Excerpt: “The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China”

Below, we are pleased to present an excerpt adapted from The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China, written by Macabe Keliher and published by University of California Press. Keliher is assistant professor of history at Southern Methodist University; he has also written about law in Yuan China and how relatives threatened and constrained the authority of rulers in the early modern world.


The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China is an inquiry into a key administrative organization of the Qing government (1636-1912), the Board of Rites (Libu). What did it do? How did it function? Who staffed it? What was its role in military conquest and administrative rule? And why did the Qing—or any other state for that matter—need such an organization?

Although widely recognized as an important organ of the Qing bureaucracy that was involved in nearly all aspects of late imperial political and social life, no systematic attempt has previously been made to analyze the role and operations of the Board of Rites. Unlike other administrative institutions of the Qing government, such as the Grand Council or Imperial Household Department, both of which have dedicated monographs, the Board of Rites has not attracted its historians. The reason for this becomes apparent upon review of documents and contemporary accounts of the Board of Rites: the main duties of the organization and its officials were related to something contemporaries called “li” in Chinese and “dorolon” in Manchu, or what we today might refer to as ceremonies, rituals, and rites imposed upon a rigid, hierarchical organization of political and social actors. Moderns have long deemed these activities non-ancillary to the real workings of government. Likewise, although Board of Rites officials and regulations were ever present in Qing administrative affairs, on the surface, the nature of such activities seems to lie outside of the analytical categories of government we are most familiar with, such as communications or finance.

In recent years, historians have begun to recognize the contradiction between what contemporaries found important and what scholars have traditionally privileged. Research has moved to address this shortcoming by investigating the practice and logic of rituals and ceremonies in the late imperial state, not only illuminating a coherent system of intricate state rites and ceremonies, but also demonstrating the importance of these activities in Qing governance. Such efforts have laid the groundwork for my own research. What it has not done, however, is explain the organizational nature of the Board of Rites and its role in the Qing political system; nor has it shown how the Qing system of li emerged to shape empire.

Rather than trying to piece together an understanding of the Board of Rites and the institutional nature of li/dorolon/ritual from the perspective of the high Qing (eighteenth century), or grandiosely charting its imperial development from the Han (202 BCE – 220 CE) onwards, it seemed to me that the best way to understand the Board of Rites was to examine its origins and initial activity in the Qing administrative apparatus. Looking at its establishment and early operations, as well as how contemporary state-makers articulated a rationale for its existence, should not only lend insight into its place and importance in the operations of the Qing state, but also help explain how the political system of the Qing arose. This approach led me back to the beginnings of the Manchu state and the making of the Qing, with a focus on the establishment of the Board of Rites in 1631 and its particular role in the early state-formation process.

Diving into archival sources and other materials and accounts from the period, I began to chart what the Board of Rites did and how contemporary rulers, officials, and state-makers talked about it. It turned out that the Board of Rites was involved in most aspects of the formation of the Qing state and its organization and operations—it was tasked with an eclectic array of activities from setting imperial protocol to navigating familial relations.

Nonetheless, a clear theme emerged: The Board of Rites worked to establish modes of political domination and impose discipline. Far more than just overseeing ritual performance, or undertaking a collection of seemingly random ceremonial tasks, the Qing Board of Rites instilled discipline in the new political regime. Through the imposition of political hierarchies in the form of ranks and titles with attached behavioral practices and sumptuary rules, and the regulation of interpersonal relations through rituals, rites, and ceremonies, the Board of Rites helped define order—it engaged in the transition from uncertain struggles for power and political organization to the institutionalization of empire. It put politically and ethnically diverse actors into relation with each other and invested them with a sense of common purpose to conquer and rule. In short, the Board of Rites, and the practices it instituted, structured political relations and guided sovereigns, imperial relatives, officials, and other state-makers in their endeavors.

The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China is anchored in this discovery. Drawing on the extent of existing archival evidence relating to the Board of Rites and key Board officials, the book illuminates the instrumental role of the Board and its officials in the making of the Qing state.

It makes three interrelated arguments.

The first argument is that there was an articulated system of social domination and political legitimization. It was called “li” in Chinese, and “doro” or “dorolon” in Manchu. It consisted of rituals, ceremonies, and rites, as well as behavioral practices, administrative norms, and sumptuary; it placed political and social actors into certain relationships, which structured the organization and operations of the Qing state. Li articulated the role and position of the emperor; it instructed officials in communication and interactions; it informed an administrative hierarchy, and enforced the chain of command. In short, it was the foundation of the Qing political system.

The second argument is that the rules of this system, i.e. the particular practices of li, were constructed simultaneously with the Qing state. Symbolic forms and imposed practices cannot be separated from the conflicts over power and control for political resources. It is not the case, as often assumed, that political power was first fought over and won, and only afterward, in the wake of the settlement, were symbols and practices of legitimization imposed on top of arrangements; nor was it the case that pre-existing cultural and institutional systems were used to structure the emergence of new political leaders and guide their ambitions.

Rather, culture and politics informed each other as they came into being over the course of the mid-seventeenth century before being articulated as an integrated and complete system in the administrative code, or Da Qing huidian. The intertwining of the mutual influence of politics and culture upon each other played out as Manchu relatives first clashed over different ideas of the state, and then later in struggles for power for political position in the institutional variation of the emergent political structure. Rituals, ceremonies, rites, clothing, and political norms came to inform these struggles, and at times even embody them; meanwhile, the settlements for power shaped the cultural forms so that li was no more distinct from the institutions and personnel that made up the Qing state than the state was from li. Both emerged simultaneously and made the Qing political system.

The third argument is that the administrative code of 1690 articulated the conclusion of a phase in the institutionalization of authority. The rules and regulations that had formed over the past sixty years were put together as an integral set of normative practices that were socially and politically sanctioned and upheld with the force of punishment. In other words, it became law, and in this case particularly, administrative law, whereby the Huidian represented the culmination of the development of the administrative organization and its operating procedures—it reflected the emergent settlements over state structure and political power that actors had waged.

These three interrelated arguments are derived from the documentary record of the period. Whereas most studies of the early Qing focus on military conquest and bureaucratic organization, it became clear that from roughly 1631 to 1690, monarchs, ministers, state-makers, and contenders also concerned themselves with how to establish authority, construct legitimacy, and secure compliance. They spoke frequently about li precisely because li gave them a means to conceptualize and resolve key problems of authority and legitimacy.

The book thus charts the decades spanning from the establishment of the six boards in 1631 through the consolidation of territory and the publication of the first administrative code in 1690. It shows that Qing state-makers did more than just wage war and build a bureaucracy, as traditional narratives emphasize. Equally important was the wave of rule-making and implementation of disciplinary measures to centralize and legitimize power, construct and institutionalize authority, determine and define the position of the sovereign, and organize diverse political actors by shaping their behaviors and responses. Here, rules, regulations, and laws were not only articulated and promulgated, but also people made to accept and invest in them. All this occurred simultaneously amid ongoing struggles for power, first over ideas about the state, and then, once that battle had been won, over political position and the control of political resources. In fact, the two processes cannot be separated from each other: the building of the state in both military and administrative form, and the construction of practices and institutions to secure the compliance of political actors. The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China details the intertwined process.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from Macabe Keliher, The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China, © 2019 and published by University of California Press.

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