20080217-qing-empress1 Guo Zong ch pg.jpg
Empress Guo Zong
The Qing (Ching, Ch’ing, Manchu) Dynasty (1644-1912) was China's last dynasty. Its Manchu emperors were unpopular because they were not Han Chinese. They descended from invading horsemen to the northeast and opened up China to exploitation from the West. Even so they made many improvements in the lives of ordinary Chinese and expanded China to its present size.

The Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) was overthrown by the Manchus, who established the Qing Dynasty, with the help of local peasant rebellions. The Manchus had advanced steadily south in the 16th and by the end of 17th century had complete control of China. The Qing Dynasty expanded northward, westward and southward. Under emperors Kangxi (reigned 1662–1722) and Qianlong (reigned 1735–96), China was perhaps at its greatest territorial extent, and included Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, Taiwan, and parts of Siberia and the Uighur Empire in Central Asia and Turkestan (Xinjiang, present-day Western China).

The early Qing Dynasty emperors of this reign oversaw a time of peace, prosperity and geographic expansion. Only later did civil unrest begin with uprisings in many parts of the country, finally ending in 1911 when a successful revolution led to the establishment of the Republic of China. The dynasty saw increased influences from the west, particularly the British at with whom the devastating Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) were fought. In defeat, China was forced to sign a treaty with Great Britain and ports were opened to European trade. [Source: Fowler Museum at UCLA]

The first century and a half of Manchu rule was characterized by stability and expansion of power. Although the Manchus were conquerors, they adopted local Han Chinese culture, administration systems and laws. The population of over 300 million by 1750 grew to over 400 million a century later. Especially in later years, the Qing practiced strict isolationism, which ultimately led to their downfall, as their military technology did not keep pace with that of the Western powers. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press; Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007; Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The Qing (pronounced “Ching”) Dynasty lasted 268 years, until 1912, when the Empress Dowager Longyu signed abdication papers on behalf of the 5-year-old Xuantong emperor — Puyi, the “Last Emperor.” Beijing was the Qing capital. The most outstanding Qing emperors, who contributed the most to history, were Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. Maxwell K. Hearn of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In 1644, the Manchus, a semi-nomadic people from northeast of the Great Wall, conquered the crumbling Ming state and established their own Qing (or Pure) dynasty. They established their hegemony over Chinese cultural traditions as an important means of demonstrating their legitimacy as Confucian-style rulers." Sebastien Roblin wrote in This Week: The Qing Dynasty “expanded China's borders to their farthest reach, conquering Tibet, Taiwan and the Uighur Empire. However, the Qing then turned inward and isolationist, refusing to accept Western ambassadors because they were unwilling to proclaim the Qing Dynasty as supreme above their own heads of state.” [Source: Sebastien Roblin, This Week, August 6, 2016; [Source: Maxwell K. Hearn, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org]

Qing Dynasty Rulers (Name: Reign Title, Reign Dates): 1) Shizu: Shunzhi (1644–61); 2) Shengzu: Kangxi (1662–1722); 3) Shizong: Yungzheng (1723–35); 4) Gaozong: Qianlong (1736–95); 5) Renzong: Jiaqing (1796–1820); 6) Xuanzong: Daoguang (1821–50); 7) Wenzong: Xianfeng (1851–61); 8) Muzong: Dongzhi (1862–74); 9) Tezong: Guangxu (1875–1908); 10) (Pui): Xuantong (1909–11).

Also see Sections on China in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries

Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained drben.net/ChinaReport ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing learn.columbia.edu Ming and Qing Tombs UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Forbidden City: FORBIDDEN CITY factsanddetails.com/china; Wikipedia; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites World Heritage Site ; Temple of Heaven: Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO World Heritage Site ; Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi etext.virginia.edu; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Books on Cixi royalty.nu; The Last Emperor Puyi Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; His Widow's Account hartford-hwp.com/archives; Puyi Biography royalty.nu/Asia Chinese History: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Books: "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan, "The Last Emperors: A Social History of the Qing Imperial Institutions" by Evelyn S. Rawski (University of California Press, 1999). "Forbidden City" by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist, "Emperor of China: Self Portrait of Kang Xi” by Jonathon Spence


