Transcript of China’s Last Celestial Dynasty Speakers: Nathan Woolley (N), Geremie Barmé (G) Location

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Transcript of China’s Last Celestial Dynasty

Speakers: Nathan Woolley (N), Geremie Barmé (G)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 04/02/16
M: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Nathan Woolley. I’m the curator of the exhibition Celestial Empire: Life in China 1644 to 1911. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I thank their elders, past and present, for caring for this land which we are now privileged to call home. Tonight is the first in a series of guest lectures we are presenting in partnership with the Australian National University’s Australian Centre on China in the World. This is part of a public programming for the exhibition Celestial Empire. Now, Celestial Empire and its public programs would not be possible without the support of a tremendous group of partners. It has been an extraordinary collaboration between government, commercial partners and individual donors.
First and foremost, I would like to thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary collection with us and with all of you. I hope you will take the opportunity to visit the exhibition this evening. I would also like to thank our partners for their generosity. They include Shell in Australia, the Seven Network, Wanda One, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels. And our event partners include Asia Society Australia and the ANU’s Australian Centre on China in the World. I also would like to thank our government partners who have helped us through the National Collecting Institution’s Touring Outreach Program and the Australia–China Council of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and also the ACT Government through Visit Canberra.
And I would like to thank all of you for coming along this evening to hear Professor Geremie Barmé introduce China’s Qing Dynasty. Professor Barmé, formerly of the Australian National University, is a sinologist of world renown. He is a historian, cultural critic, filmmaker, translator and web journal editor. Within the broad range of his talents his works has focused on Chinese cultural and intellectual history from the seventeenth century to the present. Among his more recent achievements, he established the Australian Centre on China and the World at the ANU, and was director of that centre for five years. He is also the founder and editor of The China Heritage Quarterly, which is a remarkable online repository of information and critique of Chinese history and culture, which is openly available at
Professor Barmé’s most recent publications include the China Story Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny, also openly available online, and the book Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial, a work produced with his long term collaborator, the New York based photographer Lois Conner. And on a brief personal note I would just like to add that my own understanding of China, as developed over the past two decades, has been profoundly influenced by Geremie’s work. So much so that I like to think that there are little pieces of Geremie scattered throughout the exhibition. So I’m very happy indeed to have the opportunity to introduce him this evening. Now Professor Barmé has kindly agreed to answer some questions, so have … if you have any queries I would ask that you hold them until the end of the talk. But please join me now in welcoming Professor Geremie Barmé.
G: Nathan, thank you so much. To think there are shards of me in the exhibition is a little bit daunting. I knew things had fallen off but I didn’t know where they’d ended up. Sorry. Let me just see where I am. So I’ll start with, as one should, with the upcoming Year of the Monkey and you’ll see why it’s relevant. As you know the exhibition takes as one of its theme images Sun Wukong, the great sage monkey who features and is the great hero of China’s most extraordinary … well, one of its most extraordinary novels, Journey to the West, Xiyou ji. And Nathan has I should say I think brilliantly chosen this image and the other works that are in the catalogue and I’d encourage you all to get the catalogue of the exhibition. I think it’s a very fine work indeed. And the exhibition itself is a delight with many rare and of course unique documents and materials that one will just never see again. So it’s been a great pleasure to see the exhibition and also a great honour to be invited to speak today.
I mention the monkey to start, of course it’s the unfolding Year of the Monkey and you see at the entrance of the National Library an unfolding monkey, sort of a bit tattered at the moment, but I’m sure it will be put together over the following days despite the wind. It’s relevant because this year is an extraordinary year in Chinese history. 2016 is a year of many commemorations. I won’t bore you with them and list them. Next week the China Story journal,, will publish an essay about all the commemorations that would be marked … well they’ll all probably not be marked in China, but we will internationally be thinking of them as the year evolves.
