The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China

The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China

by Macabe Keliher

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The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China presents a major new approach in research on the formation of the Qing empire (1636–1912) in early modern China. Focusing on the symbolic practices that structured domination and legitimized authority, the book challenges traditional understandings of state-formation, and argues that in addition to war making and institution building, the disciplining of diverse political actors, and the construction of political order through symbolic acts were essential undertakings in the making of the Qing state. Beginning in 1631 with the establishment of the key disciplinary organization, the Board of Rites, and culminating with the publication of the first administrative code in 1690, Keliher shows that the Qing political environment was premised on sets of intertwined relationships constantly performed through acts such as the New Year’s Day ceremony, greeting rites, and sumptuary regulations, or what was referred to as li in Chinese. Drawing on Chinese- and Manchu-language archival sources, this book is the first to demonstrate how Qing state-makers drew on existing practices and made up new ones to reimagine political culture and construct a system of domination that lay the basis for empire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520300293
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Macabe Keliher is Assistant Professor of History at Southern Methodist University.

Read an Excerpt



Li and the Qing State

Li is the ultimate principle. When all things are embodied by this principle, then there is order.


On the eleventh day of the fourth lunar month of 1636, in the cool spring dawn of Mukden, the Manchu capital, Hong Taiji adopted the title of emperor and announced the founding of the Qing empire. This double proclamation — that a new empire was born and its sovereign was to be known as emperor (Chinese, huangdi; Machu, huwangdi) — was made amid a scripted ceremony to legitimize the act and lend authority to political actors. As the sky began to lighten in the pale morning hours, Hong Taiji led all his officials — Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese — out the palace gates to the suburban Altar of Heaven and Earth. Participants dismounted from their horses and took positions according to rank. Hong Taiji ascended the altar and stood in the center facing north, where he occupied a symbolic position at the center of the universe — a place only the emperor could take to represent the human link between Heaven and Earth. He placed three sticks of incense in the burner and bowed; he presented three bolts of silk, and made three offerings of wine. After each presentation, all in attendance performed a rite of obeisance of three genuflections and nine prostrations.

Hong Taiji read a statement. It had been prepared for the ceremony, and its intended audience was no less than Heaven. "I humbly inherit the enterprise of my forbearers," he began, and went on to express his constant devotion to and vexation of ruling over the past ten years. With the blessing of Heaven and the ancestors, Hong Taiji professed, he had been able to oversee accomplishments worthy of imperial formation: the subjugation of Choson Korea, the pacification of the Mongols and bringing them under Manchu rule, expanding borders, and establishing territorial rule. Furthermore, all this was legitimized when he obtained the Yuan dynasty state seal from conquered Mongols. "Officials and people have promotedmy accomplishments and asked that I take the title of emperor ... but I have repeatedly declined doing so. They have insisted, and so I submit to their entreaties.... I take the position of emperor and establish the Qing state [jian guohao]."

This proclamation was undoubtedly the climax, but the ceremony did not end there. Rites continued for the rest of the day and carried on for the duration of the following day. The founding announcement was repeated in Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese. More prostrations were made to Heaven and to the new emperor. Small precious gifts were given to Hong Taiji by his immediate relatives and Manchu leaders, and sacrifices were made at his father's tomb. The next day, plaques were set in the ancestral temple, and posthumous titles were given to Hong Taiji's ancestors going back seven generations to the founding ancestor, Möngke Temür. One black ox and one sheep were sacrificed before each ancestral placard. Hong Taiji again announced the founding of the Qing empire and his ascension to emperor, although this time not to Heaven but to his ancestors.

The ceremony was well attended. At hand were Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese political and military officials of the fledgling state, as well as foreign dignitaries and local Manchu leaders. These men both observed and participated; they not only witnessed the founding event but also, through their very presence, helped define the meaning of politics and society. The ceremony constructed a political world where ethnically diverse and independently ambitious men bound themselves in an ever-tightening bond in service of a common goal. This goal was expressed most immediately for the political community though state-prescribed socialized forms of interaction done in repetitive ways — that is, ritual. In this case, on this day, it was the ceremonial proceedings to announce the founding of a multiethnic empire.


The moment of the founding ceremony had been long in the making, and it would continue to reverberate for centuries throughout Eurasia. Before becoming the Qing, the Manchu — previously called Jurchens — were seminomadic and non-intensive agrarian peoples living in autonomous organizations and villages in northeastern Eurasia. In the late sixteenth century they began to organize under Hong Taiji's father, Nurhaci, who placed them into socio-military units called banners. As military successes mounted and their numbers and territory grew, Nurhaci established a governing apparatus that relied on Manchu norms and laid the foundation for Hong Taiji's Qing. A small bureaucracy was created and examinations administered; a tax-office state oversaw conquered territory and extracted agricultural surpluses. This furthered military conquest, enabling the expansion of territory, the subjugation of Mongol tribes, and the invasion of Korea, where the Choson king was forced to recognize the Manchu rulers over the Ming dynasty. Simultaneously, Han Chinese political and military subjects were absorbed, and Qing armies went on to capture Beijing and then take all of China proper, eventually becoming one of the largest land-based empires in the early modern world. In many ways, the coronation ceremony confirmed the state-making enterprise and initiated what was to be nearly three centuries of Qing rule over China and parts of Inner Asia.