Armored Yongzheng

The Manchus are Mongol-like-horsemen-turned-merchants from Manchuria whose homeland was originally centered around what is now the city of Shenyang in northeast China. From the 17th century to the early 20th century — during the Qing Dynasty — they were the rulers of China. Now they are one of the most assimilated ethnic minorities, yet they still retain a strong sense of their own identity. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]

The Manchus are the second largest minority in China today after the Zhuang. They are widely distributed throughout China but most of them live in the three northeast provinces—Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, The largest number of them is in Liaoning Province, followed by Jilin and Heilongjiang Province and smaller numbers in Hebei, Gansu, Shandong, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. There are also significant numbers in the cities of Beijing, Chengdu, Xian and Guangzhou. Many of the Manchus that live outside the Manchu homeland descendants of Manchu administrators and military colonists.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Descended from a horse-riding nomadic people of northeastern China, the Manchus were the last imperial rulers of the country, establishing the Qing Dynasty. The number of people in China who identify themselves as Manchu (a classification that exists on Chinese identification cards) has increased from just over 4 million in the early 1980s to more than 10 million.[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2013]

Manchu are also known as Jurchen, Nuzhen and Qiren. They They were of mixed Mongolian, Korean, Chinese and Jurchen stock. Manchu ancestry can be traced to the Nuchen nationality from the Northern Song Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, the Mohe nationality of the Sui Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty, the Wuji nationality of the Northern Dynasties, the Yilou nationality of the Han Dynasty and the Sushen nationality around the Shang Dynasty and the Zhou Dynasty. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn]

Manchu's Rise to Power

Manchu success against their Asian adversaries was due to their ability to marry Mongol military technique with Chinese administrative government. They had less success against the European invaders. In the 19th century, Manchu archers were mowed down by European guns and canons.

Manchu began invading China from the northeast in 1618. They were initially held back by the Great Wall of China. In 1644, when rebels stormed Beijing and the Ming Emperor committed suicide, Ming generals saw their only hope of survival was forming an alliance with the Manchus. In an act of desperation a military commander in the northeast opened a major gate in the Great Wall to Manchus in hope they would help restore the royal family. After the peasants were easily defeated, the Manchus turned their weapons on the Ming and marched into Beijing in June 1644 and declared a new dynasty, the Qing.

Early in the 13th century, the Nuzhens were conquered by the Mongols and later came under the rule of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). With the largest concentration in Yilan, Heilongjiang Province, they settled on the middle and lower reaches of the Heilong River and along the Songhua and Wusuli rivers, extending to the sea in the east. The Yuan Dynasty enlisted the service of local upper-strata residents to create five administrations each governing 10,000 house-holds, known respectively as Taowen, Huligai, Woduolian, Tuowolian and Bokujiang. The Nuzhens at this time were still leading a primitive life. They developed and progressed, until Nurhachi's son proclaimed the name of Manchu towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Ming Dynasty had 384 military forts and outposts established in the Nuzhen area, and the Nuergan Garrison Command, a local military and administrative organization in Telin area opposite the confluence of the Heilong and Henggun rivers, was placed directly under the Ming court. While strengthening central government control over northeast China, these establishments aided the economic and cultural exchanges between the Nuzhen and Han peoples.

18th century Qing China

Decline and Fall of the Ming Dynasty

The Qing Dynasty was preceded by the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) Long wars with the Mongols, incursions by the Japanese into Korea, and harassment of Chinese coastal cities by the Japanese in the sixteenth century weakened Ming rule, which became, as earlier Chinese dynasties had, ripe for an alien takeover. In 1644 the Manchus took Beijing from the north and became masters of north China.

The Ming court was very corrupt. Some court eunuchs and civil servants made small fortunes by setting fires and getting kickbacks from the contractors who repaired the damage. Others embezzled money that was intended to buy food for the court elephants.

In its final years the Ming Dynasty was weakened by corruption, power-hungry eunuchs and political trouble on its borders. The decline was accelerated after a costly war against Japan over Korea. After Manchu invasions from the north, the great 16th century historian Zhang Dai wrote that Beijing was overrun with “unemployed soldiers and clerks, laid off couriers, miners, landless laborers driven from the desiccated farms, refugees from the Manchu-dominated areas north of the Great Wall, Muslim and other traders who had lost their money as the Silk Road trade faltered."

