Bishu Shanzhuang & the Kangxi Landscape


A review of Creating the Kangxi Landscape: Bishu Shanzhuang and the Mediation of Qing Imperial Identity, by Stephen Hart Whiteman.

Within the growing interdisciplinary field of Qing studies that explores China’s final imperial dynasty (1644-1911), art historians have just begun to challenge earlier scholarly conceptions that Qing art was unworthy of study. Currently, art historical scholarship on the Qing is largely concentrated in the “High Qing” period (1661-1799) of the successive reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors. Studies of court art tend to focus on Qianlong (r. 1736-1795), whose multifaceted identity, massive cultural production, and sixty-year reign ensured a wealth of untapped material that will keep art historians well provisioned for many years to come. Qianlong retained control of the empire for sixty-four years, up until his death in 1799, but he officially abdicated in 1795 in order to preserve the sixty-one-year record for the longest reign set by his grandfather, Kangxi (r. 1661-1722). Such a superlatively filial gesture in honor of his grandfather was only the most grandiose of many such acknowledgements, yet Qianlong worked to sometimes inscribe himself and his reign over that of Kangxi’s precedents.

Perhaps the clearest example of this rewriting occurs at the Mountain Retreat for Escaping the Heat (Bishu shanzhuang 避暑山莊). The Bishu shanzhuang was the largest Qing imperial garden-palace, established on 1400 acres in the Rehe (Jehol) region of Hebei province (now in the city of Chengde). Located 150 miles away from Beijing and outside the Great Wall, historically and culturally, this area fell outside the historical definition of “China.” Comprising numerous architectural structures set amid mountains, lakes, plains, forests, and other natural features in this expansive space, the Bishu shanzhuang functioned essentially as a second capital during the summer and autumn. It was the setting for the emperor’s mental and physical respite amid day-to-day governance, as well as the backdrop for major diplomatic events and hunting excursions. Such activities were meant to cultivate loyalty and strong relationships between the individuals and groups deemed most important to creating a stable, powerful Qing dynasty. Significantly adapted during Qianlong’s time and today in ruins, now we can only glimpse its original Kangxi-era appearance in the Thirty-Six Imperial Poems on the Bishu shanzhuang (Yuzhi Bishu shanzhuang shi 御製避暑山莊詩, preface dated 1711), a woodblock-printed album of the most scenic sites paired with imperial poems and prose descriptions in Chinese and distributed to favored individuals of high stature.

Tracing the connections between Kangxi and his constituents as articulated both in the Bishu shanzhuang and this album is the goal of Stephen Hart Whiteman’s dissertation, Creating the Kangxi Landscape: Bishu Shanzhuang and the Mediation of Qing Imperial Identity. Whiteman responds to the current scholarly narratives (dominated by Philippe Fôret, and also influenced by Cary Liu and Patricia Berger), that variously characterize the site: as a monumentalized literati garden, a representation of a Buddhist universe intended specifically for a non-Han Chinese audience, a representation of ethnic pacification, and a metaphor for the apex and nadir of the Qing dynasty (see Philippe Fôret, Mapping Chengde: The Qing Landcape Enterprise. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000); Cary Y. Liu, “Archive of Power: The Qing Dynasty Imperial Garden-Palace at Rehe,” Meishushi yanjiu jikan 28, 2010, pp. 43-66; Patricia Berger, Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003). These assessments of the site are heavily influenced by Qianlong’s use of the site, and negate its diachronic development and creation under Kangxi. Reclaiming the origins of the Bishu shanzhuang, Whiteman examines the real landscape together with its representations in paintings, woodblock prints, maps, and textual accounts. He thereby unveils the multifaceted integration of landscape space, geography, memory, and ethnicity in the formation of the Qing state and its dynastic identity. Emphasizing the representation of the site in Imperial Poems, Whiteman reestablishes Kangxi’s founding role in using art and landscape to define Qing identity.

