An Early Modern Epistemological Turn? Natural Knowledge Production in the East Asian Cultural Sphere
1: Sacred Trees and Heavenly Horses: Natural Knowledge Production in the Eighteenth-Century Chinese Court
Friday, March 25, 2022
11:30am – 1:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Yale University, United States
This paper examines the bureaucratic practices of collecting, categorizing, and interpreting knowledge about the natural world during the reign of the Qing dynasty’s Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–1796). While historians of Qing China have made a case for an early modern epistemological shift within the domains of imperial geography and ethnography, natural historical research under the auspices of the Qing court has remained almost entirely unexplored. As this paper contends, a focus on imperial investigations of nature is an effective way to gauge whether, in the eighteenth century, the moral-metaphysical approach to natural studies gave way to a new methodology that emphasized ascertainable knowledge derived from empirical research. To this end, I concentrate on two explorations of the Qing empire’s frontiers commissioned by Qianlong—namely, those of Manchuria in the northeast and Xinjiang in the west. Neither of these regions had been entirely (or at all) incorporated into the previous Chinese empires. Specifically, I analyze techniques to create and validate new knowledge within the Qing bureaucracy by studying the imperial court’s treatment of natural wonders. Exploration of unusual natural phenomena was among the priorities of Emperor Qianlong because, according to Chinese classical texts, strange phenomena conveyed Heaven’s response to human actions, thereby connecting the natural and political. Overall, this study aims to advance our understanding of the relationship between the empire and the natural world, politics and knowledge production at the imperial center, and the ways knowledge, belief, and power entangled in early modern China.