The Ming dynasty finally collapsed as a result of a peasant rebellion launched in the Shaanxi province after a devastating famine there and an invasion of Manchus from the north. The last Ming emperor killed himself by hanging himself from a tree in the northern edge of the Forbidden rather that being captured. The Manchus took power by overthrowing the rebel group that overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644. The impact of the Machu success one historian said "was comparable to that experienced by the Christian world after the loss of the Holy Land to the Muslim world."

How the Manchus Gained Control Over China

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “ The Manchus had gained the mastery over China owing rather to China's internal situation than to their military superiority. How was it that the dynasty could endure for so long, although the Manchus were not numerous, although the first Manchu ruler (Shunzhi Emperor. Fu-lin ,reign name, Shun-chih) was a psychopathic youth, although there were princes of the Ming dynasty ruling in South China, and although there were strong groups of rebels all over the country? The Manchus were aliens; at that time the national feeling of the Chinese had already been awakened; aliens were despised. In addition to this, the Manchus demanded that as a sign of their subjection the Chinese should wear pigtails and assume Manchurian clothing (law of 1645). Such laws could not but offend national pride. Moreover, marriages between Manchus and Chinese were prohibited, and a dual government was set up, with Manchus always alongside Chinese in every office, the Manchus being of course in the superior position. The Manchu soldiers were distributed in military garrisons among the great cities, and were paid state pensions, which had to be provided by taxation. They were the master race, and had no need to work. Manchus did not have to attend the difficult state examinations which the Chinese had to pass in order to gain an appointment. How was it that in spite of all this the Manchus were able to establish themselves?[Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Ming army

“The conquering Manchu generals first went south from eastern China, and in 1645 captured Nanking, where a Ming prince had ruled. The region round Nanking was the economic centre of China. Soon the Manchus were in the adjoining southern provinces, and thus they conquered the whole of the territory of the landowning gentry, who after the events of the beginning of the seventeenth century had no longer trusted the Ming rulers. The Ming prince in Nanking was just as incapable, and surrounded by just as evil a clique, as the Ming emperors of the past. The gentry were not inclined to defend him. A considerable section of the gentry were reduced to utter despair; they had no desire to support the Ming any longer; in their own interest they could not support the rebel leaders; and they regarded the Manchus as just a particular sort of "rebels". Interpreting the refusal of some Song ministers to serve the foreign Mongols as an act of loyalty, it was now regarded as shameful to desert a dynasty when it came to an end and to serve the new ruler, even if the new regime promised to be better. Many thousands of officials, scholars, and great landowners committed suicide. Many books, often really moving and tragic, are filled with the story of their lives. Some of them tried to form insurgent bands with their peasants and went into the mountains, but they were unable to maintain themselves there. The great bulk of the élite soon brought themselves to collaborate with the conquerors when they were offered tolerable conditions. In the end the Manchus did not interfere in the ownership of land in central China.

“At the time when in Europe Louis XIV was reigning, the Thirty Years War was coming to an end, and Cromwell was carrying out his reforms in England, the Manchus conquered the whole of China. Zhang Xianzhong and Li Zicheng were the first to fall; the pirate Coxinga lasted a little longer and was even able to plunder Nanking in 1659, but in 1661 he had to retire to Formosa. Wu Sangui, who meanwhile had conquered western China, saw that the situation was becoming difficult for him. His task was to drive out the last Ming pretenders for the Manchus. As he had already been opposed to the Ming in 1644, and as the Ming no longer had any following among the gentry, he could not suddenly work with them against the Manchus. He therefore handed over to the Manchus the last Ming prince, whom the Burmese had delivered up to him in 1661. Wu Sangui's only possible allies against the Manchus were the gentry. But in the west, where he was in power, the gentry counted for nothing; they had in any case been weaker in the west, and they had been decimated by the insurrection of Zhang Xianzhong. Thus Wu Sangui was compelled to try to push eastwards, in order to unite with the gentry of the Yangtze region against the Manchus. The Manchus guessed Wu Sangui's plan, and in 1673, after every effort at accommodation had failed, open war came. Wu Sangui made himself emperor, and the Manchus marched against him. Meanwhile, the Chinese gentry of the Yangtze region had come to terms with the Manchus, and they gave Wu Sangui no help. He vegetated in the south-west, a region too poor to maintain an army that could conquer all China, and too small to enable him to last indefinitely as an independent power. He was able to hold his own until his death, although, with the loss of the support of the gentry, he had no prospect of final success. Not until 1681 was his successor, his grandson Wu Shih-fan, defeated. The end of the rule of Wu Sangui and his successor marked the end of the national governments of China; the whole country was now under alien domination, for the simple reason that all the opponents of the Manchus had failed. Only the Manchus were accredited with the ability to bring order out of the universal confusion, so that there was clearly no alternative but to put up with the many insults and humiliations they inflicted—with the result that the national feeling that had just been aroused died away, except where it was kept alive in a few secret societies. There will be more to say about this, once the works which were suppressed by the Manchus are published.