Whiteman establishes his methodologies in the Introduction. Rather than using an English translation, he retains the unitalicized pinyin romanization for Bishu shanzhuang throughout the dissertation. This meticulous attention to the complex and shifting nomenclature commonly used for the site (including Rehe, Jehol, Chengde, Bishu shanzhuang, and Mountain Villa for Escaping the Summer Heat) differentiates the toponyms that are often conflated without regard for either their spatial or temporal distinctions during the Kangxi and Qianlong reigns. Concerned by the tendency in Qing studies to conflate the High Qing exclusively with Qianlong’s reign, he consciously limits the Qianlong-era sources on the site as much as possible in order to identify Kangxi’s particular ideologies for the site. He employs W.J.T. Mitchell’s theorization of “landscape as medium,” which considers landscape to be a constructed material signifier as complex, constructed, and saturated with encoded meaning as its representations in word and image (W.J.T. Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape,” in Landscape and Power, 2nd edition, ed. W.J.T Mitchell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). Whiteman uses this theoretical framework to argue that the Bishu shanzhuang is a rare example of how both the codes and the encoding process can be deciphered. Yet he also moves beyond what he sees as a limitation to that theory, which neglects the active engagement of an audience in creating both the landscape and its meaning: Whiteman seeks to understand not only how Kangxi used the medium and rhetoric of landscape to construct an identity for himself (and therefore the Qing), but also to determine how his select audience might have understood and experienced that identity through the site and its representations.

The first section of the dissertation, “Creating the Qing Landscape,” demonstrates how Kangxi did just that. Chapter 1, “‘Gold Mountain Sends Forth Dragon Veins’: Geographic Integration in the Early Qing,” identifies how Kangxi integrated the political and conceptual territory of the empire to establish and legitimize the Qing state. Specifically, Whiteman argues that through imperial tours, ritual sacrifices and chorography (the description and mapping of an area), Kangxi recentered the geomantic energy of the empire away from Mount Tai in Shandong province (the historic heart of Chinese state ritual) to Mount Changbai in the northeastern Jilin province, where Manchu heritage originated. Mapping the geomantic connections between these two peaks not only integrated the culturally non-Han region northeast of the Great Wall into the sacred geography of China, it also identified the virgin Rehe region as a geomantically auspicious axis of empire that was nevertheless a “culturally blank canvas” (p. iv) upon which to define a distinctly “Qing” identity.

Chapter 2, “‘Only Here in Rehe’: Locating ‘Qing’ at Bishu shanzhuang,” continues this discussion by addressing the question of how the landscape constructed on that tabula rasa articulated Kangxi’s conceptions of his personal imperial identity as well as that of the Qing state. Kangxi redefined the landscape into a model of the Qing empire through hunting excursions, the construction of permanent architecture, and the formal establishment of the garden-palace. Whiteman challenges the typical geographic-ethnic-cultural characterization of the Bishu shanzhuang, which correlates four districts of palace, lake, steppe, and mountain with the imperial capital in Beijing, the Han Jiangnan region, the historically Mongol territory of the northern plains, and the Manchu northeast. Agreeing with the general characterization of Bishu shanzhuang as a microcosmic representation of the empire, Whiteman questions the ethnically motivated quadripartite association and notes the absence of Kangxi-era evidence for this assessment. Using the physical, pictorial, and literary evidence that does exist, he reinterprets the garden palace as a nested series of idealized landscapes: although connected to real geographies, the garden-palace is also an abstract landscape of auspiciousness and imperial virtue that defined the empire as well as the emperor.

Part Two of the dissertation, “Giving of the Emperor: Thirty-Six Imperial Poems on the Bishu shanzhuang,” centers on Kangxi’s imperial woodblock-printed publication that depicts the site in word and image. Translations of the preface and twelve of these poems are included in an appendix. Chapter 3, “An Album for the Emperor: Creating the Thirty-Six Imperial Poems on Bishu shanzhuang,” explores the woodblock printed album produced as a multiple relative to painted albums of the Imperial Poems by two court artists, the minor figure Shen Yu 沈崳 (b. 1649) and the significantly more famous Wang Yuanqi 王原祁 (1642-1719). Although Shen Yu’s paintings are typically cited as the source for the printed images, Wang Yuanqi’s album has been entirely overlooked in previous scholarship. Neither of these albums is known to have survived, but Whiteman works to reconstruct an idea of each based on other extant works by the artists, extensive descriptions of their style and related works, and four Qianlong-era versions of the Imperial Poems. By adding Wang Yuanqi’s album to the narrative, Whiteman presents a work and an artist of much higher status and influence than Shen Yu, which changes the status and function of the woodblock printed album. Suggesting that Kangxi viewed the more influential Wang Yuanqi’s album of paintings of the thirty-six views as a more important work, whether prior to or separate from the printed version, Whiteman argues that Kangxi was specifically associated with the real landscape scenes, their painted representations, and the viewership of both.

