Literati Resistance in the Early Qing Dynasty

Even at the founding of the new dynasty, the Manchus exploited a weak position of the Han Chinese Ming dynasty. After the rebel Li Zicheng took Beijing in 1636, Ming officials called upon the Manchus for help, but this led to the full taking of China by Manchus in 1644 (“Qing Dynasty”). At that point, the Han Chinese were again ruled by a different people group, hegemony which ultimately threatened their spot as the elites of their society.

The new dynasty nonetheless took quite a few years to fully suppress all loyalist resistance—holdouts of some Ming courts stretched all the way until 1662, and until 1683 in Taiwan (Li 1).

The Han elites were marginalized in some key ways. First, in order to assure Manchu control, the new government mandated that half of all high officials were Manchu (“Qing Dynasty”). Thus, Manchus held a disproportionate level of power and opportunity in this new dynasty over the Han majority. Second, there were restrictions on Han academies and literacy societies: they were barred from conducting exclusively political activities (“China”). The Han literati were formally not allowed to band together in as many political coalitions, thus they would have to turn to other ways to resist their foreign leaders.

A more specific example comes from fashion, which Manchu leaders sought to change. Lynn A. Struve explains:

Despairing at the state of the world and not wishing to shave off most of their hair, cultivate the queue, or alter the cut of their robes in symbolic submission to the conquering “barbarian” Manchu-Qing regime, they opted to avoid political confrontation and perhaps achieve some peace of mind by entering clerical Buddhism. (159)

Surely, there was a lot of resistance by the Han, many of whom drew the line at the acceptance of “barbarian” fashion. Many accounts detail men who died resisting this change, as some even banded together to do so, with ruthless suppression from the new dynasty (Li 3).

Many other examples exist, but these nonetheless shed light on how Han Chinese ceded part of their place in society to Manchus. This would cause alienation and marginalization of the Han, who would be driven to resistance.

Interestingly, this period was described in apocalyptic terms by Han literati—Fang Yizhi, for example, referred to it as “the time when heaven was filled entirely with blood.” (qtd. In Li 2). Additionally, Gui Zhuang described the injustice of Manchu hegemony as “being Chinese turned Barbarian” (qtd. Li 2).

One dissatisfied literati, Feng Ban, a loyalist to the Ming dynasty who feigned insanity to avoid service to the Manchus, prosed:

Knives, arrows, and imprisonment, let them come,

nothing can stop my strings and songs.

I face death with a calm heart

so what can poverty do to me?

With twenty-two ounces of cotton stuffing my broken comforter,

and three pine logs to cook my empty wok,

this winter I still feel lavishly supplied.

I can’t imagine anyone doing better than me.

(qtd. in Barnstone and Ping 328).

Tiehua in the Forbidden City (mingqing jiaju 2) 3Additionally, an original piece my Tang Peng (pictured) reveals an artistic reflection on the fragmentation felt by many levels of Chinese society. This is reinforced by the piece’s application of a ‘remnant mountain and river’ theme, which was popular during the fragmentation of the southern Song Dynasty; however, an in-depth analysis of southern Song landscapes will be completed later in this research. Notice the very basic nature of this photo; there is a simple, empty background and limited detail. This could reflect the incompleteness that comes with living under foreign rulers.

The changes brought by a new dynasty encouraged many to turn to various levels of eremitism. This concept had long been familiar within Chinese culture, and acted as an alternate way of ordering one’s reality (Li 8). The concept of eremitism hit different individuals at different levels, of course. Some essentially stayed in society as before, while others left it completely. An extreme example is seen in the experience of Xu Fang, who “was said to so abhor contact with society that he would put calligraphy and paintings in a basket on his donkey, along with a list of items he needed, and let it go by itself to the city gate” (Li 12).

Wai-yee Li adds to the levels of eremitism, asserting that a major debate among high social circles was to stay within Qing society was to become a “remnant subject” or leave society and become a “eremitic subject” (7). The literati, of course, turned to the Chinese classics for stances on both sides of the arguments. A more detailed description of the various ideological backbones they were influenced by can be found in a later post. At any rate, Li concisely sums up the difference between both responses:

…many remnant subjects of the Ming were involved in royalist resistance, commented on social ills, debated moral of philosophical questions, or were deeply concerned with the definition and transmission of tradition. In other words, eremitism implies the rejection of politics and history, whereas being a remnant subject is by definition a political stance responding to a historical situation (8)

Simply put, remnant subject made do with their tough situations, whereas eremitic subjects rejected all and retreated into nature, which could also have to do with a Confucian-Taoist divide. Both cases, however, involved varying levels of social resistance. Those who chose to stay felt that self-cultivation and philosophical inquiry were more streamlined within society. Feelings on this are seen in the words of Gu Yanwu: “To learn alone without friends, one becomes ignorant and fails to achieve fruition; stay for long in one corner, one becomes [adversely] influenced without being aware of it” (qtd. In Li 14). Nonetheless, Taoist doctrine views unlearning as a positive concept, thus scholars were perhaps more Confucian in nature.