“In the first phase of the Manchu conquest the gentry had refused to support either the Ming princes or Wu Sangui, or any of the rebels, or the Manchus themselves. A second phase began about twenty years after the capture of Beijing, when the Manchus won over the gentry by desisting from any interference with the ownership of land, and by the use of Manchu troops to clear away the "rebels" who were hostile to the gentry. A reputable government was then set up in Beijing, free from eunuchs and from all the old cliques; in their place the government looked for Chinese scholars for its administrative posts. Literati and scholars streamed into Beijing, especially members of the "Academies" that still existed in secret, men who had been the chief sufferers from the conditions at the end of the Ming epoch. The young emperor Sheng Tsu (1663-1722;Kangxi is the name by which his rule was known, not his name) was keenly interested in Chinese culture and gave privileged treatment to the scholars of the gentry who came forward. A rapid recovery quite clearly took place. The disturbances of the years that had passed had got rid of the worst enemies of the people, the formidable rival cliques and the individuals lusting for power; the gentry had become more cautious in their behaviour to the peasants; and bribery had been largely stamped out. Finally, the empire had been greatly expanded. All these things helped to stabilize the regime of the Manchus.

Manchu Rule

The Manchurian Qing were not as civilized as the Mings but they quickly adopted Chinese culture and the Ming form of government and retained Ming officials but made sure most of the important positions were filled by Manchus. The Qings had no clear line of succession. Rulers chose their successors on the basis of merit and sisters and daughters had imperial status.

The Manchus continued the Confucian civil service system. Although Chinese were barred from the highest offices, Chinese officials predominated over Manchu officeholders outside the capital, except in military positions. The Neo-Confucian philosophy, emphasizing the obedience of subject to ruler, was enforced as the state creed. The Manchu emperors also supported Chinese literary and historical projects of enormous scope; the survival of much of China's ancient literature is attributed to these projects. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Ever suspicious of Han Chinese, the Qing rulers put into effect measures aimed at preventing the absorption of the Manchus into the dominant Han Chinese population. Han Chinese were prohibited from migrating into the Manchu homeland, and Manchus were forbidden to engage in trade or manual labor. Intermarriage between the two groups was forbidden. In many government positions a system of dual appointments was used — the Chinese appointee was required to do the substantive work and the Manchu to ensure Han loyalty to Qing rule. *

Qing Manchu rulers used language to enforce ethnic identity and legal status. Mårten Söderblom Saarela wrote in that the Qing rulers’ continuous re-negotiation of the status and function of Manchu vis-à-vis literary and vernacular Chinese reflects “a high awareness of societal plurilingualism and the importance of language planning”. [Source: Ashley Liu, University of Maryland, MCLC Resource Center, March, 2021]

Qing Emperors

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The 268-year duration of the Qing dynasty was dominated by the rule of two monarchs: the Kangxi Emperor, who reigned from 1662 to 1722, and his grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from 1736 to 1796. These two emperors, each of whom reigned for about 60 years, would set the course of Qing history and in large part create the political, economic, and cultural legacy inherited by modern China. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn and Madeleine Zelin, Consultants, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu ]

