Enlightenment

300 years after Kangxi

Pedro Luengo’s Global architecture for eighteenth-century Beijing is the April volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book reinterprets Beijing during the eighteenth-century, revealing a new chapter in the global history of architecture. In this blog post, Pedro Luengo discusses the beginning of a new period of Chinese international relations after the death of Qing emperor Kangxi and the new approach to cosmopolitanism developed in response to eighteenth-century global modernity.


China’s relations with the rest of world is a vital issue for our times. International relationships are deeply connected to notions of the perceived Other, which in turn can be shaped by personal experiences, powerful propaganda and historical events. To better understand China’s approach to foreign relations in the present, it can be useful to look to its past.

The death of the Qing emperor Kangxi on 20th December 1722 marked the beginning of a new period of Chinese international relations. First with Kangxi’s successor, emperor Yongzheng, at the helm, followed by emperor Qianlong from 1735, the Qing dynasty developed different ways of dealing with eighteenth-century global modernity. Ethnically Manchu while governing a Han society, they proposed a new approach to cosmopolitanism. As part of a Chinese cosmovision, the emperor was placed at the centre of the globalised world, governing both their territories and beyond. While previous scholarship has tended to examine the role of European missionaries and the exchange of artistic traditions among the local elite, Global Architecture for Eighteenth-century Beijing: Building Qing Enlightenments aims to explain how these Qing emperors defined an image of globalisation in eighteenth-century Beijing.

More specifically, the book begins by reviewing the most recent approaches to court history in order to provide an analysis of specific building complexes. Yuánmíng Yuán is treated here not as a Chinese garden with exotic buildings based on European forms but as a vast architectural project that showcases Asian and European influences as well as Chinese styles. Indeed, references to French, Italian, Persian, and southeast Asian architecture can all be identified.

From Catholic churches to Russian monasteries to mosques, the second set of buildings under consideration provide a means to examine the Qing emperors’ support for religious tolerance during the period. This particular aspect of globalisation spread among both the elite and rural populations with engravings and paintings providing evidence of this cosmopolitan view, including in artworks found to adorn opera stages and shrines.

Analysed using new historical sources and the latest digital technology, these buildings help to provide a more accurate image of Beijing as an important global centre during the eighteenth-century. This also allows for comparisons to be drawn between other contemporary cities, such as Istanbul, Paris, and Rome among many others. Knowledge of how the issue of multiculturalism was dealt with by these societies may help others to address similar challenges in the present. In addition, it might prompt renewed conservation efforts to help preserve or restore these historical sites. Yuánmíng Yuán is currently preserved as ruins after the destruction wrought by British and French soldiers in the nineteenth-century, while the churches, monasteries, and mosques examined mostly disappeared during the current century. The paintings found at rural sites are, themselves, at high risk. Curiously, the typical Chinese approach to heritage and its preservation insists on community value at the expense of other aspects such as material authenticity. In this way, the ruins of Yuánmíng Yuán are explained today as the consequence of European barbary, and not so much noted as a prime example of the Chinese contribution to the international history of multilateralism. Notwithstanding its terrible attack, the monument might therefore be better used to highlight and reinforce the potentially positive role that China can play as the world navigates its current tensions and challenges.

— Pedro Luengo (Universidad de Sevilla)

Global architecture for eighteenth-century Beijing is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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  1. Pingback: 300 years after Kangxi | Voltaire Foundation

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