The Grandeur of the Qing | Asia for Educators

II. Lesson Plans

How to Read a Chinese Hand Scroll:
the Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour

Christine Naitove, The Chapin School, New York, New York


The Qing Empire and Inspection Tours of the Realm

The Qing Empire (1644-1911) in China was established by Manchu invaders from the north, who defeated and replaced Ming Empire (1368-1644). While imperial inspection tours were a longstanding Chinese tradition, the Qing Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722) was the first to complete six such tours during his 60-year reign. These personal inspection tours served a strategic purpose: Since the Manchu rulers were outsiders or "foreigners" to the native Han Chinese, the emperors wished to win over their subjects in order to consolidate Manchu rule throughout the empire. The inspection tours from Beijing in the north to the populous southern provinces provided an opportunity for the Manchu emperor to familiarize himself with his subjects and vice versa.

The Kangxi Emperor conducted his first southern tour in 1684, one year after suppressing a rebellion. His second tour, in 1689, was longer, more extensive, and involved a more splendid display of imperial pomp. This second tour was commemorated by a set of 12 painted silk scrolls, collectively titled "Picture of the Southern Tour" (Nanxuntu), which took a team of artists eight years to produce. Each scroll was more than 27 inches high and up to 85 feet long. Each scroll resembled a cinematic exposition of the emperor’s itinerary and his activities along the way.

Scroll III – Mt. Tai
Scroll III of the Second Southern Tour is significant because its pictorial and political climax is the emperor’s pilgrimage to the holy mountain, Mt. Tai. By worshipping there, the Kangxi Emperor fulfilled long-standing tradition of imperial visits to establish the "mandate of heaven". The importance of this passage is indicated by its position near the end of the scroll and by its occupying about six feet of scroll.

Scroll VII: The City of Suzhou (pronounced Soo-joe)
Scroll VII comprised a more urban itinerary and focused on the emperor’s visit to the southern city of Suzhou, capital of the silk industry. That industry was an imperial monopoly and a major source of income for the "privy purse", or the emperor’s personal and palace expenses, as opposed to the expenses of running the government, which were funded by taxes, customs duties, etc. A sign of the importance of this city to the emperor was that it takes up the last one-third of the scroll, and while in Suzhou the emperor stayed with the Silk Commissioner instead of with the provincial governor.