Qianlong Emperor's Victory Banquet

According to the Field Museum in Chicago: “Under the Qing rulers, the heart of China was a walled city-within-a-city in Beijing. Known as the Forbidden City, it was not only the private residence of the emperor and his family, but also a center of scholarship, religion, culture, and politics. Covering 178 acres and surrounded by a broad moat and high wall, this fortress palace was off limits to everyone except those on official imperial business.” [Source: Field Museum, Chicago, Exhibition, March 12—September 12, 2004]

Qing Dynasty Rulers (Name: Reign Title, Reign Dates): 1) Shizu: Shunzhi (1644–61); 2) Xuanye (Shengzu, 1654-1722), reigned as the Kangxi Emperor (1662–1722); 3) Yinzhen (1678-1735), son of Xuanye; reigned as the Yongzheng Emperor (1723–35); 4) Hongli (Gaozong, 1711-99), son of Yinzhen, grandson of Xuanye; reigned as the Qianlong Emperor (1736–95); 5) Renzong: Jiaqing (1796–1820); 6) Xuanzong: Daoguang (1821–50); 7) Wenzong: Xianfeng (1851–61); 8) Muzong: Dongzhi (1862–74); 9) Tezong: Guangxu (1875–1908); 10) (Pui): Xuantong (1909–11).

The first Manchu Emperor Shun-chih (1644-1661) had his body mummified and lacquered in gold. His body is still kept at the monastery of Tien Taisu where he spent the last years of his life. The Yongzheng Emperor (1732-35) was known for his cruelty. A typical a Yongzheng punishment, one Ming-era scholar wrote, was a "lingering execution by slicing for the traitor himself, with summary execution by beheading or strangulation for all his close male relatives aged sixteen or over, and exile or enslavement for all the women and minor males in the criminal's family."

Southern Inspection Tours by the Qing Emperors

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The imperial inspection tours of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors were unique in Chinese history. Other emperors in other eras had from time to time completed a single inspection tour of the empire or made the epic journey to Mount Tai to worship Heaven, but the Qing emperors were the first to undertake multiple tours of inspection to all corners of the empire. In fact, these personal inspection tours were part of a strategy for extending and solidifying Manchu rule throughout the empire. During his 60-year reign, the Kangxi Emperor completed six southern inspection tours. The Kangxi Emperor's grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, followed his example and also made six southern tours.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn, Consultant, learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]

“The Southern Tours” were recorded on large scrolls. The “scrolls of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors were never intended for a general audience. Celebratory and commemorative, they were created as historical documents for posterity and not intended to set stylistic precedents or to woo viewers of the time. In spite of their enormous scale, ravishing color, vivid detail, and the vast amount of labor required to create them, these works were scarcely seen at all once they had been produced. They were not put on public display; probably very few members of the court, and certainly none of the public, had access to them. They were kept in a special storeroom for maps and imperial portraits, where they awaited the judgment of history. Today these scrolls serve not only as a testimony to the political ambitions of the Qing emperors to preside over a prosperous, unified empire, but also provide invaluable documentary evidence about daily life in traditional China.

Improvements Under Qing Rule

Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour

The early years of Qing rule was a period of peace and prosperity. National strength was at its peak and the arts flourished. The emperors collected painting, calligraphy, ancient bronze vessels and craftsmen carved decorative pieces form bamboo, wood, ivory, gold, sliver, rock-srystan and jade.

Under their able but unpopular leadership, the Manchu emperors introduced new crops (sweet potato, maize, peanuts), developed better flood control, reduced taxes and allowed economic and political growth. Traditional arts and literature became more sophisticated.

Women's right improved under the Qings. Women were allowed to walk freely in public places, ride horses, practice archery, participate in hunts and even fight beside men on the battlefield. Under Manchu rule Machu women were forbidden from having their feet bound and all men — Manchu and Chinese — were required to wear the Manchu-style pigtail haircut.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, China accounted for a third of the world's total value of goods and services. As late as 1820, China accounted for 29 percent of the world's gross domestic product.

The non-Han Manchu emperors were vulnerable to criticism from their Han subjects. They struck back by brutally repressing the Chinese peasantry by enslaving them in debt and severely punishing them for small offenses.

