New Year's Day Ceremony and the Construction of Political Order in Qing China

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Macabe Keliher, West Virginia University
This paper examines the Manchu revision of the annual New Year’s Day ceremony, and argues that it facilitated the accumulation of political and symbolic resources in the making of the Qing state (1636-1912). In the 1620s and 30s, Manchu ruler Hong Taiji struggled with his relatives for control over a loose socio-military organization of disparate semi-nomadic tribes living in northeastern Eurasia. He had maneuvered politically to assert himself as khan, but his attempts at creating formal state institutions were constantly frustrated by challenges to his authority and lack of any adherence to a system of ranks and positions. In 1631, one of his Chinese advisers suggested revising the New Year’s Day ceremony in a manner that would symbolically elevate the khan to a superior position and organize political actors into stratified groups. The new ceremony, by design, placed political actors in a hierarchy and subjugated them to the ruler, both in their positioning throughout the ceremony, and by requiring acts of deference. While not immediate in its effects, the annual performance of the New Year’s Day ceremony continued to work to show political actors their place in the emerging state and how to relate to others. By 1636, Hong Taiji’s political and symbolic resources enabled him to declare the founding of the Qing dynasty and prepare the conquest of China.

This paper builds upon scholarship on the administrative and military acumen of the Manchus in the conquest and rule of China. It shows that before the exercise of infrastructural power, the accumulation of symbolic power was necessary—it was necessary precisely in order to organize the diverse group of political and military actors into a cohesive body and invest them with a sense of common purpose in the conquest and rule of a vast empire.

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