Julia K. Murray
The study of visual culture in imperial China is a young and heterogeneous field that encompasses a large and shifting array of visual materials and viewing practices. Because of the many political and social changes over the course of roughly two millennia, scholars have generally focused on specific forms and shorter periods, often defined by dynasty, instead of proposing comprehensive theories or all-inclusive overviews. The most recent dynasties, Ming and Qing, have received the majority of the scholarly attention to visual culture as such, but much research on earlier periods also sheds light on the roles of the visual and visual experience. In contrast to scholarship on modern and contemporary Chinese visual culture, which typically draws upon European and American theoretical models, studies concerned with the imperial era more often use methodologies and interpretive frameworks from art history and anthropology. Major foci of interest, whose relative importance varies by period, are the imperial court and its projects to perpetuate and project imperial authority, concerns with and techniques for creating auspicious environments in earthly life and in tomb contexts, structures and practices associated with Buddhism and Daoism within religious institutions and in lay communities, uses of writing and representational images to embody the values of the Confucian-educated elite, woodblock illustration and consumerism in urban culture, rural forms of visual culture, vernacular images and erotica, and the assimilation of elements of foreign visual culture.
Rowena Xiaoqing He
In spring 1989, millions of Chinese took to the streets calling for reforms. The nationwide movement, highlighted by a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, ended on June 4 with the People’s Liberation Army firing on unarmed civilians. Over 200,000 soldiers, equipped with tanks and machine guns, participated in the lethal action. Student leaders, intellectuals, workers, and citizens were subsequently purged, imprisoned, or exiled.
Tiananmen remains one of the most sensitive and taboo subjects in China today, banned from both academic and popular realms. Even the actual number of deaths from the military crackdown remains unknown. Every year on the anniversary of June 4, the government intensifies its control, and citizens who commemorate the events are put under various forms of surveillance. The Tiananmen Mothers are prohibited from openly mourning family members who died in the massacre, and exiles are prohibited from returning home, even for a parent’s funeral. Many older supporters of the movement, leading liberal intellectuals in the 1980s, died in exile.
The post-Tiananmen regime has constructed a narrative that portrays the Tiananmen Movement as a Western conspiracy to weaken and divide China, hence justifying its military crackdown as necessary for stability and prosperity and paving the way for China’s rise. Because public opinion pertaining to nationalism and democratization is inseparable from a collective memory of the nation’s most immediate past—be it truthful, selective, or manipulated—the memory of Tiananmen has become highly contested. While memory can be manipulated or erased by those in power, the repression of both memory and history is accompanied by political, social, and psychological distortions. Indeed, it is not possible to understand today’s China and its relationship with the world without understanding the spring of 1989.
Matthew W. Mosca
China’s relations with the Asian world between 1500 and 1900 were shaped by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. A common denominator in these international relationships was a loose framework of ideological principles and administrative procedures later dubbed by scholars the “tributary system.” This “system,” first posited in the early 1940s, has remained the single most influential concept for interpreting the interactions of Ming and Qing China with Asian countries. However, in recent decades it has been critiqued from various perspectives, narrowed in the scope of its application, and modified by a greater focus on the actual course of specific cases rather than ideological principles. That is, historians have increasingly come to understand China’s relations with the Asian world as influenced by pragmatic considerations and changing local dynamics, so that each relationship and the factors shaping it are best understood on their own terms. One approach to the study of Ming and Qing relations with the Asian world is to consider it within the framework of three regional groupings. China’s interactions with its neighbors in Northeast Asia were shaped by its largely stable relations with Korea and the Ryukyu Kingdom, and its radically fluctuating relations with Japan, sometimes marked by conflict and sometimes by the deliberate avoidance of political contact. Early Ming political relations with maritime Southeast Asia atrophied as the role of European and private Chinese merchant intermediaries increased. Those with continental Southeast Asia (particularly Burma, Siam, and Vietnam), more enduring, were influenced by intense regional rivalries that occasionally impinged on the borderlands of China’s southern provinces. In these two regions, the Ming–Qing transition, although particularly resented in Korea where it involved two invasions, did not radically alter existing patterns of international relations. By contrast, the vast territorial expansion of the Qing Empire did greatly change China’s foreign relations to the north and west, where it encountered states that had not had relations with the Ming. In these regions the Qing government drew principles and practices from its foreign relations in the south and east, but modified them to fit new conditions. After 1800, and more intensively after 1850, European and later Japanese imperial power began to penetrate Central, South, Southeast, and ultimately East Asia, in each region undermining existing Qing relationships with Asian neighbors. By 1900, virtually all former Qing tributaries were under the direct or indirect control of the British, Russian, French, or Japanese empires.
Chang Woei Ong
In a letter to his friend Wang Hui王回 (1023–1065), the great Song dynasty (960–1279) politician, scholar, thinker, and writer Wang Anshi王安石 (1021–1086) makes a distinction between the golden age of the ancients and the less-than-desirable world of the present. More importantly, it claims that the golden era was marked by a commitment to unity. Not only were morality and customs of the world made the same, but the learned were united in their learnings and opinions. The periods after the golden age, on the other hand, were marked by diversity and confusion arising from how the truth is understood. Wang believed that he had found the truth about unity and how it could be achieved from reading the Classics. His ambitious political reform (called New Policies) was a grand program that sought to bring the ideal of unity to the world through government.