Empresses, Dowagers and Court Women During the Qing Dynasty

Some women became very powerful during the Qing Dynasty. In a review of an art exhibition called “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C., Sebastian Smee wrote in the Washington Post: Empress Xiaozhuang, was a wife, mother and grandmother of emperors and an influential political figure during the first years of the Qing Dynasty. Empress Dowager Chongqing and the Empress Xiaoxian, were connected to the Qianlong Emperor (mother and wife, respectively). Empress Dowager Ci’an and Empress Dowager Cixi were important figures during the final decades of the Qing Dynasty. [Source: Sebastian Smee, Art critic, Washington Post, April 12, 2019]

“Although Chinese emperors had multiple spouses, known as consorts, each of whom was given one of eight ranks, there was only one empress at a time. Consorts could advance to a higher rank by bearing a son. Each son had an opportunity to become emperor, no matter the rank of his mother, so there was fierce competition among the consorts. Each emperor’s mother had special status as an “empress dowager.” (That same title could also be given to the widowed primary wife of the emperor’s father.) The empress dowager was ranked above the empress. She was second only to the emperor in the imperial family.

“Chinese women near the top of the royal hierarchy wielded power and influence” but according to the exhibition’s catalogue introduction: “By today’s standards, the restrictions imposed on empresses in China’s last dynasty are shocking.” These women were the “inalienable possessions of the monarchy,” their lives were controlled by stringent codes, and their freedom and opportunities were severely restricted. Their most important job was to produce children — above all, sons. Yetif you engage with these women on their own terms, and within their historical context and don’t try to pull them into the present, their experiences prove enlightening as they made meaningful lives for themselves within — and sometimes beyond — the formal strictures of the court.”

Art Work and Love Dedicated to Qing Empresses

Then there is the artwork dedicated to these women. On a Buddhist stupa made from gold and silver, Smee wrote: The stupa, which is adorned with coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli and other semiprecious stones, was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in honor of his mother, the Empress Dowager Chongqing, after her death. Inside is a box with a lock of her hair. The Qianlong Emperor micromanaged its creation, continually issuing new instructions, so that it ended up being twice as tall and far more elaborate than the original design. “The object suggests something more than just mourning, more than just “My dear mother, I loved her.” It suggests reverence. It suggests power. [Source: Sebastian Smee, Art critic, Washington Post, April 12, 2019]

Among the most moving things in the show is a poem by the artistically inclined Qianlong Emperor, inscribed in his own hand on precious, 11th-century brown paper. He wrote it months after the death of his wife, soul mate and childhood sweetheart, the Empress Xiaoxian. Heartbroken by the death of her 2-year-old son, Xiaoxian had fallen ill on a trip to eastern China with her husband. The poem is titled “Expressing My Grief.” It fulfills the promise of its title with poignant aplomb:
There are times when I find a brief respite,
Yet, before long, my feelings are affected
And I break down once more.
I can well believe that life is a dream,
And that all things are but empty.

“Among the show’s most lustrous items are festive robes, or “jifu,” worn by Qing empresses. A traditional duty of empresses was to oversee the production of silk, so these astonishing robes, made from patterned silk satin and embroidery and decorated with symbolic motifs, were special expressions of their influence. A hierarchy of colors dictated that yellow be used by only the most senior imperial women. Other colors and motifs were introduced, often in ways that broke with convention and expressed the special predilections of the wearer.

“The most ubiquitous symbol in the show is the mythical phoenix. It is painted, embroidered on socks and silk fans, carved into stone seals and depicted in cloisonné screens. Said to alight on paulownia trees “only during times of just and proper rule,” the phoenix was not exclusively associated with women. But it appears so commonly in objects connected with powerful women that, as you walk through the show, phoenix and empress come to feel virtually synonymous.