The significance of the Qing empire in Chinese history cannot be overstated. Like their early modern counterparts, Qing state-makers consolidated foreign kingdoms, developed new forms of imperial rule, incorporated different ethnic groups, and embraced various cultural practices. In governing, much like their contemporaries in the Ottoman, Mughal, and Russian empires, Qing statesmen further centralized power and focused greater authority in the sovereign; they built up a robust administrative apparatus and staffed it with multiethnic personnel, enabling effective responses to new challenges; they created a sophisticated communications and reporting system and extended far-reaching control throughout their realm. In addition to shaping the early modern world, the Qing also bestowed a legacy upon modern and contemporary China. As the last imperial dynasty to rule China, the Qing court abdicated in the early twentieth century only after losing the support of the gentry and military, and even then negotiated favorable terms for the imperial family. Such longevity and influence meant that remnants of the imperial state and its accomplishments would continue to cast a shadow over its successors, right up to the present day.

A central aim of the present study is to explain the workings of the political system that made all this possible. The book takes as its subject not the institutions and activities of the military or bureaucracy, as has been most conventional. Instead, the focus is on the symbolic practices that structured domination and legitimized authority. The chapters that follow show that the ritual and disciplinary practices developed in the mid-seventeenth century not only defined power and authority but also played a key role in the construction of the Qing state and the shaping of the political system. In contrast to nearly every other aspect of the state-building process, no detailed examination has previously been made of the system of Qing political domination in what is widely considered to be a formative moment in early modern China. Even where discipline and symbolic power are central to the organization of diverse political actors and their obedience, as well as to legitimization, the subject is almost exclusively explored from the perspective of the high Qing, rather than the early formative years.

One reason for this neglect is that scholars have been focused on the processes of war making and bureaucracy. In most accounts of Qing state-formation, historians emphasize these aspects of the story, military conquest and administrative rationalization. Often weaving these two developments in a single narrative, scholars highlight the innovative social organization of the banners, which rendered a society mobilized for war and enabled the conquest of not just China but also parts of Inner Asia, greatly expanding the territorial control and ethnic composition of the empire. In most narratives, this historical development was accompanied by the implementation of administrative institutions and procedures required to govern a vast territory: a bureaucracy based on the model of the Ming's six boards and field administration, a censorate to oversee officials and remonstrate, examinations to staff positions, and a judicial system with comprehensive legal codes. Together, the conventional story goes, these two developments — conquest and bureaucracy — produced the Qing state.

The focus on military and state capacity is not surprising. The most influential theories on state-formation point to the emergence of early modern and modern states by way of military competition in the Western European theater. As rulers waged war, the theory goes, they needed to raise money, increase taxes, conscript men, register and keep track of populations, control unrest, and administer both new and old subjects. Concurrently, the development of more robust administrative and financial apparatuses furthered the capacity of the state to wage and win wars. In the words of Charles Tilly, "War made the state, and the state made war." Although early modern China differed from the European states that Tilly and his interlocutors have discussed, historians of China have for good reason found the theory useful in analyzing the Qing, both to understand the rise of a powerful and expansive empire, and to place China in comparative perspective with the rest of the world. To this end, historians of China have succeeded in utilizing these general social theories to chart the rise and development of the Qing, just as historians of other non-European states have also done.

This book is concerned with a third aspect of state-formation: discipline and domination. Recent work on other early modern states shows war and bureaucracy to be necessary but insufficient in state-building. Moreover, the discovery of new documentary sources and a reexamination of old ones point to other, simultaneous concerns and problems. The time is thus ripe to review our understanding of the making of Qing China. Doing so will not only help to explain the rise of the Qing empire but also shed light on more general trends occurring throughout early modern Eurasia.

Something more than war and institutions are required to produce social and political order: namely, coercion. Taking up the cases of early modern Germany and the Netherlands, Philip Gorski argues, "What steam did for the modern economy ... discipline did for the modern polity: by creating more obedient and industrious subjects with less coercion and violence, discipline dramatically increased, not only the regulatory power of the state, but its extractive and coercive capacities as well." To complete a ruling apparatus of military and administrative institutions, other techniques were needed to compel and coerce individuals and groups to partake in certain types of political and social activities linked to the abstract concept of the polity defined by the amorphous idea of the state beyond the ruler. In addition, legitimacy had to be sought, constructed, and conferred, and done so in ways that not only justified existing social relationships but also helped create new ones. In short, people had to obey, and to do so not because of any threat of force, but because they wished to do so.

