The Manchurian Pilgrimage to the West: Qi Shiyi and his Sights and Sounds of the West

The Manchurian Pilgrimage to the West: Qi Shiyi and his Sights and Sounds of the West

At the mention of the Pilgrimage to the West, the majority of us think of the myth in which Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, flies on clouds with the aid of his magic boots; wears golden chainmail and a phoenix-feather cap; and wields a "golden cudgel". Some of us may think of Travels to the West of Qiu Changchun, in which the Taoist monk Qiu Chuji (courtesy name Changchun, or "eternal spring") travels to the Hindu Kush mountain range (in modern-day Afghanistan) to meet with Genghis Khan.

Make no mistake: the pilgrimage to the west that I will introduce in the following pages is not a myth filled with immortal spirits. Rather, it is a travel journal similar to that of Qiu Chuji's, which documents the author's real-life experiences throughout the south of Xinjiang.

The author of Sights and Sounds of the West (shown in Image 24) was a member of the Plain Blue Banner army, one of the eight Manchurian armies during the Qing Dynasty. He had a curious name: Qi Shiyi — literally, "seventy-one", although he went by the names Nimacha and Chunyuan. In Image 25, he has signed his work "Chunyuan Qi Shiyi" (twice underlined in red). Some of his works feature the signature "Chunyuan Qi Shiyi of Changbai". In academic research, he is generally referred to as Qi Shiyi or Chunyuan.

Image 24: Cover of a copy of Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories from the 12th year of the Japanese "Kansei" era (1800)

Image 25: Scanned text from the Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories

There is a simple explanation for why Qi Shiyi went by the name Nimacha. The Nimacha Clan (in Mandchurian Nimaca hala) derived their name from a Mongolian surname from the Yuan Dynasty: Naimazhen. The Naimazhen (or Naiman) clan had, for many generations, lived in regions such as Nimacha, Huye, Neyin, Xiluhe, and Huichun, as well as the surrounds of the Amur River (known in Chinese as Heilongjiang, or the "Black Dragon River"). This originally Mongolian surname was appropriated by the Manchu people and later abandoned in favor of Han Chinese surnames such as Yang, Yu, Zhang, Jia, Ni, Yu and He.

From his surname, we can ascertain that Qi Shiyi's ancestors belonged to the Mongolian Naiman tribe. Qi Shiyi was also a member of the Plain Blue Banner. Meanwhile, his penname "Chunyuan Qi Shiyi of Changbai" tells us that he is native to Changbai Mountain in Jilin Province — the ancestral home of the Aisin Gioro imperial family, who founded the Qing Dynasty.

Qi Shiyi lived during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of Qing; during the 17th year of the Qianlong reign (1754), he passed the highest level of the imperial examination, coming 94th out of all participants. Afterwards, he found employment in Wuzhi County, Henan Province, from whence he began his "westward journey of over 3,000 li" to Xinjiang. In the Silk Road oasis town of Kuqa, he worked as a liang yuan, a Qing official residing over the transportation and exchange of grain. After living in the western territories for more than a decade, he returned to the imperial capital in the 50th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign and took a job in the Ministry of Punishments. During his western pilgrimage, he kept a journal that documents his experiences in Xinjiang, entitled Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories.

Image 26: Scanned maps from the Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories

In Image 26, we can see a map from Sights and Sounds. This map is a reprint produced using a carved relief, and therefore features coarser lines and no color. Within its simple rectangular border, the map portrays major trade cities to the north and south of the Tianshan ranges, including Huining City (in Ili Prefecture), Huiyuan City, Kuqa, Aksu, the Tarbagatai Mountains, Kashgar, Yarkand and Hotan. Details such as mountains, rivers, deserts, lakes and roads are depicted using simple lines. The map also features the borders between Xinjiang, Russia, as well as Qing tributaries in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The names of cities and Qing tributaries are highlighted in red in Image 26).

Image 27: Maps of Hami and Barkol from a copy of A Survey of Cultural Customs in Xinjiang from Emperor Guangxu's reign
Sights and Sounds of the West was completed in the 42nd year of Emperor Qianlong's reign (1777). It is divided into eight volumes, each of which have maps at the beginning. According to Qi Shiyi's preface, the book was completed "on the 19th day of the second lunar month during the 42nd year of Emperor Qianlong's reign […] in the Fusishan Study" (highlighted in red on Image 25). It was subsequently reproduced multiple times due to the high price of the original edition; A Survey of Cultural Customs in Xinjiang (shown in Image 27) is just one of these reproductions.

