10.2a.7a Catherine the Great, Decree on Serfs (1767)
In China under the Qing dynasty, the government ordered that local officials were to give public lectures twice a month to explain the Sacred Edict of the Kangxi emperor (Shengzu, r. 1662 – 1722). The purpose of the edict (or law) was to teach Chinese people of all social groups how to behave properly. This excerpt comes from a lecture written by an eighteenth-century official, Wang Youpu. Wang begins by mentioning Confucius, a highly influential thinker who wrote that inferiors (that is, people of lower social position) should respect superiors, but all should act properly (with ceremony). What social groups did Wang identify? What does this document tell you about differences in the status of social groups? The exact date this lecture was written is unknown. Wang Youpu lived from 1681 to 1760. Visual caption for The Palace of the Nine Perfections In 1691 the artist Yuan Jiang created this multi-panel screen painting of an imperial palace in a beautiful landscape. Although the palace was supposed to be from an earlier time (the Tang dynasty), Yuan represented it as a grand Qing dynasty building. Yuan’s paintings were mainly sold to wealthy merchants to decorate the walls of their mansions
Confucianism was the philosophical foundation for China’s traditional social order. It governed the mostly unequal relationships between people, constraining them all to behave (or at least aspire to behave) correctly for their social position. It’s not necessary for students to understand all Confucian ideas, but just the points Wang makes in the second paragraph of the excerpt. The significance comes partly from the context of the text; invite students to imagine Wang, an educated man of much higher status than his audience, making this speech to a group of peasants and shopkeepers. Wang uses a paternalistic and slightly sneering tone to his social inferiors: “you soldiers and common people.” You might explore with students the meaning of “appropriate to his station” in Wang’s last sentence. People of the time used that concept and terminology to refer to an individual’s position in the social order or social hierarchy.
"… [L]andlords' serfs and peasants . . . owe their landlords proper submission and absolute obedience in all matters, according to the laws that have been enacted from time immemorial by the autocratic forefathers of Her Imperial Majesty [Catherine] and which have not been repealed, and which provide that all persons who dare to incite serfs and peasants to disobey their landlords shall be arrested and taken to the nearest government office, there to be punished forthwith as disturbers of the public tranquillity, according to the laws and without leniency. And should it so happen that even after the publication of the present decree of Her Imperial Majesty any serfs and peasants should cease to give the proper obedience to their landlords . . . and should make bold to submit unlawful petitions complaining of their landlords, and especially to petition Her Imperial Majesty personally, then both those who make the complaints and those who write up the petitions shall be punished by the knout [a whip made of many rawhide strip and sometimes with pieces of metal] and forthwith deported to Nerchinsk [in Siberia] to penal servitude for life and shall be counted as part of the quota of recruits which their landlords must furnish to the army" (453-454).