#AsiaNow Speaks with Macabe Keliher

Macabe Keliher is Assistant Professor in the Clements Department of History at Southern Methodist University and author of The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China, published by University of California Press, which won the 2021 AAS Joseph Levenson Pre-1900 Book Prize honorable mention.

Cover of Macabe Keliher, The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries dispersed peoples living in northeastern Eurasia began to organize, called themselves Manchus, and went on to form one of the largest land-based empires in history, the Qing dynasty (1636-1912), which ruled China and parts of Inner Asia for nearly three centuries. How did they do it?

Historians have largely focused on the Manchu’s superior ability to organize for and make war, and on Qing innovations in bureaucratic and ruling institutions. To date, however, relatively little attention has been paid to the organization of politics and how diverse political and ethnic actors were disciplined in the everyday practices of state-building and government. To put it another way: In addition to war-making and institution building, how to invest disparate actors with a sense of common purpose to conquer and rule?

My book shows that the Board of Rites (Libu) and a system of disciplinary practices referred to as li in Chinese and dorolon in Manchu (rites or ritual in English) was instrumental in the early state-building process. In the midst of struggles for political power in the mid-17th century, actors employed the Board of Rites and li to discipline others in the organization of a certain political system favorable to a certain vision of empire. Throughout this process, li—as traditionally understood—was transformed alongside the practice of politics to create a system of government and a set of political practices unique to the Qing. It was this system that facilitated the Qing empire.

I should emphasize here a point often overlooked: It was not the case that li was simply Chinese practices borrowed from the Ming, nor was it the case that the Manchus first struggled for power and then took up various symbolic signifiers to legitimize rule; rather the ritual and symbolic practices that organized politics came into being simultaneously with the formation of the relations of power and the political form of the Qing state. In this way, li and the Libu helped make the Qing state.

What inspired you to research this topic?

The Board of Rites. The Qing state was run by six administrative boards: Personnel, Finance, Rites, War, Punishments, and Works (in order of importance). Five of these you would expect to find in any early modern or modern state, but one of them probably not: the Board of Rites. What in the world was the Board of Rites and why was it not just necessary for the operations of the late imperial state but so instrumental as to be ranked as one of the most important levers of government?

More so, given what we know about the Manchus in light of the New Qing History—namely, the Qing was not just another Chinese dynasty but rather a multiethnic Inner Asian empire—what use did they have with a Board of Rites? Were not the rites (i.e, li) a Chinese thing? Indeed, why did the Manchus even set up a Board of Rites in the first place and do so as early as 1632—years before the establishment of the dynasty and the intention to rule China proper?

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

Archival work turned out to be much harder than anticipated because of the lack of materials on the early Qing. Much of the extant archival materials on the Qing are from the mid and late Qing, with significantly less from the 17th century. One “find” was a set of materials at the First Historical Archive in Beijing that had been transferred from Peking University that contains a lot more material from the early Qing than the main archive. (I put “find” in scare quotes here because it is not unknown, but it has not been widely accessed or used by historians.)

What is the funniest story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

When I first began the project I spent a summer in Taiwan visiting archives. I was at the National Palace Museum library where I ran into the immortal Chuang Chi-fa, the retired chief archivist who still has an office there and comes every day to read documents and do research. I told him that I was interested in working on the Board of Rites. He got very excited and said this was wonderful for no one has yet adequately explored the Board of Rites. He began pulling published sources off the shelf and called up a dozen boxes of materials from the archive for me and I set to work looking through all this stuff.

After a few weeks I came back to him and said, “Chuang laoshi, I don’t know what to make of all this. The Board of Rites seems to be involved in everything: It oversees ceremony and imperial audience, administers the exams, conducts foreign affairs, organizes personnel and hands out ranks; it sets clothing styles and hosts banquets; it even articulates and upholds administrative law!”

“Ah,” he said in a very wise voice, “now you know why no one has written about the Board of Rites!”

This, of course, only further incited me to get to the bottom of this administrative organ and its operations.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

I was first inspired by the work of Richard Smith on Qing ritual and culture, which offers a detailed and comprehensive overview of the subject. Angela Zito’s Of Body and Brush offers a theoretically sophisticated exploration of imperial ceremony, and James Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar helps explain and demystify ritual in relation to governance. Evelyn Rawski’s The Last Emperors, Johanna Waley-Cohen’s The Culture of War, and Nicola di Cosmo’s work on Manchu shamanistic ceremonies show that the li of the Qing was something different from the li of their predecessors; these works open a new inquiry into this hidden but instrumental aspect of Qing government and politics.

On the general theme of state-formation I was reading Philip Gorski, Bin Wong, and Roberto Mangabeira Unger alongside each other as I grappled with an understanding of how the early Qing state formed and why the documents showed actors in conflict over seemingly menial things, like who sat where, and then sixty years later inscribing it in law.

Two other recommended works that give a complementary picture of the workings of the Qing state in relation to society (as opposed to politics, as in the case of my book) are Kai-wing Chow, The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China, and Jeff Snyder-Reinke, Dry Spells. In many ways, my work mirrors their exploration of the disciplinary function of li at the local level and how it was transformed in the Qing to reflect it at the level of the state. In fact, I told Kai-wing once that I was trying to do for the Qing state what he did for society.

What are you working on now?

Having explored the workings and operations of the state and politics I now turn my attention to the political economy. Before Covid I was at work on a project on lending and investment in the Ming and Qing with a focus on how the growth of the circulation of money began to change social relationships. I was set to travel to Anhui last summer to look at some new Huizhou materials being archived but that obviously didn’t happen.

I thus began to examine the 20th century and materials that I could access from home. I am now working on a history of the origins of neoliberalism in Hong Kong and East Asia. The project looks at the development of the postwar Hong Kong political economy, outlining a struggle for state power among industrialists and financiers. The financiers won out and used the state to shape a particular kind of economy that would favor international flows of capital, low taxes, targeted and privatized public services, and a favorable regulatory environment. I then argue that the emergence of this political economy came to influence the development of ideas of Chicago-school economists such as Milton Friedman and the birth of the neoliberal practice and policy we have today. I wrote about these themes in the context of contemporary Hong Kong last fall in the Boston Review and have an article coming out this spring (2021) in China Review International.