Immortalizing the Qing Empire's achievements: the stone tablet on the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang
Each generation or era of people share a collective memory that is immortalized through monuments and inscriptions. As he approached his 60th year on the throne, Emperor Qianlong looked back on his life and summarized the major accomplishments of his career as the "Ten Perfect Military Campaigns", as well as styling himself the "Elder of Ten Perfections". The Record of Ten Perfections is not only the emperor's evaluation of his career — it is also a collection of precious memories.
Under the rule of this "elder", everyone throughout China — whether they were prominent officials such as He Shen, Ji Xiaolan and Liu Luoguo; rich merchants or lowly peasants; garrison soldiers along the western frontier or street vendors in drizzly Jiangnan — all basked in the glory of the "ten perfections". "Ten perfections" and "ten perfect military campaigns" were likely mainstream expressions at the time — after all, they referred to memories shared by the vast majority of Qing Dynasty society. These accomplishments were deeply inscribed into the imperial family lore, inspiring Emperor Qianlong's children and grandchildren to strive to his heights and thus leaving an ineffaceable mark on the entire Qing Dynasty.
Image 104: Portrait of Emperor Qianlong in armor
The first "perfection" was the pacification of the two Dzungar rebellions. The destruction of the Dzungar Khanate was an important victory that deserved to be commemorated by the Qing court and even the entire Qing Empire. The Qing people felt a collective sense of pride for this victory that unconsciously manifests itself in certain Qing artefacts, such as ancient maps.
The Complete Atlas of Xinjiang stored in the US Library of Congress depicts the cities, topography, roads and waterways of Xinjiang during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. The cropped version in Image 105 represents Ili and its surrounds. The map has a north-up orientation. Cities, such as Huicheng, Huining and Tarqi are denoted by a smaller square within a larger square (i.e. the Chinese ideogram 回, hui) — a symbol for city walls.
What is particularly remarkable about Image 105 is that there is a drawing of a stone tablet on Gedeng Mountain, to the southwest of Ili. On a map that primarily serves to represent the geography of Xinjiang, why would a stone tablet be drawn to the same proportions as whole cities, such as Huining and Ningyuan? Because this tablet — called the "Dzungar Pacification Tablet" — marks the battleground where the fate of the Dzungar Khanate was decided.
Image 105: Gedeng Mountain on the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang stored in the US Library of Congress (August 2015)
What this monument represents is the Qing people's collective commemoration of the expansion of the Qing Empire. Image 106 is a map from the reign of Emperor Guangxu on which the monument is labelled as the "Gedeng Mountain Tablet". Visibly, the tablet was still cherished by the Qing people more than a century after it was erected.
In the Qing people's eyes, the battle on Gedeng Mountain was of the same renown as the Battle of Stalingrad (between the Soviet Union and Germany in World War II) or the Battle of Triangle Hill (during the Korean War) are to the people of today. More aptly, the battle could be compared to the Battle of Berlin, where the Allies penetrated the heart of the enemy and destroyed the Third Reich — it was a war to end all wars. With this one battle, the Dzungar Khanate — which until then had reigned for several centuries — finally collapsed.
The Dzungar Khanate was named after its founders, an Oirat (western Mongolian) tribe. During its period of prosperity, it occupied a vast part of the Tianshan ranges and their surrounds. Having pledged allegiance to the Kazakh Khanate, their nomads were allowed to raise livestock on the vast grasslands of Central Asia. They were a powerful Central Asian nation that separated China and the emergent Russian Empire during the Qing Dynasty.
Image 106: The Gedeng Mountain tablet depicted on the Illustrated Journal of Borders in Southern Xinjiang
During the reign of Emperor Kangxi, the Dzungars infiltrated Inner Mongolia and became a threat to the Qing court. Over a period of more than sixty years — spanning the reigns of Emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng, and ending at the beginning of Emperor Qianlong's reign — the Dzungar Khanate engaged with the Qing Empire in a number of skirmishes of varying sizes. For a while, the two were more or less equal in terms of victories and losses. The Dzungar Empire had limited the Qing Empire's scope of influence to eastern Xinjiang, within the region of Hami Prefecture, and had become the Qing Empire's most formidable rival.