Image 28: Annals of Qing tributaries from the Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories

Volumes One and Two of Sights and Sounds of the West are abbreviated guides to the region of Xinjiang that provide information such as Xinjiang's historical evolution, systems of governance, number of stationed Qing soldiers, local population, taxes, assets and cities. Volumes Three and Four are annals of Qing tributaries (shown in Image 28) which recount the culture, customs, ethnicities and assets of the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz tribes (among others), as well as their relation to the Qing court.

Volumes Five and Six provide an in-depth historical recount of the Western frontiers, including rebellion uprisings staged by the Dzungar, Altishahr, Khoja and Uyghur peoples in places such as Uqturpan, as well as events such the return of the Torgut people to Dzungaria. Volume Seven is a record of Muslim cultural heritage in Xinjiang; while Volume Eight is a table of exile destinations in Xinjiang that notes the position of, and distances between, military forts and stations.

Although Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories is written in the format of a personal memoir, it nonetheless has significant academic value. After all, in the wake of Emperor Qianlong's unification of Xinjiang under Qing rule (in the 24th year of his reign, i.e. 1759), few and far between were those who had the privilege to see the western frontier in person — let alone document it in detail.

Image 29: Passages on "apples and pomegranates" from the third scroll of a hand-copied version of the Annals of the Muslim Borderlands from the reign of Emperor Qianlong

Image 30: "Second Settlement in Aksu" shown in Illustrated Gazetteer of the Western Territories

If we compare it to other official texts of the time on the same subject — such as Annals of the Muslim Borderlands (shown in Image 29), which was published in the 37th year of the Qianlong reign (1772); and Illustrated Gazetteer of the Western Territories (shown in Image 30), which was published in the 47th year (1782) — it is clear to see that Sights and Sounds is not always factually accurate. However, Qi Shiyi's documentation of over ten years of personal observations and experiences in Xinjiang nonetheless provides us with a window through which we can gain subjective insights into this region at the beginning of the Qing occupation.

Image 31: Memoir of the Western Territories from Emperor Jiaqing's reign (left) and A Survey of Cultural Customs in Xinjiang (reign)
It is precisely because of its academic value that Sights and Sounds has been reproduced so many times since its initial publication. Each of these re-prints carry different names and are stored in library collections both in China and abroad. During the Qing Dynasty, partial and complete re-prints of Sights and Sounds were published under the titles Anecdotes of the Distant Territories, Guide to the Tributaries, Summary of the Western Territories, Memoir of the Western Territories (shown in Image 31), Overall Treatise on the Western Territories, Anecdotes of the Foreign Territories, Past Stories of the Western Territories, A Survey of the Customs of Xinjiang (shown in Image 31), Anecdotes of the Western Territories, and Overview of Societal Change in the Foreign Territories.

From the number of reprints and alternative titles that this book has spawned, we can gain an idea of its popularity in bookstores, as well as the scale of the demand for knowledge about the newly acquired Western territories at that time.

Where the accuracy of this text is concerned, Qing scholars such as Qi Yunshi and Xu Song have pointed out that it is largely based on hearsay, and its recounts of certain events — in particular, the pacification of the Dzungars and Khojas — contain a number of factual errors.

This is due to Qi Shiyi's low official rank as liang yuan. At the time, in Xinjiang, there were several official positions that were superior in rank to liang yuan, such as Grand Minister Superintendent of Kuqa, Grand Minister Consultant for the Administration of the Muslim Borderlands, and General of Ili. Qi Shiyi was merely a bureaucrat — he didn't have much authority and therefore had little access to reliable resources such as local administrative documents. Given his status, we should perhaps be more forgiving of the text's basis in hearsay and occasional factual inaccuracies.

As a lowly government official, Qi Shiyi was virtually unknown by the people of his time. Be that as it may, his Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories popularized him among later generations and proved that, despite his low standing, Qi Shiyi had a remarkable, adventurous life.

Main references:

Wang Yao: An analysis of Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories' descriptions of household registration in Kuqa during the Qing Dynasty. Historical Documents, Vol. 3, 2015.

Gao Jian: Summary of other versions and titles of Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories. History and Geography of the Chinese Borderlands. Vol. 1, 2007.