Qing Formations: Two New Perspectives


A two-part review of Chinese Officials in the Hung Taiji Period (1627-1643) [皇太極時期的漢官 (1627-1643)], by TSAI SUNG-YING [蔡松穎]; and The Juridical System of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing (1644-1900), by XIANGYU HU.

There is a revealing exchange between the Shunzhi emperor (1644-1661) and one of his officials. It is an exchange that speaks to the historian about the contested nature of the early Qing, and exposes the indeterminacy of the institutional arrangements of the dynasty. In this conversation captured in a memorial, the vice director of sacrifices in the Board of Rites upbraids the emperor for failing to adopt an imperial dress worthy of the sovereign. It was late in the reign—already the twelfth year!—and the emperor still robed himself in garments similar to his officials, even donning fatigues for riding and shooting. Although the emperor’s father and grandfather also dressed in an undistinguished fashion, the vice director argued in response to a demur, they only ruled over the east, whereas Shunzhi now ruled all under heaven. “With proper clothing,” he concluded, “you can establish peace and rule for ten thousand generations.”

We all know the outcome of this story: the emperor consented, and by doing so took a significant step in defining the emperorship and its office, the power of which his son and grandsons would maximize to consolidate political resources and build a formidable empire. And yet, we have been too quick to take up the end of this story without investigating its beginning, or so the subsequent generation says to the previous. Two new dissertations contend that despite the historiography’s readiness to explore the formed Qing state, we do not know enough about its formation; and if we are to understand Qing history then we must go back to the early years of the dynasty.

Tsai and Hu each take up this argument in his own way. Tsai looks at the growth of the state and ideas of empire in the pre-conquest period. Hu explores the development of the Qing judicial system and how Manchu-Chinese difference was practiced legally. Unorchestrated, but in convincingly agreeable fashion, they aver that passing over this formative period of the Qing dynasty with the simple narrative of military conquest and institution building not only fails to do justice to the history, but also misses what made the dynasty possible.

Tsai Sung-ying’s thesis (the work under review is Tsai’s master’s thesis done at National Taiwan Normal University under National Palace Museum archivist and historian Chuang Chi-fa) focuses on developments in the Hung Taiji period (1627-1643). Rather than retreading the teleological path of Hung Taiji’s rise to power and the military successes of the Jin-become-Qing, Tsai puts the often mentioned but little studied Chinese advisers and officials at the center of his inquiry. They were not a cohesive group that spoke with a single voice, as often assumed, but rather raised a cacophony of ideas and positions that Hung Taiji accepted or rejected based on very practical concerns of power consolidation and state building, not on grounds of ideology, or even vision. Tsai further argues that the development of the early Qing state was a product of intense negotiation between the emperor, the Manchu nobles, and these disparate Chinese advisers.

The Hung Taiji period has been the subject of much research by Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholars, to be sure. As Tsai, sees it, these studies fit into one of three types: biographical focus on a single individual, an examination of Hung Taiji’s character and path to power, or the process of the sinicization of the Manchus. I would add a fourth type, that of the conquering-statebuilding narrative, into which fall works such as Wakeman’s The Great Enterprise (University of California, 1985) and the background chapters of most general histories and monographs. What is often left out of the historiography is the diversity of the Chinese advisors and their advice. They are often treated as a group with a single motivation of making the Manchus more Chinese in form and function, and thus acceptable to Chinese constituents. As Tsai shows, this was simply not the case.

After the introductory chapter, Tsai opens his argument in chapter two with an exploration of the background of Chinese officials and the circumstances of their service. The expansion of population and territory early in Hung Taiji’s reign led to the necessity of building up an administrative structure, by which Chinese officials came to be seen as useful in their knowledge and talent of government. Although Hung Taiji did use officials from the Ming, he preferred those who earned their stars under the Jin/Qing. Appended to this chapter is an invaluable eighty-five-page chart of all the Chinese officials under Nurhaci and Hung Taiji, complete with biographical information.

Chapter three looks at the advice given and taken on administrative structures. Mobilizing newly published Manchu materials and a rare edition of the Shilu (veritable records) Tsai argues that contrary to the narrative of a necessary and well planned growth, the building of the bureaucracy was a long and tortured process that was more expedient than mapped. Hung Taiji entertained suggestions for bureaucratic growth when it suited his needs, but also ignored calls for offices like the censorate for years. Also, in opposition to formalized bureaucratic structures stood Manchu nobles who saw their interests and power threatened. The picture that unfolds here is one of the contingency of the emergent system with different groups and individuals fighting for political resources. For example, the roots of the Qing memorial system can be seen forming in the early Chongde years (1636-1643) with the institution of direct memorialization by bureaucratic officials to the emperor as a means to circumvent the political control of the banners.

Chapter four shows the influence of Chinese advisors in creating symbols of state authority. From very early on some Chinese officials, such as commander Ning Wanwo, began to press Hung Taiji on the need to create symbols of state power to legitimize rule. Clothing was a big issue, and over the course of a decade, different regulations were implemented, which created social and political stratifications. Imperial address, the emperor’s possession of a jade chop, mystical events, and dreams, were other symbolic tools adopted from Chinese advisors to legitimize the state.

Chapter five analyzes Chinese officials’ positions on war and peace, which constitute the majority of memorials from this period. It is one thing to talk of hawks and doves—of which there were both—but quite another to show that one of the prevailing positions among Chinese advisors was of the Jin/Qing as a northern dynasty and the Ming as immoral. Tsai argues that this position sprung from the Mician idea of cultivating a benevolent government to attract people to your state and hollow out other states. Officials thus argued only to drive the Ming south below the Yellow River and to then expand westward. Although Hung Taiji very well may have had greater ambitions, it was the immediacy of his situation to keep the nobles and military under his control and to feed the population that ultimately led him to move towards war.

