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  • The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions
  • Jane Kate Leonard (bio)
Evelyn S. Rawski . The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1998. xii, 481 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 0-520-21289-4.

Evelyn Rawski's The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions is a remarkable work of historical synthesis and descriptive analysis of the intimate social world of the Qing dynasty's ruling elite. Her purpose is to capture the aims and intentions of the Qing emperors from the Manchu imperial perspective, which she extrapolates from the material culture of the Qing court, the social hierarchy of the inner power structure, and the state rituals and the personal religious practices of the court. Her thesis argues that the unique material culture, social hierarchy, and rituals of kingship demonstrate that the Qing monarchs were multi-ethnic in their approach to kingship and practical governance. She further argues that their success was due not to "sinicization" but to their multiethnic perspective, which enabled them to craft regionally specific approaches to their diverse constituencies of Mongols, northeastern peoples, Tibetans, and Han Chinese. Thus, in a sense, she proposes that the Manchu imperial worldview and ritual style, which incorporated the rituals and value systems of these constituencies, were the sources of their success.

The study is arranged in three parts that detail the material culture of the Qing court, the social hierarchy of the inner power structure of the imperial elite, and the multicultural rituals of kingship and personal religious practices of the imperial family. The first part starts with a careful description of the character and use of imperial space, and includes a discussion of the three capitals (Beijing, Shengjing, and Chengde, with excellent maps), the imperial hunting grounds, seasonal tours, and the Inner City. This section is concluded with descriptive detail on language, clothing, court robes, food, martial arts, and art. The author's intention in this section is to show the unique attributes of the imperial public and private space and the Qing emperors' purposeful efforts to maintain a separate Manchu identity, but one which embodied a universalist approach to king-ship. The implications of this universalist approach are that the Manchu dynasts were oriented equally to the Han heartland and the strategic Mongol-Tibetan axis. The third part of the book is similar in intention to the first. It centers on the Manchu approach to the performance of state rituals and the syncretic nature of the ruling family's personal religious practices. Both are intended to show that the Manchu rulers were purposefully "Manchu" in their construction and practice of the legitimizing rituals of kingship and of personal religion. These rituals, the author emphasizes, incorporated the symbols and belief systems of all the peoples in the Qing empire, including those in the Inner Asian borderlands and the Han heartland. [End Page 201]

For the Qing specialist, these parts of the study are extremely useful and enlightening because they provide a glimpse into the daily lives of the Qing emperors in their public and private activities. Rawski evokes the texture of their daily personal and work lives, and we see them as multidimensional people. These insights essentially reaffirm what we have long understood about the Qing emperors and their exercise of imperial power. They were skilled institution builders who fused the China heartland and the Inner Asian borderlands into one empire of greater China. They were tireless and creative administrators in governing both the Han and non-Han regions. Moreover, they achieved a level of concerned, or conscientious, governance over the course of the dynasty that was probably unmatched in earlier dynasties. These emperors were tough-minded administrators, and they maintained vigilant scrutiny of vital areas of administration that they considered strategically important to the perpetuation of their rule.

Rawski's depiction of the setting in which they worked, their differing personal styles, and their manipulation of ritual symbols to legitimize their rule deepens and reaffirms our understanding of precisely those very governing qualities. For example, her account of the three capitals, the hunts, and the use of the inner...


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