In the 19th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign (1754), the Dzungar Khanate suffered from internal dissent, with several clans defecting to the Qing Empire. The emperor cleverly seized this split-second opportunity and put together a strategy. In the second lunar month of the next year, he sent 50,000 soldiers and 70,000 horses to Xinjiang in two separate battalions. Three months later, these battalions joined forces on the bank of the Ili River (as shown in Image 107).
Image 107: Map of the Qing offensive on the Dzungar people
The leader of the Dzungar Khanate, Dawachi, retreated to Gedeng Mountain (to the southwest of Ili) as he waited for the Qing army to tire itself out. After surrounding Gedeng Mountain, the Qing army decided to take advantage of the Dzungar troops' instability. At night, they sent Mongol defectors who wore the same garments and spoke the same language as the Dzungars to tread over enemy lines, infiltrate their camp, and slaughter their troops.
The Dzungar army was caught unaware and ran in all directions, colliding into one another. Thousands upon thousands died; within that one evening, the once-formidable Dzungar army was utterly annihilated. After fleeing with the few survivors through the mountain ranges, Dawachi was captured in southern Xinjiang and sent back to Beijing. This victory in the Tianshan ranges confirmed the collapse of the Dzungar Khanate and the Qing Empire's acquisition of Xinjiang.
Image 108: Pavilion housing the Gedeng Mountain tablet
Only days later, Emperor Qianlong himself commemorated this great victory by writing the inscription for the "Dzungar Pacification Tablet" on Gedeng Mountain. The tablet upon which his words were inscribed was erected on Gedeng Mountain in the 25th year of his reign. The tablet was made of granite and took over a year for the Qing troops to transport from Yarkand, in southern Xinjiang, more than 2000 kilometers away.
The Dzungar Pacification Tablet is currently located on the Chinese face of a mountain along the border with Kazakhstan in Zhaosu County, Ili Prefecture. Pictured in 109, the tablet is 2.95 m tall, 0.83 m wide and 0.27 m deep. The words "Qing Emperor" and "Everlasting" have been inscribed on the front and back of the tablet, respectively. The tablet also features a relief of swirling dragons and the sun rising over the East Sea. The emperor's commemorative verse has been inscribed in Manchurian, Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan; the Chinese text is 210 characters long.
Image 109: The Gedeng Mountain tablet
The Veritable Records of Qing were like imperial diaries in which the emperor recorded his daily affairs. They include Emperor Qianlong's official correspondences with military leaders during the pacification of the Dzungar Khanate. During my research, I discovered that Emperor Qianlong knew the soldiers' itineraries, the geography of their surrounds and the details of their military campaigns like the back of his hand. Writing mirrors the writer: from Qianlong's official documents, it is easy to see that he was a shrewd leader who was unafraid to take action on the battlefield. His achievements are every bit as enduring as the inscription on Gedeng Mountain.
In commemoration of the Qing Empire's victory, I hereby present the Emperor's Inscription on the Dzungar Pacification Tablet on Gedeng Mountain:
The peaks of Gedeng Mountain are guarded by rogues. Against my mighty army, they don't stand a chance. On the mountain's precipitous ridges, the bandits have built their dens. One look at my imposing army, and they will flee without a fight. A force not to be reckoned with, they crossed the Ili River unimpeded; their leader up ahead had already prepared boats for them. Eight days after crossing the river, they arrived on Gedeng Mountain. Facing the lake and flanked by the towering ridges, my troops waited until after dusk before infiltrating the rogues' camp. My army was valiant and my generals were brave. They carefully planned their offensive before putting their soldiers into action. Thanks to them, victory was swift… Three brave generals and 22 strapping soldiers infiltrated the enemy camp in the dead of night. The rogues were terrified and fled in all directions — after all, how could they defend themselves against my troops? The rogues were stubborn and refused to surrender. Who could catch them, other than my soldiers? By the time they were finally captured and escorted to my army headquarters, it was too late for them to repent. Since ancient times, it has been said: "It is better to release prisoners of war than kill them." By granting them amnesty, we demonstrated the generosity of the Qing Empire. In the Han Dynasty, the imperial court established a protectorate to look over the western regions; while in the Tang Dynasty, they were administered by generals. It was an immense expenditure of labor and funds; the local peoples refused to comply. The rogues were grateful for the benevolence and virtue of our court. This tablet has been erected on Gedeng Mountain to inform later generations of our victory.
Written by Emperor Qianlong in the fifth month of the 20th year of his reign.