One of the most important of those commemorations relates to this gentleman, Mao Zedong. And I mention him in the context of the Year of the Monkey, many of you might not know that he said famously 50 years ago, nearly … not quite to the day, May 1966, that he said in me there is a spirit of the tiger, I want to get things done and achieve. But there’s also something of a … I have hou qi, I have a monkey spirit as well. And that means I want to destroy, overturn, unsettle. I suppose we’d call it disruptive innovation today, wouldn’t we? But anyway, he spoke in these terms just before he launched the Cultural Revolution. And this is him at the first grand reception of the Red Guards in Beijing in August 1966, which we will be marking this year as part of the remembrance of the Cultural Revolution, that devastating period in Chinese history.
A cultural revolution that very much in its origins and its history relates to the topic of today, which is Daicing Gurun. Daicing Gurun I chose specifically, the real name of the Qing Dynasty. This is what the Qing rulers knew their country as. Not as the great Qing empire. Not as China. Not as the centre of the world. It was called Daicing Gurun. Da Qing, the Great Qing Gurun. And gurun means land, nature, and it’s very much … very similar to certain concepts of land and space in Australian traditional cultures. Daicing Gurun. And this was the Qing dynasty, which I’ll try and say a few words about today, about what it … where it comes from, how it relates to the people who ruled it and what impact it had.
For the Chinese of the twentieth century, the Da Qing, the Great Qing Dynasty, was an issue at the centre of national identity and debate throughout the hundred years. Mao was obsessed. The first cultural purges of 1950, ’49–’50, ’51 and '53 and ’-4 all had to do with the Qing Dynasty. Again we don’t have time to go into it but the Qing obsessed the revolutionaries and it obsessed also those who created the revolution itself. Those of you familiar with Beijing today, the Chinese Communist Party still has as its headquarters one of the great Qing garden palaces in the centre of the city. We’ll be looking at other pictures of the palace area but this is what’s called Zhongnanhai, the central, that’s the central, and that’s the southern lakes or seas of Beijing. And this is the seat of the Communist Party and of the Chinese government.
Chairman Mao’s own main residence—he had many—but his main residence was just here. He had another one near the swimming pool up the back there, but this was where he … when he met people he mostly met them there. It’s built on the old garden of the Kangxi Emperor, the first great … truly great emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Anyway we won’t spend too much time with Chairman Mao but we’ll stay with the monkey for a moment. And this was Chairman Mao’s most famous monkey poem. It was written in 1961. I just want to show you his calligraphy which was very particular and spi … a bit monkey like and spidery. This is what the poem says and it reads … I won’t read it in Chinese for you but you can … those of you who read Chinese, or you should know it, it’s a very, very famous poem and I’ll say why in a moment. In English, and this is the official translation, it says, ‘A thunderstorm’ … it’s about 1961 when China is breaking off with the Soviet Union, rebelling to become its own independent, anti-revisionist centre of world socialist culture, a move that leads eventually to the Cultural Revolution and to all that has happened since.
And Mao wrote this poem in response to a poem that he was given by a colleague, Guo Moruo, a famous literary figure, after having seen a stage production of a drama featuring the monkey king from Journey to the West. And he wrote this poem on a photograph made by a woman called Li Jin, better known to you all as Jiang Qing, his wife, who was also quite a bit of an amateur photographer. And he wrote this poem on the back of that photograph originally. ‘A thunderstorm burst over the earth, so a devil rose from a heap of white bones.’ That’s the Soviet Union. ‘The deluded monk,’ who’s part of this Soviet, Khrushchev, ‘was not beyond the light. But the malignant demon must wreak havoc. The Golden Monkey,’ the jinhou … this year is called the Golden Monkey Year … ‘The Golden Monkey wrathfully swings his massive cudgel and the jade-like heavens,’ or firmament, ‘are cleared of dust. But today’ … 1961/62 … ‘a miasmal mist is once more rising. We hail Sun Wukong, the wonder-worker.’