Tsai leaves us on the eve of the conquest of Beijing, not far from were Xiangyu Hu picks up. Completed at the University of Minnesota, Hu’s dissertation focuses on the birth of Qing judicial practice and its application in the 1650s. He argues that the system established in this short space of time “formed the basis of the whole Qing system until 1906” (p. 19). At the heart of the matter was an intense discussion in the 1650s on the Qing code and its application in ethnic-based privilege. Will Manchu or Chinese law be applied? Who will adjudicate? And how will the courts be structured? Hu argues that the Shunzhi emperor reformed the courts and code in the mid 1650s to create an amalgamated but universal Qing code that stripped bannermen of their special legal status.

In the first two chapters Hu lays out background themes. He situates his study in the Qing capital of Beijing and surrounding boroughs, which had the highest concentration of bannermen, making this jurisdiction a prime site to examine the application of Manchu and Chinese legal code. More broadly, Hu engages with the literature on Qing law, and that on ethnicity. In law, he aims to show not only how the courts worked in the capital, but also that the vertical structure assumed by much of the scholarship was in fact more horizontal. Reforms in the late Shunzhi reign broke down the Ming model of the three high courts and gave judicial authority to the boroughs and the banners. On ethnicity, Hu engages the New Qing History—which explores how ethnicity mattered in Qing rule—and argues that although bannermen maintained certain legal privileges, an institutional amalgamation of Manchu and Ming codes emerged that tried to govern both groups equally.

Chapters three and four provide the key evidence for the main argument of the dissertation: that a fundamental shift occurred in juridical procedure and punishments in the mid 1650s, which reflected a diminishing legal distinction between Manchu and Chinese subjects.  Beginning around 1653—apparently in an effort to relieve backlogged courts and streamline the judicial process—the capital boroughs and the banners were given authority to adjudicate minor cases, such as petty theft. Major cases, such as corruption, were still sent up the ladder to the Board of Punishments. What Hu finds in records of court cases is that the boroughs were now allowed to try Manchus, not just Chinese.

Similarly, around this time, the strict application of different punishments for Manchus and Chinese was collapsed under a single code. The amalgamated Qing code that emerged saw practices like the Manchu punishment of whipping regulated against the Chinese punishment of bamboo beating so that the two would correspond as an equal punishment. One of the key changes also saw the commutation of bannermen sentences of exile revoked and changed into punishments of whipping and wearing the cangue.

Chapter five discusses the formation of the Qing code. By looking at how the law was applied, Hu shows that local judges took inspiration from the Ming code to work out a system that fit their historical situation. The sentencing of a Chinese officer that feigned illness in order to avoid military campaign, for example, followed the Ming punishment of a bamboo beating, but rather than applying the Ming code in full and send him on the campaign, he was cashiered. Another interesting development here is how jurists were torn between Manchu and Chinese punishment in application to Manchu perpetrators. Hu finds that judges often deferred sentencing up to their superiors.

Chapter six explores Qing fugitive law, and argues that a general relaxing of the law reflects an increasing amalgamation of Manchu and Chinese legal principles. Fugitive law was a Manchu law to punish runaway slaves and those who harbored them. This was strictly enforced in the early Shunzhi years, which ignited an outcry among Chinese officials on the grounds of immorality. From 1654, Shunzhi began to issue regular amnesties, assizes, and changes in the code that transformed the law to make it a non-capital offense.

Hu concludes with a final chapter discussing the use of this judicial structure by later Qing emperors to concentrate political resources. For example, the judicial privileges enjoyed by bannermen continued to decline significantly in the Kangxi reign with further restrictions on the commutation of exile. This reached a trough in 1825 with a statute to remove criminal bannermen from their banner ranks, effectively annihilating the ethnic distinction.

The scholarship in each of these theses has much to offer historians of Qing China. Tsai may give us a new narrative of the pre-conquest period, one that emphasizes the contested nature of the dynasty’s early institutional formation and how it shaped the course of empire. Hu may provide us with the basis of Qing legal developments and the struggle over Manchu and Chinese ethnic roles before the law. Taken together, these two scholarly works do even more: they may force us to not only begin to reassess the importance of the mid-seventeenth century and reevaluate what followed, but also to think of history (and Chinese history) in other ways. To think of it not as something of the state, the nation, or the empire, but as the institutional struggle over change, and continuity.

Macabe Keliher
PhD Candidate
History and East Asian Languages
Harvard University

Primary Sources (Tsai Sung-ying)

Manwen yuandang 滿文原檔 (Original Manchu archives)
Neiguoshiyuan Manwen dang’an 內國史院滿文檔案 (Inner Historical Office Manchu archives)
Daqing Taizong wenhuangdi shilu: chuzuanben 大清太宗文皇帝實錄:初纂本 (First unpublished draft of the Veritable records of Emperor Taizong of the Great Qing)
Tiancongchao chen’gong zouyi 天聰朝臣工奏議 (Tiancong era memorials)

Primary Sources (Xiangyu Hu)

Neige daku dang’an 内阁大库档案 (Grand Secretariat Archives)
Neige tiben-Beida yijiao tiben 内阁题本-北大移交题本 (Grand Secretariat routine memorials – Routine memorials transferred from Beijing University)
Baqi dutong yamen dang’an 八旗都统衙门档案 (Archives of eight banner command yamens)

Thesis Information (Tsai Sung-ying)

National Taiwan Normal University [國立臺灣師範大學]. 2011. 348 pp. Primary Advisor: 莊吉發. (Chuang Chi-fa).

Dissertation Information (Xiangyu Hu)

University of Minnesota. 2011. 307 pp. Primary Advisors: Ann B. Waltner, Christopher M. Isett.

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