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Nanhaizi: Origin of royal gardens as political hub

YANG NIANQUN | 2020-09-09
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Detail from Italian Jesuit and court painter Giuseppe Castiglione’s (aka Lang Shi Ning; 1688–1766) “The Qianlong Emperor Hunting in Nanyuan” (1755) Photo: ART. IFENG. COM


Nanhaizi or Nanyuan, an 11.7 square kilometer wetland park south of Beijing, was once the green jewel of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), under whose trees emperors weighed matters of state. To understand Nanhaizi’s influence on Chinese culture, we must first identify the park’s position in a historic cultural evolution, analyzing geography, ethnography, ecological changes, and even architectural norms. Ultimately, the importance of Nanhaizi as an imperial garden hinges upon changes in governance patterns introduced during the Qing Dynasty.
 
From Imperial Palace to gardens
Unlike previous dynasties in China, the Qing emperors adopted a dual political governance pattern. Dual political governance meant that in addition to handling matters of state in the imperial court, where emperors formally ruled from the Imperial Palace, Qing emperors also transformed the royal gardens into a political hub, which constitutes the most distinctive new political custom of the Qing Dynasty.
 
The Forbidden City was the cultural and political center of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Qing Dynasty’s Council of State (junjichu), whose role was senior to that of the Grand Secretariat (neige), was seated in the Imperial Palace. Council members’ physical presence in the Imperial Palace represented the inherited tradition of governance. 
 
For this reason, it was a remarkable political change for Qing Dynasty emperors to begin handling state affairs in royal gardens. There are several representative sites for such endeavors, dotting the countryside around the Forbidden City, and Nanhaizi ranks top of the list. After affairs of state were successfully conducted in gardens, many more imperial gardens were constructed, including the “Three Hills and Five Gardens” (Fragrant Hill, Jade Spring Hill and Longevity Hill, and the Jingyi, Jingming, Changchun and Yuanmingyuan gardens and the Summer Palace) and the Imperial Summer Resort in Chengde.
 
Renowned Chinese historian Dai Yi notes that prior to the Shunzhi Emperor, Nanhaizi stood as the only location for the royal family to mix recreation with political affairs and ritual traditions. 
 
Upon the completion of construction in Nanhaizi, the Three Hills and Five Gardens and Chengde Summer Resort were developed as northern extensions of royal gardens. In the early days, these hills and royal gardens formed a network of political spaces for the Qing Dynasty. Emperors would tour the gardens, holding court north and south across Beijing’s landscape. Nanhaizi was the starting point of this unique governance in royal gardens.
 
Political significance of gardens
Why did the Qing era see the rise of governance in royal gardens? One important reason was the arrival of the Manchus in the Central Plains, who built a political regime different from that of the Han. The Song and Ming dynasties governed based on the distinction between the Han and other ethnic groups, which was also reflected in territorial control and ethnic conflicts. In reality, areas that the Ming Dynasty could actually govern were limited to the eighteen provinces in the east, and its control was often loose in the northeast. 
 
If we look at the Qing Dynasty’s borders, the territory it controlled almost doubled. The difference in geographic reach changed the attitude of the two dynasties towards ethnic minorities. Han rule mostly relied on military installations along the Great Wall for defense, strictly separating Han from other ethnic minorities. The Qing Dynasty adopted unified governance strategies, which brought ethnic minorities in border areas under their control. Such a radical shift in governance inevitably had a great impact.
 
With the Qing Empire’s new approach to ruling China as a unified multi-ethnic community, they became more dedicated to managing relationships with ethnic minorities. We can see this from pluralistic images of Qing emperors. For example, the Yongzheng Emperor had several portraits commissioned,  each of which show him dressed in a different way. In one portrait, he sits reading a book written in Chinese characters, an image designed to fully reflect his image as the emperor of the Han people. In another picture, he wears clothing indicating that he nominally held the title of a religious leader, Great Lama. There is also a portrait in which the emperor is dressed in Taoist clothing, demonstrating his connection to Taoism. 
 
Beyond imagery, the Yongzheng Emperor had titles which reflected the range of his cultural reach. He was nominally referred to as the King of Mongolia, representing the Qing’s rule over Mongolia. Qing emperors adopted different strategies with different ethnic groups, adapting to regional differences when governing the country. These new tactics are intrinsically connected to the implementation of dual governance in the Qing Dynasty.
 