Tombs of Qing Imperial Concubines

Huifeiling is the tomb of Emperor Tong Zhi's concubine, half a kilometer west of Huiling. Another tomb, the Zhaoxi Tomb of Empress Xiaozhuangwen, is located outside the big red gate. Why should one tomb be built outside the big red gate? The reason is that originally she was a concubine of Huangtaiji Emperor Tai Zong (1592-1643). When Emperor Kang Xi was on the throne she was respected as empress dowager. During the reigns of Yong Zheng and Qian Long, 45 years after her death, she was regarded as Empress Xiaozhuangwen. She was Emperor Shun Zhi's mother but she lived over 20 years longer than Shun Zhi. She died at the age of 75 in the 26th year of the reign of Kang Xi (1687). [Source: China.org]

At the beginning of Kang Xi reign, she had a strong hand in state affairs from behind a screen placed at the rear of the throne in her position as empress dowager. She set a precedent for Ci Xi to usurp power later on. She said to Kang Xi before she died: "Emperor Tai Zong has been dead for a long time, his tomb shouldn't be disturbed for me. Besides, I am always concerned about you and your father, so after I die my body should be buried near Xiaoling Mausoleum that I would be satisfied''

Tai Zong was her first husband, Huangtaiji, who was buried in Zhaoling Mausoleum, Shenyang, according to court rules her body should be buried near Zhaoling Mausoleum. Still, there is a question why she chose Xiaoling Mausoleum in preference to the expected Zhaoling Mausoleum. The reason is not merely that Emperor Kang Xi and his father were dear to her heart. There is a story behind it.

It is known that at the beginning of Shun Zhi reign she was respected as the mother of the country. But as she remarried her brother-in-law, she became wife of regent Dorgon. Though this may not have been an astonishing act, it is, nevertheless, rare in Chinese history. Regent Dorgon was haughty and domineering when he was on throne, falling into disrepute and becoming the target of very strong public criticism by the time he died. She was, of course, reluctant to be buried with him under these circumstances.

Huangtaiji was her former husband but since she had married her brother-in-law after his death, both feudal concepts and religious superstition militated against the burial with her first husband. Thus she did not have much choice but to ask to be buried near Xiaoling Mausoleum.

At first, complying with Xiao Zhuangwen's last words, Kang Xi built a "Zhananfeng Temple" on the south of Xiaoling Mausoleum. But in the second year of his reign (1724), Emperor Yong Zheng built the present mausoleum for her, calling it "the West Zhaoling Mausoleum." Based on the name, it approximated in appearances the Zhaoling Mausoleum of Huangtaiji in Shenyang, the West Zhao]ing Mausoleum is several hundred kilometers from Zbaoling Mausoleum, the only instance of such a burial among Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) mausoleums.

Tibetan Buddhism in the Qing Court

Tsai Mei-Fen wrote in the Taiwan Today: “Buddhist, Taoist and shamanist religious ceremonies were held in the Qing dynasty court, but the imperial family obviously highly revered Tibetan Buddhism. On the one hand, this was done for the political consideration of pacifying the Mongols, as good relations with Tibet were seen as essential for maintaining good relations with Mongolia. In order to win the hearts and minds of those in the regions inhabited by the Tibetans and Mongols, the Qing court promoted the Gelug, or Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. [Source: Tsai Mei-Fen, Taiwan Today, April 2009. Tsai Mei-fen is a curator at the National Palace Museum, Taipei]

“On the other hand, many members of the Qing imperial family were themselves devout followers of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, Yangxin Hall, the residence of the Qianlong Emperor, was furnished with Buddhist images and implements for use in religious ceremonies, perhaps suggesting that the emperor himself had personally accepted the Tibetan Buddhist faith. For this reason, the political leader of the Yellow Hat sect, the Fifth Dalai Lama, was invited to Beijing in 1652, and in 1781 the Sixth Panchen Lama arrived in Beijing to offer blessings for the emperor's birthday. Both were received with the highest honors and as a result, objects presented by Mongolian and Tibetan monks and nuns flooded the court.

“The Qing court workshops also produced various Buddhist images and implements, which were crafted with great skill and precision. Inlaid with precious materials, many were presented as gifts from the court to Tibetan and Mongolian temples and members of the clergy. In order to assure conformity to religious requirements, a number of Tibetan and Nepali craftsmen worked with Chinese, Manchu and Mongolian artisans at the Qing court to produce Buddhist implements and images. This exchange of techniques and styles led to mutual influence in the art of the respective cultures. Combined with the input of the emperor, the fusion of Chinese and Tibetan styles became one of the distinctive features of Buddhist objects made at the Qing court.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; 1) Empress Gui Zhong, China Page; 2) Qing map, St. Martins edu; Qing soldiers, Columbia University;

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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