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  • Chimes of Empire:The Construction of Jade Instruments and Territory in Eighteenth-Century China*
  • Yulian Wu (bio)

On August 3, 1761, two years after the Qianlong emperor's (r. 1736–95) conquest of the Western Regions (Xiyu), subsequently renamed Xinjiang, Prince Zhuang (Yūn lu, Yun-lu) proposed to manufacture a set of individual chimes, the prestigious Confucian ritual instruments, to be played in the most important ritual performance for the winter solstice ceremony (dongzhi) that year. No stone, Prince Zhuang claimed, would be better for crafting the chimes than the beautiful nephrite jade mined from the newly pacified territory of Xinjiang. Excited about this idea, the emperor immediately appointed officials to start this project. Surprisingly, two types of chimes were made, each consisting of different materials. The first type, carved from lingbi stones found in Anhui province, was actually used in the 1761 performance. At the same time, the emperor ordered his bannermen to look for jade in Khotan (Ch: Hetian) and Yarkand, two oasis towns located on the southern Silk Road in the Tarim Basin. Based on their own investigation there and the assistance of local Muslim begs and laborers, in 1762 the court officials found 1,514 jin of jadestones. These stones were transported to Beijing [End Page 43] first and then were delivered to Suzhou for carving. In 1765, carvers completed the second type of chimes, made of Xinjiang jade.1

This episode highlights the crucial connections between object, territory, and rulership in high Qing China. The Qianlong emperor's effort to manufacture jade chimes recalls a common theme in Chinese history: the imperial household restoring ritual music to legitimize its ruling status. Music (yue), according to Confucian ideology, provided an effective vehicle for moral education and thus could help the rulers to maintain social harmony. By performing ritual music, a ruler demonstrated his fidelity to Confucian teachings and also legitimized his status as the Son of Heaven.2 But a close reading of this story highlights another focus of this court-sponsored project: the material used to make the instrument. As shown above, although a set of chimes made of lingbi stones had satisfied the emperor's political agenda to restore Confucian ritual music, the court still expended tremendous effort—in terms of both wealth and labor—to look for Xinjiang jade suitable for chimes. Jade, in this case, was imbued with rich political meaning: it both was associated with Confucian ritual culture and represented the newly conquered territory. The Qianlong emperor used jade to connect Confucian discourse on rulership with his ambition to expand his empire to the new frontier.

This article focuses on the individual chimes made of nephrite jade, a precious gemstone that is called "yu" in Chinese and is richly preserved [End Page 44] in Xinjiang.3 I explore the political implications that were embedded in this ritual instrument and the role that jade played in the Manchu court's frontier politics immediately following its conquest of the new territory. The core inquiry of this article is how the Qing court incorporated Xinjiang as a legitimate and integrated part of the Qing Empire. I argue that the production and use of jade chimes enabled the Qing court ideologically to legitimize its expansion into this new territory and physically to inscribe its power there.

More specifically, this research reveals two dimensions of the Qing court's incorporation of Xinjiang, narratives for ideological legitimacy and works for territorial expansion, or briefly words and works, to borrow Chandra Mukerji's framework.4 The jade chime project shows a perfect combination of the power of words and the efficacy of works in the court's territorial politics in Xinjiang. On the one hand, by elaborating on the political and historical meaning of jade chimes, particularly the cultural resonance of jade, the emperor wedded Xinjiang jade to Confucian ritual to legitimize his conquest of the new frontier. On the other hand, the actual work to make these jade chimes, which required tedious procedures of jade quarrying in a new and wild frontier [End Page 45] region, provided practical venues for the Qing court to incorporate human resources and geographical knowledge into its realm. While the narratives...


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