinese.  Sure there was a tendency to place “wen 文” over “wu 武” (particularly during the Song), but that doesn’t mean that previous Dynasties were pacifists and only the Manchus had the thirst for conquest because, you know, they were nomads from the steppe.

Except they weren’t.  Manchus aren’t Mongols.  The Mongols are roaming nomads of the steppe.  The Manchus were primarily a hunting/farming people of the forest areas in what is today Northeastern China.  And while they did have a taste for “physical triumph” and loved the hunt, this take on Manchu culture, especially the  “ancient rivalries” bit, sounds better suited to the the beginning of a Conan comic book than serious historical analysis.

The story of the French prints is one worth exploring, and the article, almost in spite of itself, raises a number of interesting issues, but it’s going to take a better grasp of Qing Dynasty history to do this subject justice.

11 Comments on Bad History: Qianlong, Xinjiang, and Western Aesthetics

  1. Weird that you mention Conan the B., I had the theme music running through my head as I read this . . . .

  2. I feel like this is another case of “a little knowledge can do a lot of harm.” (I may have just invented this expression, but I feel like my mother or Rachel Lynde may have said it.) Everyone’s excited about China, reads two books on the place and then generalizes.

  3. “Qianlong…producing passable calligraphy”

    This one cracked me up. Passable? Yeah, for a “foreigner” like him to write “Chinese”, the following is certainly “passable”:

    http://www.cangcn.com/xub/2009/1/23-01.jpg

    http://img3.pcpop.com/upimg3/2009/2/24/0006844660.gif

    http://1802.img.pp.sohu.com.cn/images/blog/2009/3/1/14/28/1206b11df4dg213.jpg

    Jeremiah, don’t be too harsh on her. She is one of those 1000000000000000000000000000 real foreigners who know very little about China yet come off knowing a lot about China.

  4. I agree with you. The article should have focused on the known facts surrounding the commissioning of the prints, the prints themselves and foreign art influences on china at the time. The discussion of central asia history was not the best and was kind of confusing for a newspaper article. A simple paragraph providing background on the military expedition depicted in the prints was all that was needed.

    Maybe some background research on other similar art purchases by the emperor would have been useful. what else was he doing when it was commissioned. maybe it was something simple like he say a book with french prints of other famous battles and decided he wanted something similar or maybe someone sold the idea to him. After reading the original article I came away just with a mystery about why a chinese emperor ordered french prints, a confusing discussion of historical context and a negative opinion from the author on the qing military campaign in xinjiang which he seemed to be trying to generalize. Maybe he is against Obama’s plans for afghanistan or maybe it was directed to Tibet or both?

  5. Qianlong probably had the prints done in French fashion for a simple, and universal reason, exoticism. Being able to show off art of foreign styling (witness the Chinoiserie trend in Europe at the same time) is a mark of refinement and status for many nobility. Qianlong also happened to have commissioned the crafting of several swords in the Indo-Persian style.

  6. I just reread the article and noticed this:

    Adhering to Buddhism and occasionally to Christianity, the Uighurs were slowly won over to Islam by the missionaries who arrived from the Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia. None of this made their land a particularly obvious target for China.

    Weren’t the Buddhist Uyghurs actual a different group of people? I thought that using the term Uyghur to refer the current people in Xinjiang was actually a relatively recent phenomenon. The name was taken from the Buddhist Uyghurs who did indeed occupy the rim of the Taklamakan Desert, but they were a different group of people than the Central Asians who are now known as Uyghurs, right?

  7. “…but that’s not my main problem, it’s the essentializing of Confucianism, where a poorly understood factoid from the Confucian tradition is declared an inherent characteristic of all China at all times because, you know, Confucius was Chinese and, uh, the Chinese are real traditional, like.”

    This constantly goes on in American college classroom discussions, one of my pet peeves is someone trying explain Chinese behavior be it political, economic, or social-especially modern behavior-as if it all stems from a random Confucian maxim… because as you say “Chinese are like traditional”…thanks for pointing this out, and I wish more people were called on it.