Many remnant subjects met through poetry gatherings, which ended up taking on resistant tendencies. Li, states, “Poetry gathering were sometimes turned into rites of commemoration for the fallen Ming. These networks may have facilitated communication or provided refuge for those involved in resistance,” leading to their banning in 1652 (15). Unfortunately, becoming too closely associated with resistance, poetry meetings were eventually done away with by the government they resisted.

This brings up an important concept in the early Qing dynasty: censorship. While this was certainly part of new restrictions imposed, censorship changed in unique ways. As we’ve seen, altered censorship also led to an explosion of creative energy, but it nevertheless also limited freedom in other areas. This was overcome by resistant literati in two main ways: first, as asserted by Li, “There is a long tradition of conveying praise and blame through subtle yet pointed poetic language, but restraint and indirectness in early Qing poetry are sometimes also functions of political caution” (37). Thus, many literati indirectly made accusations for aspects of their new rulers they resented.

Secondly, many literati indicated their feelings by describing similar, analogous moments in Chinese history, with the most common period being the fall of the Song dynasty (Li 39-40). Thus, without directly making negative statements about their current rulers, Hans used other unfortunate events in their eyes as a proxy.

Nonetheless, Chinese society morphed greatly during the Qing Dynasty, thus the literati’s place in society was threatened by the system itself. While the idea of social mobility was championed in this new dynasty, as seen in the romanticized idea of a peasant rising to become the first Confucian scholar in his family (“China”), the reality of the situation was different. Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “Downward social mobility was a more general phenomenon than upward mobility in Qing society; those at the bottom of the social scale did not marry and have children while the wealthy practiced polygyny and tended to have large families” (“China”). Under this model, there was no way for high profile official positions could grow to satisfy all members of sprawling elite families.

This led to a great shift in socially acceptable positions for the quickly growing multitude of degree-holding literati. An increasing number of literati made their ways in scholarship, painting, poetry, as well as other arts, in addition to assuming “leadership in public welfare, mediation of disputes, and local defense” (“China”). These individuals, doing their best to resist downward social mobility, resisted traditional conceptions of what constituted a respectable career. This too is the case with Tang Peng, who challenged the traditional of what a blacksmith could make and even resisted traditional production by opening his very own workshop.

The early Qing Dynasty was actually a period of great creative energy. Li elaborates on this:

The early Qing was an extraordinarily creative and vibrant period in Chinese literary history, in part because political disorder and the initial abeyance of centralized control made for greater freedom of expression testing the boundaries of political, moral, and formal constraints (2).

Nonetheless, another component of this had to do was a strong spirit among the literati to preserve their Han heritage and traditions despite Manchu governance (Li 8). Freedom as well as a strong sense of tradition drove many literati to produce poetry and art like never before, among many other expressions of culture. Additionally, the institution of a new dynasty opened up the floor for dialogue on the atrocities committed during the Ming dynasty, which helped motivate many historical writings (Li 41). Overall, political change, while hegemonic and marginalizing to Hans, helped promote an outburst of creativity and openness.

Nonetheless, many literati drew the line at merchants, as some accumulated wealth equivalent and greater to the old elites, causing them to release traditionally minded propaganda (“China”). This shifting society certainly put strain on a more traditionalist literati. With a money-based economy integrating itself into Chinese society like never before, old indications for preeminence were further challenged (“China”). Here, we see resistance going both ways; the literati held on to tradition, yet resisted to ensure their continued way of life. Even skilled workers, like the blacksmith Tang Peng, were thus able to exist and rebel since conceptions of success were challenged at all levels of society.

Kangxi Period and Tang Peng

The second emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Kangxi (r. 1661-1722), nonetheless brought a period of prosperity to China, which contributed to the foundation of tiehua. Kangxi oversaw negotiation with Russians and a defeat of the Mongols, as well as a period of great expansion and market growth, contributing a thriving handicraft industry (“Qing Dynasty”). It’s arguable that this thriving economy made possible the type of blacksmith innovation Tang Peng developed. In worse economic situations, he might not have even been able to paint with iron or even open his own workshop.

Tiehua in the Forbidden City (mingqing jiaju 2) 5Nonetheless, his works still reflect the earlier described issues of the non-Han dynasty. Tang Peng’s “Four Seasons” (pictured) shows some key elements of this. This work, following the bird and flower style, dates back to the 1680s. In terms of subject, this piece is demonstrates a reaction by the literati to the political situation of the time: The recent Qing takeover of China and the traditionally Confucian idea of withdrawing oneself from the corrupted secular world are seen most significantly. Additionally, in older tiehua style, the depiction focuses on one central element, plants and various birds in this case. Notice the large amount of white silk background and the detailed foreground but lack of background, suggesting fragmentation and alienation.

Works Cited

The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.

“China”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 06 Jun. 2016 <>.

Li, Wai-yee. “Introduction.” Trauma and Transcendence in Early Qing Literature. Eds. Wilt L. Idema, Wai-yee Li, and Ellen Widmer. Cambridge, MA: the Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. 1-70. Print.

“Qing dynasty”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 06 Jun. 2016 <>.

Struve, Lynn A. “Dreaming and Self-search during the Ming Collapse: The Xue Xiemeng Biji, 1642-1646.” T’oung Pao 93 (2007): 159-192. Print.