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  • The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China by Macabe Keliher
  • Richard J. Smith (bio)
Macabe Keliher. The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019. ix, 266 pp. Hardcover $80.00, isbn 978-0-520-30029-3.

Macabe Keliher's The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the way that China's Manchu conquerors created an effective synthesis of Chinese and Manchu traditions of governance. In the process, he sheds useful light on a vigorous and ongoing scholarly debate over the degree to which alien conquerors of China were "sinicized"—that is, "absorbed by the sedentary culture of the conquered and falling into the trap of losing their internal justifications and thus [their] rule" (p. 161).

Keliher refers briefly to this debate at the end of his "Introduction," identifying, on the one hand, scholars who argue that "The Manchu sovereigns did not abandon their Manchu identity but rather enforced it through language, dress, textual projects, and military institutions and practices," and, on the other, those who emphasize that "Chinese personnel and practices structured the state and informed almost all of life in the Qing, from political communications to community funerals" (pp. 21–22). Keliher is clearly more sympathetic to the former view than the latter, but in my opinion his study strikes an effective balance between these two interpretive poles.

Full disclosure: I have skin in this game, since my 2015 book, The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture tries to find a "productive middle ground" between scholars who "place special emphasis on Manchu as opposed to Chinese traditions" and those who claim that the Manchus "fully assimilated Chinese traditions at the expense of their own."1 In all, I believe Keliher's analysis lends unstated support to my argument that the remarkable success of the Manchus in creating a vast and enduring multicultural empire can be attributed to the following three major factors. First, the Inner Asian assumptions and cultural practices that the Manchus brought to the areas they conquered, including "their distinctive notions of pan-Asian kingship and their strategic employment of a powerful political, social, and military organization that came to be known as the Eight Banners"; second, "the administrative institutions and bureaucratic practices that the Manchus inherited from the Ming dynasty and modified, often significantly, for their own purposes"; and third, the "selective appropriation and/or patronage of certain Chinese cultural practices and constructions" by the Manchus.2

Keliher's admirable, well-researched, and insightful book focuses primarily on the related political themes of power, authority, and legitimacy. His basic argument is that the Board of Rites (Libu), established in 1631 by the man who would declare the founding of the Qing dynasty five years later, played a pivotal [End Page 129] role in determining how power and authority were exercised by the Manchus, and how legitimacy was achieved. He describes the Board as the key site where political relationships were "contested and renegotiated" (p. 194). Furthermore, he argues that "Although state-makers drew upon existing cultural and political forms, the Qing state was its own development"——that is, the early Qing dynasty was "constructed in the mid-seventeenth century in response to political and cultural demands," not a continuation or modeling of the Ming (1368–1644) (p. 22).

This construction, he shows, grew out of a unique blend of historically contingent circumstances. In particular, (1) the emergence of a powerful Jurchen state in present-day Liaoning province under Nurhaci (1559–1626), who reigned as khan (ruler) of the Later Jin state from 1616 to 1626;(2)the expansion and sophistication of that state under Nurhaci's son, Hong Taiji (1592–1643), who adopted the term "Manju" (i.e., Manchu) in 1635 to refer to the Jurchen people, and who declared the establishment of the Qing ("Pure") dynasty in 1636; and (3) the conquest of China Proper and surrounding areas from 1644 to 1690, during the reigns of the Shunzhi and Kangxi emperors.

In Keliher's view, the most critical period in the rise and consolidation of the early Qing empire was the...


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