The Manchu Transformation of Li: Ritual, Politics, and Law in the Making of Qing China, 1631-1690

Thesis Type:

PhD Dissertation


In 1631, Manchu state-makers set up an administrative apparatus that included a ministry for implementing and legislating li (often translated as rites or ritual), the Board of Li. Over the next sixty years the Board of Li helped develop the rules and regulations of the Manchu state, which were codified in an administrative code in 1690. This dissertation looks at the role of li and the Board of Li in early Manchu state-making efforts, and finds that li was more than simply rituals and ceremonies, it was intimately tied to the formation of politics and administration. The dissertation argues that from 1631 to 1690, state-makers developed the practices of li as sociopolitical and cultural systems that made possible a unified political order that embraced disparate ethnic groups and facilitated the conquest and rule of a multiethnic empire, the Qing, which ruled China and parts of Eurasia from 1636 to 1911. It finds that contrary to conventional understanding, the Manchu practices of li were not copied from the Ming, nor were they inherently Chinese; rather, in response to the immediate political and social circumstances of the time, the Manchus remade and reimagined li through ritual, politics, and law.

This argument is made in three parts. Part one demonstrates the indeterminate nature of li and how it could be employed for different state building projects in different periods of Chinese history; part two looks at the Manchu transformation of li through political struggles for power, and the process of the formation of laws and practices to regulate the political settlements; part three takes up the codification of li, and examines the emergent system of political order and administrative law. These three parts further build upon recent insights into the nature of the Qing as a multiethnic, expansionist empire, and show that the Manchus developed li in their construction of an inclusive political culture and administrative apparatus that enabled the Qing to succeed where previous conquest dynasties had failed in the building and running of a multiethnic empire.

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Last updated on 11/28/2015