Wang Anshi was of course not the only major thinker in Chinese history to ponder the question of unity. In fact, a dominant and enduring theme in the history of Chinese thought is the search for unity. Faced with uncertainties arising from a diverse and complex world, thinkers in different periods and with different intellectual orientations saw it as their main mission to discover the true nature of unity and ways of realizing it for attaining a harmonious world. The process began when Confucius (551–479
Although popular literature circulated in manuscript from very early in Chinese history, the invention of woodblock printing or xylography in the 7th century greatly facilitated the dissemination of popular texts. The lively urban culture of the 11th through the 14th centuries stimulated the production of performance literature, prose or prosimetric narratives in simple classical and vernacular Chinese. Commercial publishers in the cities and Jianyang, Fujian, took advantage of the growing demand for texts among readers of modest literacy and produced ballads and “plain tales” for this audience.
The publishing boom of the 16th century greatly accelerated this trend, as publishers in the cities of the lower Yangzi delta (Jiangnan), and most particularly Jianyang (in northern Fujian), began crafting texts explicitly designed to meet the needs of non-elite readers: literacy primers, vernacular explanations of the Classics, historical fictions and adventure tales, and popular encyclopedias for daily use, all in a language accessible to readers of limited education.
At the same time literati authors mined the popular literature of earlier centuries for stories that they transformed into literary masterpieces—although in the process they often reversed the subversive messages and smoothed out the vigorous “vulgar” language of the originals. But their greatest achievements, dramas like The Lute Song and the novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Journey to the West, remain among the most universally admired works of Chinese fiction. These latter texts presage, too, the development of the vernacular novel as one of the literary glories of the late imperial period.
By the 18th century, the population increase and growing demand for texts—and the spread of woodblock printing to the interior and hinterland—ensured the dissemination of a common core of universally popular fictional works throughout China Proper. It was not, however, until the early 20th century and the widespread adoption of mechanized printing, that a true mass readership developed. By that time, the introduction of new genres of literature—the modern short story and novel—had transformed the nature of popular literature.
Manchuria is an English geographical term that, in the past three centuries or so, has referred to the region that approximately overlaps the region of Northeast China (Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces) in the People’s Republic of China. A scholar’s choice of using or rejecting this term might be associated with their understandings of the historical changes in the territoriality of this region. From the 17th century to the mid-20th century, different powers contested over this region, including different tribes of the Jurchens, before the Manchus founded the Qing Dynasty; Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty; the Russians and Japanese; the Republic of China Government and Warlord regime; Japan and China; as well as the Communist Party of China and the Nationalist Party of China. All these contestations redefined the relationship between this region and China Proper, reshaping the social orders, communal identities, and statehood of the local peoples. Located at the nexus of the modern history of multiple ethnic groups and states, studies of modern Manchuria often require scholars to take transnational approaches, or at the least to adopt cross-border perspectives.
From the consolidation of the Han empire (206
The Manchus, a powerful military state in northeast Eurasia, declared the founding of the Qing dynasty in the early 17th century. They conquered Beijing in 1644, and the core of Ming China by the end of the century, but they continued to expand into Central Eurasia, creating China’s largest enduring empire. Their most formidable rivals were the Mongols organized in the Zunghar state, which dominated western Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Through daring military expeditions, adroit diplomacy, and extensive economic mobilization, the Qing rulers eliminated the Zunghar state, establishing uncontested power over Central Eurasia. After the conquest, the Manchus consolidated control of the region with productive economic policies, with extensive surveying and mapping, and by producing an official account of their military achievements. Qing expansion and Zunghar resistance left strong legacies for the definition of the territory of the empire and the Chinese nation that succeeded it in the 20th century.
Steven B. Miles
Before the end of the Tang dynasty, cultural production was largely a court-centered activity. This began to change as the nature of China’s political, social, and cultural elite, the literati (shi), was transformed by the Southern Song dynasty. Henceforth, the elite of China was primarily a local elite, occasionally producing holders of high office but primarily focusing on activities in their home areas to achieve and maintain their status. One important activity was scholarship, which involved such activities as establishing private academies (shuyuan) and the production of texts such as gazetteers and anthologies, many of which were concerned with the locales in which they were produced. The late imperial period, beginning in the Song, witnessed alternating periods of statist and localist turns, as the initiative in scholarly production shifted between the imperial court and local elites. Intellectual movements such as Neo-Confucianism and evidential research (kaozheng) fed into the production of localist texts and the formation of regional or local schools of scholarship.
Throughout the course of premodern China’s history, the planning and performance of religious ritual has been a primary concern. These offerings of bloody victuals, drink, and, later, incense to gods and ancestors seek to ensure the ongoing vitality and prosperity of the living and the peaceful security and well-being of the ancestral dead. Sacrifices were understood as food, sustenance for the occupants of the other world, who would, in return, imbue the sacrificed provender with blessings (fu福), which the sacrificer and family could share by consuming the food. This sacrificial ritual is at the heart of a diffuse, indigenous religion that encompasses people of all social classes, from the poorest peasant to the ruler and his representatives. It was never named, but scholars sometimes isolate segments and discuss them as “folk religion,” “state religion,” “Confucianism,” or “Daoism.” C. K. Yang dubbed the complex “shenism” based on the Chinese word for god (shen神), but this ignores the closely parallel practices directed toward the ancestors. Here we will use the term Chinese popular religion to refer to this complex of beliefs and practices.
Daoism (previously Taoism) is a vexed word that has been used to stand for several distinct terms in Chinese. Here it will refer to China’s indigenous organized religion, a faith founded upon a revelation in 142