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.