City Life in Nineteenth Century Beijing

Title: 1117 | City Life in Nineteenth Century Beijing
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Emily Mokros, University of Kentucky, United States (presenter)
Daniel Barish, Baylor University, United States (presenter)
Bingyu Zheng, Bridgewater State University, United States (presenter)
Xi Ju, Beijing Normal University, China (presenter)
Zhenzhen Lu, University of Pennsylvania, United States (organizer, presenter)
Luca Gabbiani, École française d’Extrême-Orient, France (chair, discussant)


The nineteenth century was a time of tremendous change throughout the Qing empire. The local history of its capital city, Beijing, can be read as an assortment of stories – from crime and surveillance to spectacle and sensation, from imperial presence and absence to evolving forms of popular worship and entertainment. Utilizing sources ranging from court records to anecdotal sources and local inscriptions, this panel explores the diverse facets of life in the late Qing capital. With view to its broad range of inhabitants, from human folk to animal spirits, the papers together portray a changing city distinctly different from our known images of High Qing and Republican-era Beijing.

Emily Mokros takes the fore by examining crime and defense in the city under the backdrop of the Taiping Rebellion, studying the symptoms of and responses to urban disorder while shedding light on the lives of ordinary denizens. Next, Daniel Barish explores the changing meaning of imperial processions in a time of waning imperial authority, where weddings and funerals of young monarchs created new opportunities for engagement between the court and city residents. Bingyu Zheng examines the daily lives of Beijing bannermen and their image in public discourse and the popular imagination during the Daoguang era. Ju Xi follows with a study on the evolving animal cults of Beijing in the nineteenth century. Finally, Zhenzhen Lu explores the city’s flourishing scenes of scribal publishing and storytelling entertainment. Luca Gabbiani, who has written extensively on Qing Beijing, serves as chair and discussant.

Panel Abstracts:
City Life During Wartime: Crime, Suspicion, and Urban Defense in Taiping-Era Beijing
Beginning around 1850, the Taiping Rebellion convulsed southern and central China for more than a decade. Organizing a response to this mighty rebellion soon became the central concern of imperial officials in the Qing capital city of Beijing. Despite a planned assault on the city, Beijing never fell to rebel incursion. However, it would be a mistake to say that the Qing capital escaped adverse effects during this mighty civil war. Throughout the wartime period, the city was troubled by reports of “suspicious individuals” piercing urban defenses. Some claimed to be seeking refuge from the Taiping regime, but how could officials and city denizens distinguish true refugees from impersonators? Trouble came from within the city as well. Local residents were found thieving from imperial granaries, temple grounds, and parks. When merchants fled and city shops closed, many were left unemployed and dangerously idle. Beijing denizens crowded in the streets in an unstable milieu. Meanwhile, the morale of the capital’s ill-equipped guardsmen suffered. Using administrative archives and the records of the court gazette, this paper examines city life in Beijing during the mid-century period, focusing on the symptoms and responses to urban disorder. In so doing, I seek to demonstrate how smaller-scale actions and responses in the capital city reflected the looming specter of events of national importance. Moreover, the paper’s focus on crime sheds light on the lives of ordinary urban denizens, still an understudied group in the history of late imperial China and of the Taiping era more particularly.

Between Private Ritual and Public Spectacle: The Social Life of Imperial Processions in Qing Beijing
This paper examines a range of processions which brought the imperial family out from inside the walls of the Forbidden City and into the streets of Beijing in the post-Taiping period. Exploring events such as the weddings of the Tongzhi and Guangxu Emperors and the funerals of Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi, the paper seeks to uncover the changing meaning of the imperial processions and their relationship with elements of social, economic, and political life in the capital. Previous scholarship has examined the grand ceremonies and imperial tours of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and revealed the relationship between public ritual and authority in the Qing Empire. In the nineteenth century, however, as the power of the Court waned, the imperial family remained largely out of sight. Yet in the post-Taiping period, the weddings and funerals of young monarchs brought the imperial family out into city and created new opportunities for engagement between the Court and residents of the capital. As the Court planned the events, it debated how to involve the local population to create links between the imperial family and its subjects. Residents of the capital—from local shop owners to foreign diplomats—meanwhile debated if the events and attendant street closings, influx of officials, and other disruptions to normal city life were more nuisance or opportunity. This paper combines Court records with contemporary press reports and observations from diaries and memoirs to explore the range of meanings of the events and their place in the city’s history.

Parties and Scandals: Public Discourse on Bannermen Leisure in Beijing in Early Nineteenth Century
At the start of the nineteenth century, the daily life of Beijing bannermen had increasingly become the focus of attention of both the Qing government and the general public. News and hearsay of the bannermen’s extravagant banquets and gatherings not only drew political concerns within the imperial palace, but also drew popular fascination in the streets of the capital. Notorious incidents of such parties include the 1838 Lingguan Convent scandal, in which several prominent imperial clansmen and Manchu officials were caught engaging in various acts of debauchery with nuns overnight. This paper studies first how these incidents influenced the Qing court’s attitude towards the leisure activities of the bannermen and shaped its policymaking regarding the regulation of their daily lives. It will then explore how these events were repeatedly retold and sensationalized in various forms of popular media and entertainment. Overall, this article argues that both the political discussions and the popular reimaginations of these infamous events helped shape the public image of the bannermen as profligate, indolent, and decadent, an impression that would be magnified towards the end of the nineteenth century as the bannermen became symbols of the decline and degeneration of not only the dynasty, but China as a whole.

Animal Spirits in the Urban Landscape of Nineteenth Century Beijing
The belief in animal spirits (jingguai) is prevalent among the Han people and in shamanistic traditions of northern China. In the 19th century, a systematic animal cult, known as the Five Manifest Gods of Wealth, or Five Gates or Four Gates, began to appear in the local literature of Beijing. Li Weitsu's pioneering research has shown that the cult of the four sacred animals was well organized by the Republican era, with its own doctrines, pantheon, and rituals. However, in the 19th century, the cult was not yet a systematic religion. The four sacred animals were still identified as four bannermen officers, and the cult was also supported by Taoists and Han officials, which made it rapidly popular in the capital, as can be seen in several of the most attractive folk ritual ceremonies. Moreover, the sacred animals were also common animals in Beijing, and were believed to have possessed immortality and magical power. The city wall, the moats, the Shichahai lake and other places not only had temples dedicated to them but also became “natural reserves.” In the corners of large houses, gardens and temples, a particular area was often reserved for these animals as well. Beijing in the 19th century was thus not only a city with human architecture and culture, but also a "micro-universe" with natural spirits.

Stories of the City: Popular Fiction and Scribal Publishing in Nineteenth Century Beijing
From evocations of the capital’s sights and sounds to the histories of their circulation, many a work of Qing popular fiction traces its roots to Beijing. This paper takes a close look at a group of martial-arts novels and court case stories which were recorded to have been performed in the city and were locally printed in the 19th century (almost all during the Guangxu era). While reflecting on these narratives of imperial justice and order in the context of the post-Taiping period, this paper highlights a large realm of scribal publishing, connected to performances, which facilitated the circulation of not only these texts but a much larger range of entertainment literature in late 19th century Beijing. It reflects on what this means for understanding the adoption of texts by commercial printers; on the readers and consumers of the stories, which included not only ordinary residents of the city but also the court; and on the changing vogues of entertainment and the varied media of popular culture in the capital of the late Qing

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