Award Information

Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
The Nature of the Empire: Animal Wonders in China, 1680–1800

The proposed project explores "strange animals" (yishou) during the height of the Great Qing, China's last dynasty (1644-1911). Entirely overlooked in Chinese and Western historical scholarship, this category included both fantastic beasts from Classical Chinese texts, such as the Chinese unicorn (qilin)—and actual living species, including elephants imported from Southeast Asia. My research has uncovered previously untapped archival sources that shed light on the essential role of strange animals, and discourses around them, in Qing politics. A preliminary analysis of these documents suggests that Qing emperors, ministers, frontier commanders, and local officials all engaged in the study of animals, particularly rare or previously unknown species from the frontiers. What resulted from their efforts were animal classifications that did not draw a clear-cut distinction between exotic, rare, or otherwise unusual species—often perceived as numinous or auspicious—and imaginary creatures from classical texts. These original findings led me to ask the following questions: What was the relationship between politics and natural knowledge production in Qing China? How does understanding this relationship change the way we conceptualize the Qing—as "early modern," "late imperial," or something else? In addressing these queries, I examine strange creatures on the fringes of nature and empire as a lens into the intersection of politics, imperial expansion, and knowledge-making practices during the Qing. In each part of the proposed project, I investigate the ways Qing politicians and intellectuals interacted with exotic and unusual animals, wrote about them in political discourse, and taxonomized them as objects of natural inquiry. By analyzing previously unexplored writings, the proposed project will offer a more nuanced understanding of early modern Chinese politics and knowledge production.