Taking some time out to visit a friend in Malaysia on my way from London to Taipei I found myself in Kuala Lumpur’s excellent Islamic Arts Museum. Amidst a treasure trove of Mughal paintings and Ottoman jewellery I found some Chinese porcelain inscribed with Arabic calligraphy. Commissioned by Ming and Qing emperors, objects like this perhaps express better than words a facet of Chinese foreign relations that has challenged western scholars. In the last 30-40 years the idea of Chinese emperors and their courts promoting a sinocentric world view, with other cultures being viewed as inferior or insignificant, have been radically revised. Ming and, to a greater extent, Qing emperors patronised Tibetan and Mongol Buddhist and Hui and Uighur Islamic religious and cultural practices as the porcelains on display demonstrate.
Yet, even in the late Qing dynasty (roughly 1800-1912), a sinocentric rhetoric survives in memorials from officials to the emperor. Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary serving the Qing in their struggle against the Taiping insurgency, was described by Li Hongzhang as having “turned to China” (xiang hua 向化). Li’s implication was that Ward had recognised the superiority of Chinese civilisation and had submitted to it. In later memorials Li suggests that Ward’s transformation may not have been quite so thorough. He worried that he had neither shaved his hair nor taken to wearing Chinese clothing. In part Li’s language reflects the grammar of imperial memorials in which officials routinely professed to be “bowing before the emperor’s divine grace” regardless of how far they had strayed from his orders. The memorials referring to Ward however go beyond this standard etiquette and carry their own semantic content. They appear to suggest that Li was worried about the extent to which Ward was submitting to Chinese culture.
This apparent cultural chauvinism contrasts with the actual practices of Ming and Qing emperors. The porcelain boxes in Kuala Lumpur suggest a far greater tolerance for cultural hybridity than Li’s concerns would suggest. This has led me to think that the best way to deal with the sinocentic language laid out in officials’ memorials is to place it in context. Perhaps Li’s concerns about the extent of Ward’s “sinification” were really an extended metaphor for the extent of control he felt he held over Ward. The utilisation of foreign troops to suppress internal dissent was a practice with a great deal of precedent in China and it was one which held its own risks. Tang emperors ceded rather more control to the “borrowed” Uighur troops enlisted to suppress the An Lushan rebellion than they had initially planned. Li’s language could suggest concerns over his power relationship with Ward rather than over the extent of Ward’s inculturation. When I am reading memorials deploying such a vocabulary as I work in Taipei’s National Palace Museum over the next few months, the Arabic-inscribed porcelains will serve as a handy reminder that in Qing foreign relations actions might speak louder than words.