My latest candidate for dissertation title is “The Twilight of the Celestial Empire.” I wanted to capture the sense that the nineteenth century marks a decided decline in Western opinions of China and the Chinese, in contrast to early modern fantasies of Chinese wealth (think Columbus) and the eighteenth-century chinoiserie craze. I also wanted to give some Victorian flavoring with their favourite nickname for China. This got me thinking, though, just when was “Celestial Empire” used to describe China?

In the good old days, you’d be able to go to the OED, and stop, with a proviso that the OED proves nothing. The earliest quotation given by the OED is 1824-1829, by Walter Savage Landor. The latest is Henry James, 1878. What this means, I guess, is that my diss could equally be described as “The Rise of the Celestial Empire,” given that when it was used corresponds quite neatly with the period I’m covering. Or I could compromise and call it “The Age of the Celestial Empire.”

But we being where we are (the blogosphere, the internets, you know) and me being who I am (a nerd, a procrastinator, an addict) I had to do some further research. *sigh* I used three text repositories: Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, and Google Books. (I’m actually kind of glad I don’t have access at the moment to British Periodicals or 19th Century UK Periodicals.) EEBO was the easiest, since there weren’t any hits. ECCO was slightly harder, since there were about thirty hits, but the keyword in context only displays as a popup which takes a while to load, and all of the hits seemed to refer to heaven (you know, the Christian one) or something of the sort.

And so, Google Books. I’d trade net neutrality for decent metadata any day. Well, maybe not any day, but definitely today. It’s easy to do a date filter, but so many of the publication dates are meaningless. Periodicals are frequently dated from the time the series first appeared. I got a whole bunch of hits from 1799, since the “Religious Tract Society” didn’t bother dating their publications, but only stated that it was “instituted in 1799.”

Finally, after far too much checking when things were *actually* published, it seemed like the earliest I could find was 1819 reports of an embassy to China. This is of course (“of course” meaning of course wikipedia knows what I’m talking about rather than of course you know what I’m talking about) Lord Amherst’s 1816 voyage, in which he refused to kowtow to the Emperor, which resulted in quite a hullaballoo, apparently. So, a little further digging, and I’m pretty sure that the phrase enters the British lexicon based on this event. (“Celestial Empire” is Robert Morrison’s translation of “Teën Chaou.”)

It’s far more difficult to ascertain when “Celestial Empire” stopped being used frequently, since it’s difficult to distinguish between frequent and infrequent usage, and of course because GB metadata sucks. But I could point at Bertrand Russell’s (!) The Problem of China (1922), where he uses CE to describe old China in distinction to modern China:

China has an ancient civilization which is now undergoing a very rapid process of change. The traditional civilization of China had developed in almost complete independence of Europe, and had merits and demerits quite different from those of the West. It would be futile to attempt to strike a balance; whether our present culture is better or worse, on the whole, than that which seventeenth-century missionaries found in the Celestial Empire is a question as to which no prudent person would venture to pronounce. But it is easy to point to certain respects in which we are better than old China, and to other respects in which we are worse.


I’m not sure when this contrast starts being made, but I’m guessing that the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 has something to do with it.

So there you have it: the “Celestial Empire” (1816-1911).