May 26, Yu-chih Lai

Friday, May 26,  4:30 to 6:30pm, CWAC156

Manchu Roots: Imperial Politics, Image Discourse, and European Botanical Studies at the Qianlong Court

Yu-chih Lai 賴毓芝

Associate Research Fellow, Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica


In 1750, Emperor Qianlong sent the second-rank imperial bodyguard of the Qianqing Palace to organize an expedition group of up to 37 people, including a court painter, to investigate a legendary tree grown in the Changbai Mountain, the sacred cradle of the Manchu origin. This tree was said to have eight branches belonging to eight different kinds of species. After more than one hundred days of climbing and wading, this group finally reached the tree, took the precise measurements, collected its leaves, branches, and cones as the specimens and came back. Sadly, the guard died at the end of the journey.

What is special about this story is that not only Emperor Qianlong composed an imperial rhyme to commemorate the expedition and renamed the tree as “Auspicious Tree” that meant to symbolize the longevity of the empire and the Heaven’s recognition of the Manchu’s ruling, but most importantly, he emphasized the empirical approach to document the existence of this tree and proclaimed that “what I state is all documentary truth, not empty words.” At least four sets of images were produced based on the accompanying painter’s sketches from the trip. Two of them clearly have much to do with the European tradition. One is the album depicting eight kinds of leaves in a style that reminds us of the botanical illustrations using watercolors in the European tradition that flourished since the Renaissance period. The other album contains eight kinds of actual leaves, just like the album of specimens in European fashion.

Why would Emperor Qianlong be so interested in this tree and take all the effort to investigate it first-handedly? Why would the European botanical tradition be adopted in representing it? This paper intends to focus on the reconstruction of the expedition, the making of the sacred tree, and how and what role the European botanical practice played in validating the traditional auspicious politics at the Qianlong court.

Friday, May 26,  4:30 to 6:30pm, CWAC156

Persons with concerns regarding accessibility please contact Zhiyan Yang (


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