Why is that even relevant to what we’re saying today? It’s because a whole pile of young people, partly inspired by that poem and by Chairman Mao, in May 1966 gathered at this place, which is a ruin of a garden palace we’ll discuss a bit further on, famous in the Qing Dynasty, the main seat of government for much of the Qing Dynasty. And this is a part of that palace, known as the Yuanyingguan, the View of Distant Oceans. A remnant of a Jesuit-built marble palace. And these young people in 1966, May 31, gathered there from a nearby high school called the Tsinghua Attached High School. Twelve of them gathered and they wrote a proclamation in support of Chairman Mao, in support of the anti-revisionist, anti‑Soviet stance of China, the anti-imperialist, anti-Western stance of China.
And they wrote a proclamation and they declared that they would fall a group … form a group of young people who would rebel against the status quo under the Communist Party that Chairman Mao himself was grating against. They would rebel and support Chairman Mao’s radical ideas. And they were to be Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. Twelve people call themselves hong weibing, the Red Guards. And this is where they gathered to write that proclamation. And they gathered there because this place, Garden of Perfect Brightness … and this is an image from the exhibition … this place had been destroyed in 1860 during the decline of the Qing Dynasty.
And this is a picture, which is a wonderful picture I’d never seen before. I’d seen copies of it, I hadn’t seen a proper coloured illustration. This is made by an artist who travelled with the Anglo-British force that invaded China. Well they travelled to China after failed peace negotiations in late 1860 to enforce a peace treaty following the Second Opium War. And this is the British troops under Earl Elgin, known as Lord Elgin, the son of the famous Elgin Marbles Elgin, marching in on Beijing after the emperor had fled the city and before they carried out a massive act of vandalism, destroying the largest garden palace China had ever seen.
And that garden palace is now the site of this remnant, and this is known as China’s National Ruin. It’s known as the ultimate Chinese symbol of national humiliation, marked from the Opium War period and one of the most significant moments is the destruction of this Qing Dynasty palace. When you see the Chinese talking about regaining territory, defending their territory in Tibet, or Xinjiang, or arguing their role in the East China Sea, the South China Sea or expressing their outrage at western incursions, it relates directly to this long history of what’s known as the Century of Humiliation, from the 1840s onwards.
So this is very relevant to our understanding of China today, it’s relevant to our understanding of Qing history and relevant to this year which was the year that … where we commemorate a disaster known as the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards declare themselves and they write three documents, three proclamations. They call these proclamations ‘Long Live the Spirit of Rebellion’ 1, 2 and 3. At the end of the first document their author, who I interviewed for … well my friend Carma Hinton and I interviewed for a film we made on the Cultural Revolution, a man called Luo Xiaohai. He’s now an IT specialist and computer engineer in La Jolla in California. In our film he appears in shadows because he doesn’t want to be known by his golfing partners as being the founder of the Red Guard Movement, who wrote the proclamation that helped lead to this mass rebellion.
But the end of their first proclamation, written not long after, about three weeks after they founded the Red Guard Movement, they end their proclamation with the following words. ‘Revolutionaries like us are monkey kings.’ They refer to this, it’s a film from the early 60s, they’re referring to this movie. ‘The monkey kind rebels … causes uproar in heaven, in the heavenly palace.’ Da nao tiangong. ‘We are like monkey kings and the revolutionaries use their golden rods,’ their jinbang, or their jingubang, ‘which are powerful, and they use their supernatural powers which are far-reaching and their magic omnipotence for they possess the great and ultimate thing, Mao Zedong’s invincible thought.’
‘We all of us, we revolutionaries, wield thy golden rods. We show off and display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the old world upside down, to smash it to pieces, to pulverise it. We will create chaos, the more chaos the better, the more disaster, the better. The bigger mess, the better. This is our aim.’ And this is the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. And this is something to remember in the Year of the Monkey as we talk about the delightful aspects of Sun Wukong, and his rebelliousness, it’s worth remembering there’s a whole history of rebellion, Chairman Mao’s monkey spirit and this long engagement with the monkey in Chinese history. We’ll come back to the monkey in a moment when we talk about Qing Gardens and also at the end of this talk. But I thought we should start off at least with a little bit of the monkey spirit ourselves.
