Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review: The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military Under the Qing Dynasty

Waley-Cohen, Joanna.  The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military Under the Qing Dynasty. I.B. Taurus, 2006.

The common view of China under the Qing is that the culture of the Empire was soft due to the lack of focus on martial arts and virtues, which the Manchu adopted after their conquest.  In this respect, the Manchu were little different from other invaders who were assimilated into a superior Chinese culture.  In The Culture of War in China Joanna Waley-Cohen offers an important corrective to this view.  She argues that the Qing imperial project consisted of two main efforts: military conquest and a modification of Chinese culture to the Qing’s advantage.

The Qing built on their image of military prowess and imperial expansion to add a martial element to Chinese culture designed to unite China’s disparate ethnic and religious groups based on the concepts of universality and pride in imperial expansion.  In order to achieve this goal, Qing officials elevated military prowess and accomplishments to the same level of social and political importance as traditional accomplishments within the confines of the existing Mandarin system.  A key part of this effort was the prominence given to military topics and efforts by those close to the emperor.  Still, the Qing were wise enough not to attempt to dismantle the existing culture of China in favor of their own creation.  The idea was to unify, not separate, the people of China.

    Waley-Cohen argues that the Qing deliberately injected martial elements into culture and the arts, including religion, landscape, ritual, and painting.  Scholars went to newly conquered provinces to document exotic areas in order to bring the imperial success home to the masses, inculcating both the idea of Qing arms and pride at their achievements.  In addition to these “soft” efforts, the Qing introduced the banner system of organization to maintain and display Manchu military vigor after the conquest of China.  The banner system also provided an alternate route to elite status for members – passing examinations based on Confucian texts were no longer the only route to prominence.  According to Waley-Cohen, after 1749, these changes to Chinese culture became a systematic effort designed to stabilize and extend both China and Qing control over China.  This resulted in a broad change in Chinese culture between 1636 and 1800.  As a result, it is necessary to look at changes and events in China through the Cultural Revolution through the lens of Qing militarization of Chinese culture.

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