Magazine article Humanities

Imperial of Scrolls - China

Magazine article Humanities

Imperial of Scrolls - China

Article excerpt

IN 1689, KANGKI, THE EMPEROR of China, embarked on a tour to inspect his southern provinces, undertaking a two-thousand-rnile journey from Beijing to the dries arid towns of the Vangzi Delta and back Included in the emperor's retinue were his mother, the dowager empress, as well as imperial wives, children, concubines, bureaucrats, and thousands of soldiers.

As part of the tour, Kangxi climbed to the top of Mount Tai. the "cosmic peak of the East* and a site sacred to all three Chinese religious and philosophical traditions-Buddhism, Confudanism, and Daoism. For centuries, Chinese emperors had made pilgrimages to Mount Tai to worship earth (at the base) and heaven (at the summit) and affirm the legitimacy of their rule. An emperor only visited when he could provide a glowing account to the cosmos about the state of the empire. In Kangxi's case, he could report on a new era of stability in the nascent Qing dynasty and increasing prosperity throughout the empire.

Kangxi's visit to Mount Tai represented more than just the fulfillment of an age-old religious rite. Potent political symbolism was at work at well. As a Manchu, Kangxi was Considered an outsider by the Han Chinese over whom he ruled. When the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) began to crumble in the early seventeenth century, the Manchus, who ruled the region to the northeast, began seizing territory. By 1662, the Manchus controlled Beijing, had disposed of claimants to the Ming throne, and launched the Qing dynasty that would rule China until 1911. By visiting Mount Tai, the emperor sent a message to his subjects that he intended to rule not as a Manchu conqueror, but as a traditional Chinese monarch.

Given the importance of Kangxi's visit to Mount Tai and of the inspection tour itself, it is not surprising that steps were taken to record it for posterity. Instead of a soaring obelisk or a towering arch, which would be the European choice, the tour was commemorated in a series of twelve handscrolls. The format was perfect for documenting a long journey, as it would allow the viewer to follow the progress of the emperor's retinue. * Each scroll measured twenty-seven inches from bottom to top and fortyto eighty-five feet wide. Laid end to end, " the scrolls spanned the length of three football fields.

Although primarily intended to document a historic tour, the scrolls also transformed the painting style of the Qing dynasty and christened the ' Orthodox school as the dorninant style. Six decades later, the Qianlong emperor would emulate his grandfather, embarking on his own inspection tour-and commissioning his own scrolls, leading to yet another artistic resolution

The story of the Southern Inspection Tour scrolls, as they are coleetively known, begins with the Kangxi emperor. M 1661, at the age of seven, Kangxi ascended the throne following the death of his father from smallpox. At the age of fifteen, with the help of his tutor and his grandmother, the grand dowager empress, he deposed the courtiers who had ruled on his behalf and assumed control of state affairs. The empire; he inherited was vast, but politically and ethnically fractured, and Kangxi would devote his reign - which at sixty-one years was one of the longest in Chinese history - to consolidating Manchu power and promoting national unity, while also showing respect for the traditional Chinese culture of his subjects. His eff orte would make him one of the most lauded and respected emperors of China.

For the Qing dynasty to succeed, Kangxi recognized that he needed to harness the resources of the southern provinces, which boasted the agriculturally rich Yangzi Delta and the cosmopolitan cities of Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shaoxing. He also needed to stamp out any last vestiges of Ming loyalty in the region. To bolster support for his rule, Kangxi embarked on a savvy southem strategy, which included enlisting the intelligentsia of the southern provinces to act as his advisers and provide a welcome counterbalance to the Manchu influence at court. …

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