Power and identity in the Qing Empire: a study of the political and economic life of the Elites through Confiscation Inventories 1700-1912

July 13, 2022 | Blog
Home > Power and identity in the Qing Empire: a study of the political and economic life of the Elites through Confiscation Inventories 1700-1912

by Yitong Qiu (London School of Economics)

This blog is based on a paper presented at the 2022 Economic History Society Annual Conference in the New Researcher Session: NRIE (Wealth and Inequality).


China has often been portrayed as a society that changed little for centuries before 1912. It was ruled by the same ‘Chinese’ elites. Some equate ‘Chinese’ culture with Han culture and the Han minzu, who form most of the inhabitants of today’s China. Yet, in the Qing empire, which lasted from 1644 to 1912, the ruling elite, the Manchus, spoke a distinct language. Their banner army system included separate Manchu and Mongol branches as well as a Han branch. After their consolidation of the central plain, the Qing rulers allowed Han people to join the bureaucracy, but Manchu officials worked in parallel. The Qing categorized the people under their rule based on vague cultural categories, but what did it mean to be Manchu, Mongol or Han? Did the Manchu and Mongols become assimilated to the majority Han culture because they only constituted 3 per cent of the population? Or did they retain an independent identity of their own? I examine the cultural identity of the Qing empire’s elites through the evidence of their possessions in order to understand whether the Qing regime was a Han empire or a multi-cultural empire.


Existing research on Qing elite identity focuses predominantly on textual evidence. Yet, material culture is one of the hallmarks of group identity. People, whether literate or illiterate, use material culture as a powerful medium through which to express themselves. This study exploits the confiscation inventories of 17 Mongolian and 77 Manchu bannermen, and 210 Han families (117 officials), reported in memorials housed in various East Asian archives; see figures 1-3. It combines a quantitative analysis of possessions recorded in the confiscation inventories with the study of the cultural resonances of these goods.


Figure 1.   Confiscation location of Manchu Banner families (Map of Qing 1820)

Source: See author’s conference paper.


Figure 2.   Confiscation location of Mongol Banner families

Source: See author’s conference paper.


Figure 3.   Confiscation location of Han families

Source: See author’s conference paper.


I argue that two cultures existed in Qing, partially promoted by the emperors and partially due to the distinct elite circles based on power and identity. The first was a ‘united’ hybrid Qing culture which borrowed elements from different cultures: a hybrid cloth style, Qing editions of books, and a high official culture closely related to rare luxury western foreign goods and court-monopolized objects.


The second culture was divided, the emperors ‘respected’ or employed cultural projects to modify each proto-ethnic elite’s culture to be distinct from each other. They did not ‘manchufy’ their subjects, i.e. asking everyone to follow the Manchu way, to ride horses, or to practice martial arts, or to abolish classical Chinese or the book culture. Th Qing empire was founded by a very small group of Manchu elites. They were aware of the potential consequence of promoting or disusing a ‘culture’. This might provide another reason for proto-ethnic elites to delegitimize their rule and rebel.


The ‘united’ Qing culture consisted of two parts, both multicultural. The first part was clothing. The Qing government demanded their subjects change to Qing style clothing a few months after they entered Beijing so that they could differentiate the status of them. Then, they enforced more sumptuary laws, following the embroidery style of the central plain, and added decorations based on northern traditions and religious elements, to control public display of power. The confiscated families, even rebels, wore Qing small-sleeve robes instead of Ming large-sleeve robes.


The Qing court also promoted a hybrid high culture for top officials. The emperors rewarded them with luxury goods that the court monopolized either by trade or by production. They gave top officials rare fur robes and python robes. They rewarded them with eyeglasses and foreign luxury objects produced by imperial factories or received as tributary gifts. The imperial house offered them unique opportunities to display their political power in private and public spheres as a reward for their loyal service.


The inventories show that top officials (officials above third tier) possessed many luxury goods which were favored by other proto-ethnic groups. For instance, Changling, as a military governor of Jiangnan, owned a full set of rare luxury porcelain stationery and many Shangzhou ritual utensils. Top Han officials possessed as much fur clothing and rare fur pieces as Manchu and Mongol officials. High officials tended to absorb the multi-cultural elements. They were exposed to these cultures in their working environment, and their colleagues came from other cultural backgrounds because of the Manchu-Han dyarchy policy on official appointment. They were sent to govern distinct parts of the empire, enabling them to collect rare objects. Their powerful positions also made them go-to people for merchants, missionaries, and gentries, to bribe in exchange for favors. In addition, they had access to the knowledge required on selecting these objects.


The ruling elites were also not just antiquarians; they were open to new cultures, and this openness was conducive to the later modernization. In some way, it anticipated twentieth century political rhetoric of constructing a multi-cultural modern state. Sun Zhongshan, in his 1912 presidential address of the republican government, put forward the idea of unification of the five nations.


Most of the commoners and Han officials below the third tier did not have the privilege of engaging with this multi-cultural luxury consumption unless their wealth exceeded one million silver taels. Most of the Qing elites maintained their proto-ethnic material cultural distinctions which formed based on their location, ancestral way of living, and occupation. The Han gentry and officials preferred porcelain, silk, and jade. They developed an antiquarian taste, as described by the ‘snowball theory of Han’, absorbing the luxury material preferences of the previous central plain elites.


The less affluent Manchu and Mongol bannermen inherited their ancestral taste and remained distinct from the Han culture throughout the Qing period. They preferred cotton and fur robes and textiles. They liked animals and sought artisans to carve them into household decorations. They practiced the martial arts, owned weaponry, and most of them rode horses.


Manchu and Mongol shared much of their material culture. But Mongol bannermen, unlike Manchu bannermen who sometimes adopted a multicultural persona, remained more distinct as northern military Mongol bannermen, possessing large amounts of luxury fur and python robes, gold and metal utensils, chanting beads, weapons, and horses.


The three groups of major core ruling elites, viz. Manchu, Mongols, and Han, remained largely distinct and lived differently throughout the period. The Qing government’s assigned cultural categorization reflected the material cultural identity of the elites. The Qing government created a multi-cultural empire where they maintained complicated ties with distinct cultural elites. This study shows a dualism in culture, not only between the Manchus and the rest of the elites as proposed by Karl August Wittfogel, but also between a united hybrid Qing culture and the distinct proto-ethnic cultures.



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