This matter is not simply the abstract speculation of the modern-day historian; it goes to the heart of some of the most fundamental concerns of early modern actors. In the case of the Qing, contemporary sources show that simultaneous with the determination of military power and the establishment of an administrative apparatus, relational and organizational problems vexed state-makers — problems of rulership, for one. An emperor stood at the top of a hierarchy and could theoretically do things others could not, such as issue orders and sacrifice to Heaven. How, then, should he interact with his relatives and other civil and military officials? How might he greet others in passing, or speak about affairs of the state? As the final arbiter of political matters, he was to make and issue policy decisions; but how to promulgate them? How would political meetings take place? In short, how to be emperor? Similarly, there were questions about politics and the political order: How to invest a diverse group of actors, possessed of individual interests, with a sense of common purpose to conquer and rule? What means of political organization could keep internal personal and political tensions at bay and mitigate factional dispute, especially in the face of policy debates with the potential to disturb the social and political structures of the state? Even more critically, how to not only dampen the inevitable challenges and disruptions of political actors but at the same time harness their energy and ingenuity in the running of the state? And what to do with the imperial relatives, who could help the ruler but also undermine his position? Should they be exiled, politically castrated, or made to serve?

As solutions to these problems were devised and agreements reached in the 1630s and 1640s in conjunction with waging war and institution-building, state-makers' efforts gradually shifted to solidifying gains and making arrangements permanent. Guarantees were needed to secure the existing settlements of power and position, and to give the emergent system and those operating within it some degree of predictability. Actors not only demanded stability in their daily operations but also called for generational guarantees for the future of their families. The overriding concern was how to turn normative agreements into objective institutions that structured political and social relations and defined the state.

For the historian to understand the answers that contemporaries arrived at, it is not enough to chart military accomplishments, outline bureaucratic efficiency, or analyze legal codes; in addition, disciplinary practices and the nature of domination must also be considered. Power begets authority, but not without discipline and legitimization, for naked force cannot produce domination. In the words of Max Weber, "Every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience." For such consideration, however, the Qing political system as a whole needs to come into focus, not just a single aspect divorced from the totality of its operations. This is to acknowledge that the forms of discipline and domination in the Qing were intertwined with the emergence of the relations of power; they were not the adopted vestiges of Han Chinese culture, nor were they practices imposed once the political regime was set up. Rather, domination was an integral part of the system itself.

Accounting for this aspect of the Qing political system compels one to rethink the dynamics of the state-formation process. Identifying the emergence of new practices of discipline and the establishment of new institutions of domination shifts the emphasis from the Qing state as a phenomenon of late imperial China — where there is a fluid transition from the Ming, and innovation and empire commence in the eighteenth century — to the process of the construction of rulership, administrative practice, and politics. The tendency of the former position to regard the rise of the Qing and its conquest of China as historical fact overlooks the ingenuity applied in that rise and the innovations that fueled it. While it does offer an explanation of how a small band of seminomadic warriors built an early modern empire, it is a regrettably linear one that focuses on the ability to make war, and to borrow and wield Chinese organizations and practices; it misses the equally important reshaping of the political order and its culture. To take into account the nature of the internal struggles for power and direction, the molding of authority, the imposition of legitimacy, and the processes of institutionalization not only provides a key part of the explanation of the making of the Qing empire but also illuminates the nature of politics and the structure of domination in late imperial China.

Recognizing the importance of discipline and culture in early modern state-formation also helps explain political and social developments in the early modern world. The number, frequency, and impact of formal ceremonial and behavioral activities in everything from political and social stratification to circumcision ceremonies grew throughout Eurasia from approximately 1400 to 1800. Rulers, ministers, officials, and other state-makers, from Tudor England to Tokugawa Japan, became increasingly concerned with aspects of rank and status, as well as with the upholding of norms assigned to those positions and titles; they held state ceremonies more frequently, and prescribed and self-regulated standards of social ceremony and activity with greater devotion. In Bourbon France, for example, status interaction took on an unprecedented immediacy and became of the utmost importance among officials and elite. This resulted not only in the creation of new administrative positions for ceremony and behavioral regulations in political courts but also in interpersonal tussles over dress, gestures, and epistolary style. Similarly, in the Ottoman empire, a new ceremonial culture emerged in the sixteenth century, which worked to bind political and social actors through symbolic and performative acts. At the same time, in Russia, wedding proceedings and ceremonies were held at shorter intervals and in grander style as they emerged as political events to be relied on and manipulated by both rulers and officials in the construction and disciplining of political order. Even in the New World, the employment and practice of ritual and ceremony by Spanish administrators helped shape the structure of authority in colonial Mexico.


Excerpted from "The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China"
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Copyright © 2019 Macabe Keliher.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Introduction: Li and the Qing State
2. The Manchu Ascendancy and Struggles for Power

3. The New Year’s Day Ceremony
4. The Institution of the Emperor
5. The Administrative Order and Its Enactment

6. Imperial Relatives in Service of the State
7. Completing the System: The Case of Imperial Dress
8. Codification: The Da Qing Huidian

Conclusion: Li, Qing China, and Early Modern Eurasia

Appendix One: Sons and Grandsons of Nurhaci and Šurhaci
Mentioned in the Text
Appendix Two: Banner Lords under Nurhaci and Hong Taiji
Appendix Three: A Note on Sources

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