After Huang Qianren (1694–1771), Complete Map of the Everlasting Unity of the Great Qing (Da Qing wannian yitong dili quantu), Jiaqing period (1796–1820), National Library of China.

After Huang Qianren (1694-1771), Complete Map of the Everlasting Unity of the Great Qing (Da Qing wannian yitong dili quantu), Jiaqing period (1796-1820), National Library of China.

Exhibition Space: A celestial empire

Three centuries of Chinese culture and tradition have been brought to life through a collaboration between ANU academics and the national libraries of Australia and China. RICHARD FOX uncovers more.

A big blue expanse stands before you.

An intricate ink rubbing spread across eight large vertical scrolls. Its title says it all: The Complete Map of the Everlasting Unity of the Great Qing.

The map is of China, showing the many administrative units of the Qing dynasty - the great empire that ruled China for 270 years.

The Great Wall of China swirls across its north, with territories beyond it - in Mongolia and Manchuria - divided among the groups that managed the ethnic communities of inner Asia.

It transports you to the 18th Century and into a country that had the most sophisticated and productive economy in the world. It oozes power.

The map, after Huang Qianren, is a soaring representation of the depth and influence of the Qing dynasty and is at the heart of the National Library of Australia's (NLA) blockbuster exhibition, Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911.

Curated by ANU academic Dr Nathan Woolley, BChinS (Hons) '98 PhD '11, the exhibition provides a window onto the diversity of life under the Qing, a multicultural empire that formed the base for the China we know today.

"This exhibition is Chinese life from a Chinese perspective," Woolley says.

"I wanted to show the diversity of the cultures within China and the contrast between Chinese life, as illustrated by the Chinese, and Chinese people as the English and French viewed them."

While the Qing rulers were often located in large garden palaces located to the north-west of Beijing, a diverse daily life occurred through a blossoming intellectual culture across the rest of the country.