My dissertation explores landscape as a social and cultural instrument in the high
Qing (1760s-1820s), a multi-ethnic empire with the largest territory and the most diverse
ethnic groups in the history of China. In particular, I ask how a multiethnic empire rules
and how the small county of Haining in east central China fit into the ruling house’s
vision of its empire as a “great union.” Instead of answering these questions by
examining the center of state politics (administration and state policies), I look at local
politics. In this case I examine how seawalls, tidal phenomena, and scenes of daily life
represented as Haining landscapes were collected and organized in local histories and
imperially commissioned works. This dissertation thus seeks both to elucidate the
historical relations between the imperial center and the locale and to address issues of
wider concern to scholars of empire formation in the early modern world.
Haining in the late imperial period was a small city located where the Qiantang
River flows into China East Sea in Zhejiang province. Before the second half of the
eighteenth century, Haining most commonly appeared in reports of local coastal floods
caused by tidal bores and requests for famine relief. Following the construction of
protective seawalls and the Qianlong emperor’s inspection tours to Haining in 1762, the
image of tidal bores shifted. Once depicted as wild and uncontrolled natural disasters they
now appeared as tamed and even aesthetically pleasing phenomena. Haining itself
thereafter was celebrated in poems as a place holding a unique position as the destination
for sightseeing related to the tidal bores and a booming cultural center noted for poets,
bibliophiles, and scholars.
The central thematic concern of my dissertation is the local response of Haining’s
literati to the Qianlong emperor’s representations of Haning’s local landscapes. I analyze
this response in terms of discursive representations functioning as political technology in
service of power. While Qianlong used local landscapes to imagine Haining as a jigsaw
puzzle piece in his multiethnic empire, local literati appropriated that imagination and
manipulated the meaning of local landscapes in an effort to reinforce their own status.
Despite their differences in terms of political agendas and interests, however, both the
imperial and local representations of local landscapes facilitated to map out previously
little known Haining as a highly cultivated place with beautiful sceneries on the imperial
My dissertation works on three types of textual representations of local landscape,
natural sights (tidal bores), man-made structures (seawalls), and human performance
(scenes of local daily life). Most were landscape poems anthologized and re-anthologized
into Haining local histories since the sixteenth century. The rate of their incorporation
into the histories rapidly increased in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth
century, especially after textually constructed landscapes of Haining had been included in
imperially sponsored works after the Qianlong emperor’s inspection tours to Haining.
These poems constitute a unique kind of historical source material, one that
invites an interdisciplinary approach. First, this body of material allows for a detailed
study of the development of the largely unexamined local histories in the form of poems.
Second, the landscape poems incorporated in imperially sponsored works can serve as a
vehicle for examining one aspect of the Qing rule. As an example, the Qianlong
emperor’s poems on his tours to seawalls and tidal bores function more as edicts to local
officials than simply praises to local scenery beauty. Third, an exploration of the milieu
from which they sprang poses questions about the relationship between the imperial
center and its locale. Finally, this abundance of documentation also sheds light on the
related matters of how recording and documenting of landscape poetry can forge a
national identify for a multi-ethnic empire.