Chapter 4, “Touring the Rear Park: Access and Intimacy in the Thirty-Six Imperial Poems on Bishu Shanzhuang,” examines how this implicit association with the Kangxi emperor functioned to project imperial legitimacy by expanding the emperor’s single viewership of the garden and the paintings to include the audience of the prints. The chapter begins with A Record of Travelling at the Invitation of the Emperor (Hucong ciyou ji 扈從賜遊記) by the scholar Zhang Yushu 張玉書 (1644-1711), who journeyed to Rehe Traveling Palace (Rehe xinggong 熱河行宮) in 1708 (before it became known as the Bishu shanzhuang). With this example, Whiteman demonstrates how sharing the garden site with certain visitors functioned to create intimacy between the emperor and his selected audience that extended to vicarious sharing through the representations. Receiving either an invitation to the garden or a copy of the Imperial Poems evoked the well-established Han Chinese tradition of sharing one’s private garden as well as its pictorial and poetic representations, acts that directly connoted friendship and kindred mindsets. The absence of figures (most notably the emperor) in the images and the presence of the imperial voice in the texts are essential to communicating this function. They prevented Kangxi from becoming the object of the view, enabling the viewer to share the experience of the emperor’s literal perspective and his physical position relative to the real, pictured, and poeticized landscapes. The result was a bond of loyalty between subject and emperor, who was presented as a virtuous, legitimate, and distinctly Qing emperor through the one-to-one relationship between gardens and their representations.

The physical and pictorial access to the Bishu shanzhuang landscape equaled access to Kangxi himself, access that was enhanced by the private, solitary nature of viewing the Imperial Poems without any indication of large retinue that typically accompanied the emperor. In the Conclusion, “Landscape as Medium in the Early Qing,” Whiteman complicates this solitude with the fact that the Imperial Poems existed both as an individual object given to a single person, and a work printed in multiple copies and distributed to multiple people. The printed landscape therefore created connections not only between the emperor and specific recipients, but also collectively between these recipients. These recipients constituted a community of loyal subjects who acknowledged the particular definition of Qing imperial identity that Kangxi presented through landscape.

By focusing on the Bishu shanzhuang during the Kangxi period, Whiteman makes a number of key contributions. He counters the typical characterizations of the site that are based almost exclusively on its later, Qianlong-era presentation and complicates the standard assessment of the site as an ethnically charged microcosm of that empire. Instead, he demonstrates that Kangxi fabricated a specifically “Qing” landscape that reflected both the empire and himself. When integrated with paintings of the Bishu shanzhuang, Kangxi also associated himself with possessing and viewing the physical and pictorial landscapes, which created a community of personal links to the emperor on his own terms. Using landscape as the medium, therefore, Stephen Whiteman’s study of the Bishu shanzhuang offers new methodological approaches for interpreting landscapes, their representations, and their receptions as expressions of political ideology, ideas that are applicable throughout the early modern world.

Kristina Kleutghen
Assistant Professor of Art History and Archaeology
Washington University in St. Louis

Primary Sources

Kangxi emperor et al., Yuzhi Bishu shanzhuang shi 御製避暑山莊詩
Zhang Yushu 張玉書 (1644-1711), A Record of Travelling at the Invitation of the Emperor (Hucong ciyou ji 扈從賜遊記)
Qingdai qijuzhu 清代起居注
Qinding Shengjing tongzhi 欽定盛京通志

Dissertation Information

Stanford University. 2011. 428 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard Vinograd.


Image: Leng Mei (c. 1670-1748), View of the Rehe Traveling Palace, ca. 1708-1710. Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 254.8 x 172 cm. National Palace Museum, Beijing. Evelyn S. Rawski and Jessica Rawson, eds., China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2005), cat. no. 27, p. 111.

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