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A New Dynasty

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A New Dynasty

Nineteenth-century Europeans tended to conceive of China as a stagnating empire, but the seventeenth century saw it as a dynamic place of cataclysmic changes as the Manchus (rather vaguely called “Tartars” in this period) invaded with the help of Ming rebels. In 1644 the Manchus declared a new dynasty, the Qing, which would last until China became a republic in 1911.  European eye-witnesses to the events eagerly recorded history as it was unfolding for readers back home, and some of their accounts have been useful even to Chinese historians.  Yet almost everything was moralized and the prevailing view of this dynastic change was that China had grown soft and effeminate in its luxuries, and the Tartars would restore it to its former greatness.

Arnoldus Montanus. Atlas Chinensis. London, 1671

As forces led by the rebel Li Zicheng 李自成 (1606–65) entered Beijing in 1644, the reigning Chongzhen 崇禎 emperor ordered the death of his concubines and daughters, then hanged himself to prevent his own capture. Martino Martini’s account of these events was reprinted twenty-five times in ten languages by the end of the century. He noted that the first Manchu invasions coincided with the Ming persecution of the Jesuits in 1618, and he laid particular blame for the fall on the corruption of the court eunuchs.


Juan de Palafox y Mendoza wrote his own version of the conquest of China from his bishopric in Mexico using second-hand sources. He likened it to the Roman conquest of Carthage and spoke approvingly of the Manchus. But he also praised the Chongzhen emperor and lamented his death in melodramatic terms. He criticized the Chinese rebels who aided the Manchus and cast blame on high-ranking officials.


The Shunzhi emperor 順治 (1638–61) ascended the throne at the age of five, and became the first Manchu emperor of China in 1644. The portrait at right (bottom) depicts him at about the age of eighteen as a European dandy. It was first printed in 1667 by Athanasius Kircher, who received a letter shortly thereafter from a fellow Jesuit in China pointing out that picturing the emperor with a dog and a stick would be considered a grave insult to the Chinese. He should be seated at a table with books and mathematical instruments.


Compare that portrait to the court portrait directly above of the Kangxi emperor (1654–1722), who succeeded him. The young Kangxi emperor is seated on a golden throne holding a large calligraphy brush. On the desk is an ink-stone and a book enclosed in a protective blue flap box. Behind him is a dragon screen in the style of the famous painter Chen Rong 陳容(1200–1266), and beneath his feet is a Ming-era imperial carpet with lucky ruyi 如意 clouds and imperial five-clawed dragons. Kangxi reigned for sixty-one years, the longest of any Chinese emperor, and commissioned massive editorial projects to preserve Chinese language and literature.


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Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. Historia de la conquista de la China por el Tartaro. English. London, 1676

Martino Martini. De bello Tartarico historia. Amsterdam, 1655

Anonymous court artists. Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor. 1662–1722. Courtesy of The Palace Museum, Beijing

Johannes Nieuhof. Gezantschap der Neerlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie... van China. English. London, 1673

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