I’ve been casually researching the Qing Dynasty (1635-1911) for the last few years. This research has been inspired but an obscure fascination which tends towards an aesthetic. What follows is a schematic outline of this ongoing experiment.
The context for this experiment is the project of civilizational renewal underway these days in China. I find the Qing period is intriguing because of how it figures as an impasse in that project. The project aims to establish continuity between ancestors and descendants, and appears untenable for various reasons. The idea of Han ethnic identity readily deteriorates into something monstrously counterfeit, as practically all the core institutions of the imperial tradition, such a polygamy and footbinding, would be absurd in the this century. There are problems concerning how this “renewal” is going to proceed, and the Qing aesthetic is in that problematic. It is an edge or limit where the discourses on the symbolic continuity of Chinese civilization give way to abject figures.
In order to introduce this aesthetic, let me first recall some current conditions in China. These days, wealthy families are ambitiously returning to the era of feudalism, through what we might call the manorial-hotelier real estate culture. They are evidently trying to pick up where their ancestors left off roughly a century ago. There is a perception that their national life-world was fractured by foreign intrusion, and these wealthy bosses are recovering that lost symbolic integrity. So the Chinese feel they are in the process of becoming symbolically whole again. And for this reason, there is great tolerance today for nepotism, because the skyscrapers and luxury automobiles have become symbols of Fuqiang（富强）, the wealth-strength of those who are capable of recovering national integrity. This is an atavistic return of a nobility re-emerging primarily through the power of real estate. This class is exceptionally powerful due to the way capitalism and socialism have meshed. When private individuals buy property, they can only hold the deed for seventy years, after which it goes back to a public company. So there is an ongoing cycle of re-appropriation and re-sale which concentrates a horrific degree of real estate power into the hands of the party elite. There is the question of how far atavism will go in the restoration of imperial institutions, although all the Chinese I know are adamant that a return to full imperialism would not be possible.
This restoration process can be considered as something like a working-through in the psychoanalytic sense, in that it’s an attempt to establish the structural coherence of the subject. The process runs into sensitive points, which must be circumvented or masked, because they could destabilize the symbolic representation of the society. There is the question of the “loose-officials”, party members who enrich themselves by dubious means and then escape to foreign countries. This poses a risk of “moral hazard” (to speak like an economist) for the Chinese economy overall, where elites could run up the markets to accumulate wealth quickly and then flee abroad as the system collapses. If authorities are not permanently committed to China, then they may not concern themselves with the risks that their decisions expose it to. This sort of risk can only be mitigated by ensuring the party’s eternal allegiance to the Chinese people. This ideology of allegiance implies several dimensions, drawing on the rhetoric of socialism, along with the older ideologies of Chinese civilization, especially its familial tendencies. The anti-corruption campaign of the last few years unsurprisingly has Confucian aspects. So the idea of Chinese civilizational continuity is becoming critical for social integrity.
Life abroad is considered superior in terms of environment, education, and health, and people are generally moving abroad “for their children”. So there is a strange ethical ambivalence within the family which is torn between nativist ideology and escapist temptations. Nationalist solidarity draws on a frequently aestheticized sentimentality for the ancestral hometown.
There are powerful images of the betrayers of Chinese civilization who forsake the national ideals. This image most famously has to do with the hanjian (汉奸) who cooperated with Japanese puppet governments.
In the mainland today there are various schools proposing strategies for the recovery of civilizational continuity. A certain Confucianist named Jiangqing (not Mao’s wife!) is getting media attention in the west, so he is a reasonable place to begin this discussion. This guy draws his lineage from Xunzi of the Warring States period (475-221 BC), and thus breaks with the Mencian orthodoxy of the last thousand years. This initiative is remarkable for its strategy, in that it dispenses with the need to negotiate with the last thousand years of Confucianism, which he claims is tainted by “Western individualism”. Thus he links the present form of Chinese communism directly to this very ancient realist political philosophy in order to establish the continuity of authentic Chinese thought. He has even gone so far as to redesign the government into a tripartite structure, where the Party is reduced to one branch, and the other branches are for the direct descendants of Confucius on one hand, and those who pass the civil exam on the Confucian classics on the other.
This proposal is interesting in its strategy for recovering civilizational continuity. Qing aesthetics is the inverse of this political fantasy, in that it pursues exactly what Jiangqing is attempting to exclude. The important thing is to deconstruct political temporality and engage Chinese civilization on a morbid spatial level. This orients subjectivity in the position that the patriarchy rejects.
Chinese tend to imagine the Qing as a time of decline when they were ruled by foreign Manchus. Hence the tendency to project further back to more glorious dynasties like the Tang (who were not so Han either…) This rejection of the Qing as non-Chinese has drastic consequences for the project of restoring civilizational continuity. As the last dynasty, there are still people alive even today who were born during the Qing, making it by far the most accessible in every sense. Its institutional records and literature constitute, along with its material artefacts, the greater part of the existing archive of Chinese civilization. Qing customs, languages, and political divisions are the closest approximations of any dynasty to what exists in China today. It was also the most populated, wealthy, and geographical expansive dynasty. Almost any ancient traditions which are still practiced today must have been transmitted through the Qing period. It has been suggested that popular conceptions of ancient China – such as what is shown on TV soap operas – are largely based on the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, as is the style of today’s vernacular mandarin.
This leads to a fact which is interesting for aesthetic reasons – that the continuity of Chinese civilization depends on a period which the Chinese dismiss as one of discontinuity. This reduces the accessibility of the archive of the civilization, and so the Chinese turn instead towards ideologies which are less cultural, and more familial and socio-political.
Qing aesthetic draws queer forces from the rejected and abominable traits associated with that period, such as eunuchs, footbinding, opium, polygamy, and foreign intrusion. This dimension is non-temporal, the unworking of a doomed civilization on the brink of extinction. Patriarchalists are possessed by the fantasy of producing heirs to continue the authentic way of this ancient people, and so they become obsessive neurotics attempting to close this symbolic chain through acts of reproduction. Qing aesthetics installs a subject at the point where that chain does not close. This is a theater of abjection where the archive of Chinese civilization is exposed to oblivion. A theater of the archive’s frayed end. This exposure is an event around which dramatic processes are figured. This is a field of crucifixation, something like the lude figures on Francis Bacon paintings. The Taiping uprising of millennial Christians (1860s) was perceived as an insurgence of demons possessed by the creed of the foreigners. Qing aesthetics considers this insurgence as something of internal Chinese origins.
There is a scandal where the authentic archive of Chinese civilization may have always been haunted by its repressed real. The empire may have died not from foreign intrusion but from essentially Chinese characteristics.
The Chinese social doxa is a phantasm of reproduction. This is a temporal frame which intertwines familial, civilizational, and socio-political threads. The Qing aesthetic is an eruption of the death drive within that doxa. This opens a threshold of extinction designated by the character 拆, which marks old buildings slated for destruction, like the old Hutong alleyways of Beijing. This is a site within the symbolic structure where time disappears, the futureless dimension where the archive of Chinese civilization opens.