The Qing dynasty (pronounced “Ching”) was the last imperial dynasty to rule China. Established in 1644 by the Manchus, who overthrew the native Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty endured until the founding of the Republic of China in 1912.
The 268-year reign of the Qing was dominated by the rule of two monarchs: the Kangxi (“Kang-she”-- “ka” sounds like “ba”) Emperor, who ruled from 1662-1722, and his grandson, the Qianlong (“Chee-en-lung”) Emperor, who ruled from 1736-1795. These two emperors, each of whom reigned for about 60 years, would set the course of Qing history. They created in large part the political, economic, and cultural legacy inherited by modern China.
The Kangxi and Qianlong emperors both undertook multiple “tours of inspection” to all corners of the realm. Their imperial inspection tours were unique in Chinese history. Other emperors in other eras had from time to time completed a single inspection tour of the empire or made the epic journey to Mount Tai to worship Heaven, but the Qing emperors were the first to undertake multiple tours of inspection to all corners of the empire. During his 60-year reign, the Kangxi Emperor completed six southern inspection tours. The Kangxi Emperor's grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, followed his example and also made six southern tours.
In fact, these personal inspection tours were part of a strategy for extending and solidifying Manchu rule throughout the empire.
Each of the two emperors commissioned a monumental set of scrolls to record one of these tours, and asked a leading artist of the time to undertake the commission. The result was two sets of 12 scrolls; one scroll in the set commissioned by the Kangxi Emperor measures 85 feet long! Four of these inspection tour scrolls – two from each collection – are the focus of our exploration in this module. (Three of the scrolls are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)
These mammoth works of art provide a unique and vivid glimpse into the grandeur of late imperial China.
The Southern Tour scrolls of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors were never intended for a general audience. Celebratory and commemorative, the scrolls were created as historical documents for posterity. These works were scarcely seen at all once they had been produced. They were not put on public display; probably very few members of the court, and certainly none of the public, had access to them. They were kept in a special storeroom for maps and imperial portraits, where they awaited the judgment of history.
Today these scrolls serve not only as a testimony to the political ambitions of the Qing emperors to preside over a prosperous, unified empire, but also provide invaluable documentary evidence about daily life in traditional China. We are the posterity exploring and learning from the scrolls!