Status Anxiety

FO228-347 Medals picture

A diagram of a medal design proposed by foreign officers to Qing officials 

What was ‘the order of the Dragon’ and why did it matter?  The order existed only in the imagination of foreigners who served the Qing against the Taiping.  Qing officials referred to the varieties of medals they issued to these fighters simply as ‘merit medals’ (功牌gong pai).  Foreign recipients came to refer to them instead as ‘the order of the dragon’.  While Qing agents thought they were conferring prizes to placate their former soldiers, those same soldiers made an equivalence between these awards and a European style honours system.  The issuing of honours by a state on its citizens is first and foremost an act of conferring status.  Such awards reinforce hierarchies within the state and as such decisions about who may receive such recognition are intensely political.  The annual furor over the Queen’s birthday honours underscores that this has not changed.  The case of the Taiping medals seems to give an insight into both the politics of status in a transnational setting and also offers an interesting case study in the haphazard transmission of state practices from Europe to China in the nineteenth century.

In issuing foreign medals the Qing regime ended up in a dispute with senior British diplomats that was not of its own making.  How did the Qing come to be issuing medals that closely resembled British orders?  They consulted foreigners in their service who directed them towards creating awards which imitated existing British orders (to the extent of providing colour diagrams like the one above).  They did so because they wanted status for the service they had given and were unlikely to get it from the British government, who were at best only half-hearted in their support for their endeavours to begin with.  The transnational conferring of status is problematic because status operates in a marketplace.  If too many awards are conferred they risk losing their value.  When the Qing emperor began issuing medals which were direct copies of British orders, he threatened the value of the British honours system.  Lord Bruce, the British Minister declared that ‘The decoration in question…is not an imperial order but an imitation of the stars conferred upon members of foreign orders…[and are] bestowed…upon all foreigners’.  The Qing threatened to undermine British honours by imitating them and handing them out en masse.

The ‘Order of the Dragon’ was then a construction of a group of foreigners in Qing service.  Qing officials did not give the awards the weight of meaning implied by a foreign honours system.  Nonetheless the symbolism of the awards encouraged the awardees precisely because they did interpret them in this way, as did the diplomatic establishment though with distinctly less enthusiasm.  This matters because it highlights the need to look at how ideas of statecraft transferred to China in the nineteenth century.  This was not just a state to state transaction and was complicated by different foreign interest groups in the country as well as differing interpretations of the ideas themselves.  The Qing had their own system of imperial titles conferred upon loyal subjects and had no need for a foreign ‘honours system’.  This did not stop Europeans, and particularly the British, who wanted status among their peers for serving a foreign sovereign trying to give them one.