But today we’re talking about the end of this, the Ming Dynasty, the rise of the Qing Dynasty. A dynasty. Dynasties are … as China has supposedly some twenty-odd dynasties that rise and fall. Dynasties were developed as both a political concept and a practice, really from the second, third century BC. It was believed that a dynasty was founded by a person, a man inevitably, with very much the types of attributes that we find among other great dynastic leaders, such as over on the other side of the world, Augustus. Augustus spoke of himself having both the supernatural energy and power to lead the Roman Empire, which he … well he created the Roman Empire after Julius Caesar’s fall. And he also believed that he was … had the [unclear], the virtue, the virtue to be a ruler who through his moral power and ethical strength, and wisdom would guide the Roman Republic.
In China the same types of ideas were unfolding from the fourth, fifth … third, fourth, fifth century BC. And one particular ruler, through guile, through warfare and through political genius, established himself as China’s first emperor. Qin Shi Huang he’s called. Qin, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty. And he establishes the first, not kingdom, but real dynasty. It only lasts for one more generation, another twenty years and it collapses. But that … his creation of that dynasty with a small territory, the Qin territories, I won’t bore you with maps and so on and so forth.
But this small area inspires others to establish dynasties, combining political, moral and brute force with ideas generated by philosophers and thinkers, the most famous being a man called Confucius and his follower Mencius, who came up with ideas about how virtue and how politics was to be enacted in practical terms. And how this form of politics would find expression in the ideal human being issue, a man who could lead his people to prosperity and to greatness. ‘Cause man was regarded as being the essential … one of the three great forces in the world. Heaven, earth and man. Man was that force that could combine the movements of heaven with the requirements of earth, to create a harmonious environment and the possibility for social stability, harmony and prosperity. And it is this unique man with political strength and martial talent who could establish the type of rightful rulership that was thought to be the basis for real good governance.
This, combined of course with avaricious politics, backstabbing and plotting, led to the establishment of the next many dynasties in China. Each dynasty is established by one family, usually by one leader, who rebels or carries the message of change. Might be of very humble origin. Many of the founding emperors of dynasties were of humble origin, but they believe that they had through their martial valour, their virtue and their cunning, the ability to rule and the moral right to rule. In the west we see the rise of the concept of the Holy Roman Empire and elsewhere with the right to rule, a God given right to rule. In China it was believed that the movement of heaven would determine through politics and warfare who would be the real man and the right family to rule an empire.
The Ming Dynasty was led by one particular family who … it actually was founded … not the family was founded, but the family was led by a man who originally starts out as a monk. He leads a rebellion in the 1360s … in 1340s actually … and he establishes the Ming Dynasty. His whole family, the Zhu family, rules for the next number of centuries until the 1640s. And it is replaced by people who rise up in this part of China. It’s now known as Manchuria. It’s not known at that time as Manchuria. Just a loose coalition of tribes, all grating under the influence of the Ming. They regard these tribes … which have links back to many centuries to other groups … they regard the Ming as being by the 1620s and ’30s as decadent, inefficient and corrupt. And they have constant border clashes. They believe that some of their key leaders and chieftains are murdered by the Ming because the Ming wants to keep control of its borderlands. And this group of people gradually coalesce into a strong fighting force. They organise themselves under eight groups, eight banners, each with a different coloured banner.
And they create also for themselves a history and a lineage of what they are. They speak … generally speak a language that is related to Mongolian, but not entirely. Related slightly to Japanese. It’s a Tungusic language. It’s known as … they call it … by the … really the 1580s and 1590s, they invent a name for the language, and they call it manju, manju gisun, the language of the Manchus, the Manju. Manju is a word nobody knows the real origin of. It’s a word that denotes this loose coalition of peoples who call themselves … we know them as the Manchus. And they develop under a number of strong leaders over a thirty–forty year period, grating against the Ming, which is constantly trying to keep them under control.
