Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Culture of War in China

Book Cover

Book Title

The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2006


Waley-Cohen, Joanna


By the middle of the eighteenth century the Qing empire had reached its zenith. The most extensive empire ever ruled from Beijing, it ranked among the most powerful polities in the world. Its territorial reach encompassed, in addition to China proper and the northeastern homelands of the Manchu ruling house, Tibet, Mongolia, Taiwan and the vast tracts of Central Asia that came to be known as Xinjiang. This achievement marked the culmination of a protracted process of strategic alliance and military conquest.

This book brings together more than a decade's work on different aspects of military culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century China, a period generally regarded as having represented the zenith of the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1636-1912). The author argues for a twin basis of military conquest and cultural transformation for the broader Qing imperial project. Therefore, the study focuses on the period from 1636, when the Qing first proclaimed their new empire, to the end of the eighteenth century, which is generally considered to mark the beginning of the end for Qing rule.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

While the topics covered by the book is largely those that has to do with military strength and military culture of the Qing empire, the angle of perspective is constructed such that issues of military power were connected to the political, cultural, religious and territorial contexts of the period of the Qing empire. The book explores those linkages between military culture and the phases of the Qing Empire project; religion, war and empire-building; military ritual and the Qing Empire; as well as the changing spaces of empire.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The central argument of this book is that deliberate cultural transformation was as vital as military conquest in the consolidation of the Qing empire. The underlying purpose of the promotion of a new form of culture was to consolidate the empire by uniting its diverse peoples through the creation of a common basis, one that was founded on loyal pride in imperial achievement and in which all could participate.

The writer highlights how the "militarization of culture" was related to the recasting of culture by producing a more military spirit or ambience, though other previous forms of cultural life would have continued to exist. This transition often took place as the direct result of deliberate imperial policy, but sometimes it was a more serendipitous consequence of that policy. It arose in the context of emperors' quest for universality, which at its simplest meant that they attempted to become all things to all their diverse subjects and justify their desire to rule them all.

This book described the ways in which both military power and the associated virtue of martiality were crucial to the self-image of the Manchu Qing. This distinguished the Qing from the other ruling houses in China's imperial period, which historically had preferred to subordinate military to civil matters. The military focus comprised two parts, which were mutually interdependent. The first was the series of wars that had led to the unparalleled expansion of the empire. The second focus comprised of a corresponding cultural transformation which was structured in a way that it projects Qing military success and its martial values to those who came into contact with the empire; as subject or interlocutors, as friends or as enemies.

Moreover, the Qing empire aimed to incorporate into empire not just China but also large portions of Inner Asia, hence they drew effectively from the separate political traditions of both. Their understanding that the scope of their rulership was universal led them not only to pursue dominion over extensive territories and peoples but also to seek ways in which they might comprehensively penetrate into and control every aspect of their subjects' lives.

Annotated by Michelle Djong