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Ming Palace and Tomb in Early Qing Jiangning: Dynastic Memory and the Openness of History

From: Late Imperial China
Volume 20, Number 1, June 1999
pp. 1-48 | 10.1353/late.1999.0002

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Late Imperial China 20.1 (1999) 1-48


This essay explores the destinies of two Ming imperial sites in Jiangning (the former Nanjing) following the Manchu invasion, together with some of the reflections of these destinies in post-1644 art and literature. It focuses on the imperial palace in the city itself, and the tomb of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Ming Taizu, at Mt. Zhong in the city's north-eastern outskirts. Both sites underwent drastic physical alteration at the end of the Ming and beginning of the Qing dynasty. In their mutilated later-seventeenth century form both then inspired, directly and indirectly, an important body of visual and literary representations in which their political status was a central concern.

As a study which focuses on dynastic memory as invested in monuments, this article is intended to contribute to the larger project of a historical poetics -- a thematic deciphering if you will -- of Chinese cultural responses to "the Ming-Qing cataclysm." The cataclysm was, of course, doubly traumatic, in that it conjoined dynastic fall with foreign invasion. There is an important sense in which the response to the cataclysm can be said to have lasted even into the twentieth century, but my own interest has been in what might be called the immediate response. This was in itself an affair of some sixty or seventy years, bounded at its later end by the disappearance of the last subjects born under the Ming dynasty, at which approximate moment the trial of Dai Mingshi (1653-1713) advertised once more the Qing state's determination to assert its control over the writing of dynastic history. As one might imagine, this initial post-1644 period was far from homogeneous in terms of cultural response, but had its own complex internal development.

One strain of historical interpretation has focused on the trauma itself as it was experienced by individuals of the period, and as it was represented in texts and images. Within the field of art history, one can cite by way of example the outstanding recent scholarship on the Ming loyalist, Bada shanren, with its intense study of Bada's "madness," anger, fears, and suffering. Elsewhere, studies by Lynn Struve and others of Kong Shangren's (1648-1718) great historical drama, The Peach Blossom Fan (completed 1699) have taken stock of its sober assessment of the fall, while the same historian's edited translations of eye-witness accounts of the Ming-Qing cataclysm on the contrary take us to the heart of the trauma. My own interests, however, have taken me elsewhere, toward more abstract mechanisms associated with the trauma which pose their own special problems for the cultural historian, not unlike those associated in our own time with the Second World War and the Resistance. The historical record is rich in all that touches on the contingencies of the historical situation; it is also rich in moral rhetoric. Often, the two do not coincide; motives can be obscure, the reality of events unclear, and the resonances of cultural texts multi-levelled and ambiguous. Ambiguity is, if anything, the touchstone of the period. But how do we interpret this ambiguity? Is a knowledge of the contradictions between contingent events and rhetorical stances sufficient?

An analysis of the considered cultural responses to the Ming-Qing cataclysm -- not just those of the remnant subjects, but also of "neutrals," "collaborators," and the Qing rulers -- suggests that there was much more to it than this. It may be possible, in other words, to identify other mechanisms which operated at a deeper level, influencing both the deployment of moral rhetoric and the course of events. Obviously there is an issue of method at stake in this last claim, for as regards the starting-point (though certainly not finishing-point) for investigation it implicitly privileges discourse about, and representations of, historical events over the events themselves -- although this may seem less unreasonable if one reminds oneself that paintings and poems are historical events, too. On these points I do not wish to hide behind the fact that I am art historian by trade, and thus primarily concerned with representation. For the issue here is the much more...

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