And these northerners think that they have a moral right, they are superior, they’re not run by eunuchs and corrupt emperors like the Ming Dynasty. They have the moral right to rule. And they gradually begin to incur on the Ming Dynasty itself, pushing up against the Great Wall and it’s this period in the … from the 16 … the 1580s through to the 1640s that the Great Wall of China, which is now much celebrated, gains its modern form. Billions … the equivalent of billions of dollars are spent to rebuild the Wall and face it in brick. Bricks are made using … by cutting down virtually all of the forests of north‑east and northern China to make bricks for the Wall. It helps impoverish the Ming Dynasty but the Wall is built and extended through this period. And the Wall you go to in Beijing today is built at this time, mostly to keep out the Manchus.
The same time, another rebellion occurs in China. This rebellion leads to an invasion of Beijing. And while that invasion is going on the local generals guarding the Great Wall of this area … around here … there’s a … many passes in the Great Wall to lead into the … into Beijing … into China proper. The general … one of the generals guarding the Great Wall negotiates with the Manchu troops and one of the draft letters of a negotiation between the Manchu troops who say we can come and help you and fight those horrible rebels and re-establish your dynasty if you only let us in through the Great Wall. And then the Chinese who negotiate with them, a draft letter of that exchange of opinions is up in the exhibition if you want to see it. It’s a very precious and wonderful document. And so this … one particular general by the name of Wu Sangui, appalled by the invasion of Beijing by local peasant rebels, opens up the gates of the Great Wall. So the Great Wall there for nearly 2,000 years, rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty at unbelievable and disastrous and perilous cost, is opened and the Manchus come in to help restore order in Beijing, and they decide to stay.
They remove their capital, and we’ll see where their capital is in a moment. They move their capital down from the north to Beijing and establish a new dynasty there which they call the Daicing, the Great Qing Dynasty. They are however a constantly … and this is what they eventually … sorry, getting confused … this is eventually what they do there. Their homeland is up here, but eventually they take over Beijing. They then expand and occupy all of China proper and over the next years, and you can see all the dates, they through diplomacy, marriage and warfare, they extend the territory of the Ming Dynasty to create China’s largest imperial era or dynastic era, and occupy the most land and have the most number of tributary states paying homage to the imperial centre.
And the Manchus are a war-like people, but also over these … and this is a typical Manchu warrior, a very famous image of a Manchu warrior … war-like. They acquire many of the elements of Chinese culture. They learn and you see up in the exhibition, you see books that they translated from the 1620s and 30s onwards. A huge translation project is taken on by the Manchus. Some of them know some Chinese and they exchange, they deal with the Chinese. But they regard the Chinese as … they call them nikan, the vulgar, vile Chinese who are decadent, corrupt, pestilential and inferior. They regard the Chinese as being a backward race. Oddly enough, the Chinese regard them as being a pack of beasts and barbarians. The Manchus expand throughout the former Ming territory as I said and they create … in every major city and provincial city and township they build garrisons. And for the next 200 years or so they occupy the whole of China like a colonial power.
Now this is one of the great points of contention in contemporary Chinese history because Chinese … mainland Chinese scholars claim that the Manchus are completely signified: they turn into Chinese and become exactly like the Chinese. Other scholars argue that the Manchus invade and act like an inner-Asian empire, like a Turkish empire, or like one of these other nomadic empires, or a Mongolian empire and they’re not entirely signified; they create something quite unique in Chinese history. And they do occupy China and change China from being what it was under the Ming to becoming a multi-ethnic and complex, semi-modern nation. So there’s much debate in China today. In fact, last year there was a huge explosion of debate about this very issue with the much–made denunciations of American scholars and others over these very matters. We can discuss that in question time if you’re at all interested. But these issues to do with who the Manchus were, what they occupied, how Chinese they were or not, are not issues of the dead and dusty past. They’re still very vital and part of contemporary Chinese debates and discussions of nationhood.
So the Manchus occupied the whole nation. And they also occupied Beijing and very quickly begin converting it. This is the main … one of the main entry gates to Beijing and this is the Great Qing Gate,

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