As Dai Yi mentioned, the Manchus were a hunting tribe, different from the Han peasants. After the Manchus entered the Central Plains, they took Beijing as their political center. However, they maintained their traditional habits, such as holding regular hunting ceremonies. 
There is no doubt that the Forbidden City was the main venue for Qing politics, but the Qing emperors liked to travel, so their offices were in constant change. The Kangxi Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor made several tours to the south and east, indicating that they still retained some migratory habits of their hunting days.
 
In the reign of the Shunzhi Emperor, the Three Hills and Five Gardens and Chengde Summer Resort were not built yet. Nanhaizi was the first and only royal garden which could meet the needs of the Qing Dynasty’s new governance style. This makes Nanhaizi particularly important in Qing history.
 
Height of Nanhaizi
In 1644, Manchu troops captured Beijing, and the Shunzhi Emperor proclaimed his rule over China. However, the Qing court was still in a state of war. The Qing army fought numerous battles in the face of the intrusion from Mongolia and rebellion in the south. When generals and commanders came back from the battlefield, grand victory ceremonies were held in Nanhaizi, which became an important part of Qing governance. Frequent ritual ceremonies highlighted the status of Nanhaizi in Qing politics.  
 
The Qing emperors valued the importance of exercising martial arts, military displays, hunting, riding and shooting, and Nanhaizi became an important arena for these activities. Increasingly, Nanhaizi became a place where the emperors held meetings and handled state affairs. It was recorded that the Shunzhi Emperor discussed the failure of Song and Ming’s political governance with officials at the imperial garden. The well-known love story between the Shunzhi Emperor and Consort Donggo also occurred in Nanhaizi, which falls broadly under the purview of Qing politics. 
 
In addition, the imperial gardens were the main venue for Qing emperors to escape the summer heat and avoid smallpox. In the eighth, ninth and 13th year of the reign of the Shunzhi Emperor, he moved to Nanhaizi as a public health strategy, to avoid smallpox. In the 18th year of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign, the emperor complied with the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang’s request to go live in Nanhaizi, because she believed the site was clean, comfortable, and a good place to recuperate.
 
When Qing emperors met with leaders of ethnic groups, grand hunting ceremonies were usually held to demonstrate imperial military power. It was recorded in the Factual Record of the Qing Dynasty (Qingshilu) that in the 40th year of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign, the emperor himself put on his armor and demonstrated riding and shooting. People cheered and marvelled his riding and shooting skills at the age of 47. The military displays and hunting ceremonies were also intended to intimidate the minority leaders present. 
 
Before the Kangxi Emperor passed away, he asked to visit Nanhaizi one more time, proving his love for the royal garden, and also serving as evidence of Nanhaizi’s political importance. 
 
Notably, Nanhaizi was the setting for Qing emperors to host meetings with Tibetan leaders. It became an important place for the Qing Dynasty to establish strategies for governing Tibet. In the ninth year of the Shunzhi Emperor’s reign, the fifth Dalai Lama was granted a meeting with the Shunzhi Emperor in Nanhaizi. Under the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth Panchen Lama was received at the same place, adding political significance to this meeting.
 
Nanhaizi’s singular importance 
Nanhaizi was the first royal garden which saw frequent political activity, highlighting new relationships with ethnic minorities and the origin of dual governance within the Qing Dynasty. This garden became an example for future governance initiatives in the Three Hills and Five Gardens, and Chengde Summer Resort. After Nanhaizi, the center of garden governance moved northwest. For example, in later years, the Yuanmingyuan Palace became the center of garden governance in the Qing Dynasty, and the political importance of Chengde Summer Resort was beyond doubt. 
 
Nanhaizi was the starting point of dual governance in the Qing Dynasty, which is an important historical and cultural resource that we can explore.
 
Conducting matters of state in royal gardens fully reflects unique characteristics of Qing rulers’ unified governance of the territory. Whether leading military displays and hunting ceremonies to subtly intimidate the King of Mongolia or hosting meetings with Tibetan religious leaders, the historical events which took place in Nanhaizi were a microcosm of Qing politics. In this light, Nanhaizi is critical to modern comprehension of gardens and governance in the Qing era, so as to understand the history of the Qing Dynasty.
 
Yang Nianqun is a professor from the Institute of Qing History at Renmin University of China.
 
edited by YANG XUE