Contemporary Interpretations of the Manchu Conquest: Writing about China in the Seventeenth Century

Title: 1111 | Contemporary Interpretations of the Manchu Conquest: Writing about China in the Seventeenth Century
Area: Northeast Asia
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Ilsoo Cho, Hebrew University, Israel (organizer, presenter)
Weiguo Sun, Nankai University, China (chair, presenter)
Yuval Givon, Tel Aviv University, Israel (presenter)
Ye Yuan, Columbia University, United States (presenter)


The fall of the Ming empire in 1644 and its replacement by a once small group of tribal peoples from what is now China’s northeast generated enormous discussions regarding the Ming-Qing transition’s world-historical significance. Focusing on the decades following the Qing takeover of the Chinese capital in 1644, this panel examines the different ways the seventeenth-century contemporaries, inside and outside of China, have interpreted the Ming-Qing transition. Based on multinational and multilingual research of source materials produced by writers from near and far—Jesuits making observations on the country through their China operation, Korean officials writing about the circumstances surrounding the fall of Ming and the consequences of “barbarian” takeover of China proper, and the Chinese literati who had to make sense of the military conquest and alien occupation—this panel aims to explore how contemporaries interpreted the Ming-Qing transition. The panel will ask the following themes and questions: How did the different observers understand the circumstances surrounding the Ming empire’s decline and the Qing conquest of China? How did their views differ? What significance did the Ming-Qing transition have upon the writers’ own societies? Our primary purpose in this panel is to consider these questions in a comparative perspective, to generate new ground for understanding seventeenth-century East Asia, and the world.

Panel Abstracts:
Replacing the Middle Kingdom: Ming Loyalism and Post-1644 Interpretations of History in Chosŏn Korea
Having been saved by the Ming expeditionary forces during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592‒1598), the monarchs and elites of late Chosŏn Korea continuously expressed gratitude and loyalty to the Ming dynasty (1368‒1644) for centuries afterward. Historians have traditionally interpreted such discourse of Ming loyalism, often expressed in conjunction with hostility toward the “barbarian” Manchu Qing, as signs of blind Sinophilia, ideological rigidity, and Korea’s dependence on great powers, effective causa remota of Korea’s eventual loss of independence and statehood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This presentation challenges the conventional understanding of Ming loyalism by showing how intellectuals of late Chosŏn Korea argued for Korea’s place in the world as the bastion of civilization through their critical interpretations of history, including that of Ming China. By idealizing the romanticized records of antiquity, Korean intellectuals critically judged subsequent imperial Chinese dynasties, including the Ming, according to their supposed virtues and shortcomings. Using such processes, Korean scholars deemed the later imperial Chinese dynasties to be flawed and unworthy successors of the ancient polities. Furthermore, similar to the medieval and early modern European phenomena of Second and Third Rome, in which various polities made their cases for translatio imperii, the geographical movement of imperium, Korean scholars persisted in establishing teleological narratives arguing that civilization had relocated from China to Korea. Instead of blind Sinophilia, Ming loyalism in Korea should be reinterpreted as a self-serving discourse through which Korean elites sought to frame their own country as the new Middle Kingdom.

Observing the Rising Power: Contemporary Observations of the Jurchens during the late 16th and early 17th centuries
This presentation examines contemporary Korean and Chinese observations of the nascent Jurchen state during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Chinese and the Koreans exhausted themselves fighting off the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), the Jurchens, notably the Jianzhou Jurchens led by Nurhaci, steadily consolidated their power by conquering and absorbing other Jurchen tribes in China’s northeast. The Koreans and the Chinese were eager to know more about the rising threat near their borders, and they focused, in particular, the steadily expanding nascent Jurchen state of Nurhaci. The Koreans and the Chinese made consistent efforts to learn about the developments in what is now Northeast China by collecting information about the Jurchens and dispatching officials to meet with them. This presentation revisits such efforts made by Ming China and Chosŏn Korea by carefully reexamining primary source materials that the contemporary Chinese and Korean observers produced in tracing the genesis of the Korean and Chinese policies against the Jurchens/Manchus.

Finding Constantine: Religious Symbolism and Political Uses of Ming-Qing Transition in China illustrata (1667)
During the later decades of the seventeenth century, European readers came to know about the recent dynastic transition in China throughout a rising number of publications, most of which written by members of the Society of Jesus. Although these Jesuit accounts were based on firsthand missionary information from China, they are far from being impartial news reports. Focusing on the monumental bestselling work China illustrata (1667) by the Jesuit intellectual Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), the present paper highlights the religious interpretations, as well as the political uses, of the Ming-Qing transition by one of the most celebrated thinkers in seventeenth-century Europe. Strangely, while Kircher’s network of social contacts provided him access to the best sources available on the matter, his presentation of the dynastic shift in China is odd, inaccurate, and, at times, misleading. However, a closer examination of Kircher’s sources and contexts for his work reveals some of the political tensions as well as the religious ideals that existed within the Jesuit China mission during the transition period and might have influenced the author — from questions of loyalty to the ruling houses, to the hopes of establishing a Christian kingdom under the Southern-Ming Yongli emperor. Seen in this light, Kircher’s ‘mistakes’ may shed light on the Jesuit efforts to ‘revise’ Chinese history so it would fit the religiopolitical needs of the Society of Jesus and its China mission.

The Afterlife of Xingshi yan: Ming Loyalist Publication and Publisher in Early Qing
At the end of the Ming (1368–1644), when the dynasty was threatened by the Manchus, a Lu family publishing house produce a vernacular Chinese short story anthology Xingshi yan (Exemplary Words for the World, ca. 1632) to record the notable Ming figures and affairs. Taking seriously the Chinese vernacular literature’s claim of being “unofficial history,” this anthology provides its own historical narrative of the Ming. Entering Qing dynasty (1644–1912), this anthology disappeared from Chinese book market and bibliographical records, and its stories were remade into other titles that obscured the existence of Exemplary Words. This presentation focuses on how a politically sensitive late- Ming publication navigated its way to survive the early Qing political and cultural environment, through examining the disappearance and reproduction of the Exemplary Words stories in early Qing. It also looks into the lives of its publishers, the Ming loyalist Lu family. This family supported the Southern Ming courts after 1644 and suffered from the political sensitive publications they made in late Ming, such as the Exemplary Words. By investigating the publications and the publishers, this project takes the book and publishing field as a nexus that brings political, intellectual, social, and cultural factors together and stresses how the Ming-Qing transition (1644) transformed the publishing society and how it reacted to this political and social reconstruction

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