Daily Life and Networks of Power in Qing Beijing: Europeans at the Imperial Court in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Recent scholarship focusing on the Qing foundational period and the reigns of the three great emperors of the eighteenth century, Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong, has revisited and reframed some of our past views on court life and the relationship between Manchus and Han within the imperial institutions. Evelyn Rawski’s The Last Emperors. A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (University of California Press, 1998), in particular, offers a macro-historical picture of the relationship between the emperor, his immediate lineage, the Manchu and Mongol nobility, the lamaist clergy, the bondservants of the Imperial Household Bureau, and the vast palace personnel. Rawski, however, tells us that “despite their European-sounding titles and unlike their European counterparts, the Qing nobility were firmly subordinated to the throne. Qing peers had no autonomy. … The Qing peers constituted a service nobility, whose power derived entirely from the throne.”   Similarly, most scholars argue that Han bureaucrats had little leeway vis-à-vis the throne.  The outer palace bureaucrats could only offer some resistance to the throne in the form of bureaucratic blockage and moral lecturing, but their resistance, at least during the eighteenth century, has been seen as mostly futile. Tension remained between Manchu nobles and Han bureaucrats, and between the throne supported by its inner palace bureaucracy, and the traditional outer bureaucracy, usually dominated by Han.

Most scholars accept this institutional and ceremonial triumph of Qing “personalism” and autocratic control, coupled with increasing Manchu ethnic dominance. Even the members of the inner court and of the Manchu establishment are virtually left without any historical agency, despite the recognition that the system of direct imperial control underwent increasing bureaucratization through the establishment of organs like the Grand Council, or the streamlining of the army (Eight Banners) during the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns (1723-1799).

My current book project proposes to shift the focus away from the blinding light of the emperor and his autocratic gravitational power, to cast a closer gaze upon the satellites in court life, their existence in the shadows, and the dynamics of daily life at court and in the capital, using research models developed by practitioners of court studies in an array of European and Asian contexts.

Western-languages reports penned by Catholic missionaries (Jesuits and Propaganda Fide priests) stationed at the imperial court as artists, scientists, and technicians offer an entry into the courtly underworld of Beijing in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In order to sustain their presence in Beijing and protect their provincial missions, Europeans working at the court relied on the interplay among factions, joining existing networks connected to individual patrons and institutions (especially within the Astronomical Directorate and the Imperial Household Bureau and its workshops).  Dangerously defying imperial prohibitions against factionalism, they pursued their agendas, and offered to their court allies material and symbolic support in exchange. The effectiveness of the missionaries as political operators hinged on the historical constellation of the early and mid-Qing periods, when closeness to the Inner Court mattered more than it would in later times of declining dynastic initiative. From the margins of the palace world occupied by Europeans we can thus get a glimpse of the inner fabric of court life, including the milieu of menial personnel (e.g. eunuchs; artisans; domestics; imperial bodyguards). The European testimony reveals how the Qing court functioned not only as an extension of the imperial will, but also as the site of less structured and recognizable power transactions among historical actors pursuing diverse political and economic interests, within the palace and in the city of Beijing and its hinterland.

My book will focus on several key case studies in network creation, covering different periods of the Qing dynasty between 1644 and the early 1800s.  Missionary sources are reasonably rich for the period of imperial favor towards the Jesuits in the earlier part of the Kangxi reign. They become even more extensive and precise following two contentious diplomatic-religious missions by papal legates in 1704-5 and 1720-21, and during the succession struggle that claimed the life of the Portuguese Jesuit João Mourão (1681-1726) and of members of the Sunu imperial clan converted to Christianity. They continue to offer tantalizing glimpses of court life even during the reigns of Yongzheng and Qianlong (1723-1799), when Christianity was prohibited in the provinces, but missionaries remained active in the capital.

By gathering and interpreting empirical data on the informal dynamics of court life, I wish to contribute to a better understanding of Qing political culture and the role of the Qing dynastic household, shifting the focus from the figure of the emperor to the historical agents immediately surrounding him at various levels in the hierarchy of power. These agents exercised their subtle influence outside formal institutional channels, and occasionally offered passive resistance to imperial decision-making or evaded regulations. My investigation will help us better comprehend the complex process of creation and re-invention of Qing imperial institutions, showing the crucial role played in policy-making by court-centered personal relations. Finally, this study will offer students of comparative court cultures new materials and interpretations to continue challenging past modernization narratives that relegated “oriental despots” to the dustbin of history, showing instead the dynamism and complexity of Asian monarchies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.