The First and the Last Mandate from the Emperors
Exhibition date2016/10/22 - 2017/06/28
Exhibition roomExhibition room: 203
1. The making of imperial mandates, succession of throne and writing of history in the Qing dynast:In the Qing dynasty, orders from the emperor were classified under several different official names to meet their different functions, namely imperial mandates, decrees, imperial orders and imperial edicts. For every major political event or ceremony that took place, for instance, an imperial mandate would be given to inform officials and the general public. Such events included ascension to the throne, termination of regency, death in the imperial family, investiture of the empress, investiture of honorific titles to members of the imperial family and granting amnesty. Imperial mandates in the Qing dynasty were usually written in both Manchurian and Chinese on a huge piece of yellow paper in black ink. They were written in a certain way and followed a set format, starting with the phrase, “The Emperor, who governs with the Mandate of Heaven, declares that...” and ending with one meaning, “Proclaimed to all under the Heavens, let it be known” or “Proclaimed to all the states, let it be known” (depending on the intended audience), with an imperial seal affixed to the end. Duplicates were then made by the Ministry of Rites, and were announced throughout the empire.
Among all edicts announced by the emperors, the most important ones had to be the proclamations of the ascension to the throne and the last testaments, which were the first edict announced by a new emperor and the last edict announced in the name of deceased emperor respectively, as these documents were strongly related to the succession to the imperial throne and the blessing of Heaven’s Mandate. With these two edicts, the imperial court expressed a smooth transition of imperial power and a continuation of the political system and its legitimacy in ruling. In other words, despite of the passing of the late emperor, his heir would ensure the monarchy to endure and thrive. When Fulin ascended to the throne in Shengjing (present-day Shenyang) in October 1643, his first edict was his proclamation of ascension to the throne. After Qing forces passed the Shanhai Pass and secured control over areas near Beijing, the Qing court was actively engaged in preparation of an expedition to the south and accordingly it announced an official call to arms to accuse the remaining Ming court in the south of illegitimately crowing Zhu Yousong, Prince of Fu, as emperor in the absence of a proper last testament from the late Chongzhen Emperor. In other words, the Ming dynasty should have been considered to be fallen since a proper last testament for the Chongzhen Emperor was absent, and the Qing court deemed itself as the rightful successor of the Mandate of Heaven.
These edicts, both the proclamation of the ascension to the throne and the last testaments, were in fact announced after imperial power transfer had been all settled. Amnesty were usually granted when a new emperor ascends to the throne so to mark the beginning of a new era, while the last testaments tended to be a review and justification of the deeds and possibly the wrongdoings of the late emperor. Scrutinizing into the two, most of the proclamations of ascension to the throne in the Qing dynasty typically followed a set standard, and only rarely something peculiar can be spotted. However, the last testaments differed from one another, showing a sharp difference between the last testaments drafted in the early Qing period and the ones drafted in the later period. In the first half of the Qing dynasty, the emperors had a total control over the state apparatus, but this was reversed in the latter half of the dynasty, where imperial powers were to an extent constrained by the bureaucrats. The last testaments of the Shunzhi and Kangxi Emperors were similar to a biographical epitaph, while the last testament of the Yongzheng Emperor showed in addition a political layout after his death. The abdication edict of the Qianlong Emperor, on the other hand, was similar in content to the previous last testaments, in that it summarized the achievements of the Qianglong Emperor while proclaiming a transfer of imperial rule to his successor. On the contrary, starting from the Jiaqing Emperor, the emperors usually did not personally involve in the drafting of their last testaments, and their last testaments were typically produced by senior bureaucrats after the passing of the emperor as a summary of the emperor’s life, or sometimes simply a summarized version of former edicts. The emperors in the later Qing period clearly no longer showed any intent in interpreting their rule and the history in general. In short, early Qing emperors had more personal say over the political standards of procedure and their decisions oftentimes were formulated into a set of unbreakable imperial norms. Constrained by these norms, emperors from the mid-Qing period onwards had less and less room for leverage and were usually compelled to exercise only minimal personal power and rule.
2. Announcement and Duplication of Imperial Mandates: From the Central to Local GovernmentsAnnouncing an imperial mandate was a matter of great importance, and therefore a set of ceremonious ritual must first be held in the capital city of Beijing prior to the actual promulgation of the edicts. After being recited out loud in front of the Tiananmen Gate, the mandates were to be passed to the Ministry of Rites for duplication prior to their announcement. Only the original imperial mandates were to be affixed with the imperial seal. Envoys from the Ministry of Rites would carry with them one original mandate and several duplicates (teng huang, literally yellow duplicates) and would travel to their assigned destinations in the empire to announce the mandate. In 1703, the Kangxi Emperor made a set of clear rules stating the number of days allowed for these travels. In 1752, the Qianlong Emperor further laid out specific rules over the number of envoys to be sent to each province, the number of duplicates carried and the places to be visited by the envoys. These rules were constantly amended by subsequent emperors, until the Daoguang Emperor abolished the envoy system and transferred its duties to the relay stations instead in 1835.
An important factor for the central imperial court to consider when amending these rules about the promulgation of imperial mandates was the local development level. For instance, throughout the most part of the Qing dynasty, the military commander of Taiwan was only entitled to receive a duplicate copy of the imperial mandate. In 1885, Taiwan was officially made a province of the empire and accordingly, a governor was then commissioned, who was later entitled to receive an original mandate from the central court from 1887 onwards. Clearly, Taiwan has gradually gained prominence in the minds of the emperors.
The provincial government was required to hold a ceremonious ritual when receiving these mandates. Local governors were expected to send a memorial back to the capital upon the receipt of imperial mandates, and whenever deemed necessary, they would further make duplicates for their subordinates. The intended audience of the imperial mandates went beyond the empire itself, and included foreign, vassal and tributary states. In 1790, for example, the Qianlong Emperor awarded Joseon, Mongolia, as well as Annam, Ryukyu and Siam each with an original imperial mandate in celebration of his 80th birthday. There was also a set of institutionalized guidelines regarding the selection of envoys. For the Kingdom of Joseon, the imperial court would carefully choose a pair of envoys for this job. The Court of Vassal and Tributary Affairs (Lifan Yuan) would be responsible for sending envoys to the Mongols and other vassal and tributary states. For all the other foreign states, the imperial mandates would be given to their messengers to Beijing or would be forwarded by the local governor of the adjacent Chinese province. For example, Viceroy of Liangguang would forward the mandate to Siam, Governor of Guangxi would forward the mandate to Annam, Viceroy of Yun-Gui would forward the mandate to Burma and Viceroy of Min-Zhe would forward the mandate to the Ryukyu Kingdom. Together, they serve one mission, “Proclaimed to all the states, let it be known”.