  8. “Invading foreign lands is alien to the authentic Chinese tradition, molded by Confucianism, which does not hold the military in high esteem.”
    ***
    Here is a book about the inauthentic military tradition of the Chinese people:
    Military Culture in Imperial China
    http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/DICMIL.html

    “The book critically investigates the perception that, due to the influence of Confucianism, Chinese culture has systematically devalued military matters. There was nothing inherently pacifist about the Chinese governments’ views of war, and pragmatic approaches—even aggressive and expansionist projects—often prevailed.”
    ***
    Also, after reading the introduction, I was tipped off to this UChicago educated Republican Era Chinese history prof, Lei Haizong (雷海宗). He wrote influential pieces (see list below) that attribute China’s weakness to “China’s traditional culture”, leaving us with the o-so-common meme that is transmitted once again by the author in this NYT piece.
    ***
    I watched the music video produced by the PLA art troupe once again (thanks to stuart for his link in the “Ghost of Zheng He” post)
    http://tiny.cc/harmony355
    Makes one do a double take at their WWCD bracelet.

  9. Here’s a clue: Jesuits. From the late sisteenth century, the Society of Jesus managed to install a small number of its highly educated members at court as experts on astronomy, mechanics, music, painting etc. Their strategy was generally to assimilate into Chinese society, so I think their influence was hardly a “massive intrusion”.

    At the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, I have seen large copperplate battle scenes designed for the Qianlong Emperor by his European Jesuit court artists. (They are gorgeous.) The Library describes one of them thus:
    http://www.cbl.ie/cbl_image_gallery/image.asp?ID=135&Collection=&ImageNumber=T0004174
    Battle Scene
    The Conquests of the Qianlong Emperor
    Jean Philippe Le Bas
    1769, France
    C 1601
    Commentary:
    Copperplate engraving on paper by Jean Philippe Le Bas after a painting by Giuseppe Castiglione. This battle scene is a proof plate for a set of sixteen engravings commissioned in 1765 by the Qianlong Emperor (r.1736-95) to commemorate his conquests of huge tracts of foreign territory. Resident Jesuit artists at the Chinese court were instructed to prepare the drawings, which were then sent to the workshop of the famous engraver Charles-Nicolas in Paris. The Chester Beatty Library has a complete set of engravings and four proof plates.

  10. Stalin started the modern designation of “Uyghur” which was later adopted by PRC.

    After the collapse of the Uyghur empire in 9th century, Uyghur tribes of Mongolia scattered to Gansu, Xinjiang and West Turkistan.

    Eastern Uyghur of Gansu and Turfan became Buddhists. Yugor or “yellow Uyghurs” of today are descended from Uyghurs of Gansu. Western branch of Uyghur migration founded Karakhanids and converted to Islam. For a while, “Uyghur” was a term reserved for Buddhist Uyghur of Turfan Kingdom. Buddhist Uyghur kingdom of Turfan remain Buddhist until almost the 15th century.

    Modern Uyghurs are descendants of conquering Turko-Mongol tribes (including ancient Uyghurs) and conquered oasis-dwellers. Y-chromosome mapping of modern Uyghurs are quite telling regarding their patrilineal descend.

  11. david0fsangabriel // April 4, 2009 at 5:58 am //

    @ fengjunzi:

    “Weren’t the Buddhist Uyghurs actual a different group of people? I thought that using the term Uyghur to refer the current people in Xinjiang was actually a relatively recent phenomenon. The name was taken from the Buddhist Uyghurs who did indeed occupy the rim of the Taklamakan Desert, but they were a different group of people than the Central Asians who are now known as Uyghurs, right?”

    Trying to figure out the relation between the”original peoples” of western and southern China and the peoples who occupy those territories now is a nightmare…I do believe, however, that the original inhabitants of Xinjiang were tartan-wearing blond-haired Celts who spoke with a Scottish brogue. “An’ where ma’ be tha’ bonnie loch o’ Lop Nur, ma lassie?”

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