Reflections on Qing History

By Maura Dykstra

A review of Pamela Kyle Crossley’s The Wobbling Pivot: China Since 1800, An Interpretive History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and William T. Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing (Belknap Press, 2009)

On a recently aired episode of Jeopardy!, one contestant told a story about how her father always seemed to know all the answers when they watched the show together at home during her childhood. Apparently, the program was aired twice in her area, and her father would watch each day before his daughter’s return from school, and then during the second airing of the show would impress her with his profound knowledge of U.S. presidential trivia, words that end in “cat,” nineteenth-century opera, and so forth. This reminded me of something intriguing about the study of history: sometimes it’s a little too easy to sound clever when you know what happens next. In the algebra of history, we start with both sides of the equation – a beginning and an end – and then get to pick how we move from one side of the equation to the other, over time. The selection of historical variables is a matter of personal discretion, and may be motivated by any number of political, philosophical, intellectual, methodological, or aesthetic considerations.

Preoccupied with questions of our own relevance, writers of history are often compelled to show how the trends they have illustrated as salient variables in one historical equation are linked to later events. This temptation is most pressing when the opportunity arises to link one’s study to a topic currently in the news or in public discourse. I succumb to it regularly: writing grant proposals, I make shameless and sometimes risible attempts to connect the dispute mediation practices of merchants in nineteenth-century Chongqing to the post-Mao economic growth patterns of the PRC. Most of these links fall flat under the scrutiny of my colleagues, but the urge to convince others (non-historians most of all) that my work is both interesting and relevant is too strong. I will continue to tilt at windmills, and attempt to convince whoever will listen that my topic contains lessons about practically any aspect of life worth reflection.

This is part of the job, convincing a world focused on the nightly newscast that history matters. The problem is, sometimes the future makes fools of us. Forging links between the distant and the more recent past implies some sort of trajectory between past and present, and sometimes – especially for those of us who study China today – the people whose past we study come up with futures that we simply hadn’t imagined, and which our narratives don’t neatly explain. Unlike a thirty-minute game of Jeopardy!, history doesn’t end. So unless historians are prepared to abandon the notion that their discipline helps people understand contemporary events, we have to keep coming up with new answers about the past to fit with new understandings of the present. Revisionist history is born.

For the study of China, the problem of deriving lessons from history that can inform our approach to the present is particularly relevant. The history of China’s last dynasty – the Qing (1644 to 1912) – is an important point of interest. Questions of empire, ethnicity, tradition, modernity, capitalism, nation, gender, and widespread social unrest are merely a few of the historiographical issues surrounding the story of China’s last imperial dynasty. These issues are all electrified by virtue of being set against the advent of revolution, civil war, communism, and rapid economic growth that round out the story of China’s twentieth century. It is simply one of the most fascinating periods of history for inquiries related to almost everything that American scholars believe makes the modern world tick.

In the past, scholarship and commentary on the Qing often focused on identifying the reasons why Chinese leadership failed to modernize, and emphasized any number of historical factors leading to China’s stagnation: a “Confucian” dislike of merchants and state interference in the economy which inhibited market growth and industrialization; a China-centered world view that failed to assess the strengths of the Western powers (and, by extension, “modern” forms of government); an emphasis on classical learning that eschewed scientific knowledge and technical innovation; an emphasis on the cultural – rather than ethnic – definition of empire, which stunted the growth of nationalism. The reasons for the fall of the Qing were often binary contrasts between China’s imperial tradition and scholars’ assumptions about the nature of the modern state.

In the last few decades, however, China scholars have begun to move away from this focus on sweeping contrasts between China and the West. Some historians have chosen to study local history as a way of gaining insight into China’s past beyond the unsatisfying conclusion that China wasn’t like “the West” in certain ways. Other historians began to regard the Qing government as an innovator, and highlight its distinctness from other dynasties. This type of history challenged the notion of an unchanging imperial tradition, and offered the possibility of discovering elements of the modern state within Chinese history, rather than insisting upon the importance of contact with the West to initiate change in China.

As a result, China historians have come a long way in rehabilitating the Qing, most of all by highlighting dynamics of historical change internal to China’s own history. For those interested in gleaning lessons from China’s past to think about China’s future, these new emphases promise to further knowledge of how today’s China is connected to the past via historical trajectories endogenous to the Chinese experience. As such, this perspective hinges upon the proposition that we may think more fruitfully about China today by understanding China’s own past, rather than basing our expectations about the future on the trajectory of the histories of the United States or Europe. The search for China-centered historical patterns and tendencies is part of a long uphill battle to reclaim Chinese history for China, and reduce the reliance of historians upon the powerful dual assumptions that all things will tend toward modernity, and that modernity is defined by the experience of Western nations.

But how is the lone historian to comprehend – or even simply reflect upon – the majesty of Qing history without reliance upon these simple binaries between East and West, or Tradition and Modernity? How can one assess how the scholarship of the last decade or two has altered the grand narrative of China’s last few centuries? How do I design a lesson plan to inculcate skeptical undergrads with an appreciation for the drama and intrigue of Qing history? William Rowe and Pamela Kyle Crossley are here to help.

China's Last Empire coverIn China’s Last Empire, Rowe offers a clean, succinct narrative of the entire Qing dynasty that incorporates a large amount of recent scholarship in the field. Crossley’s book, The Wobbling Pivot, invites us on a more personal exploration of China’s history from 1800 to the present, packed with ruminations on the patterns and structures that bridge the gap between China’s imperial past and contemporary path. This is an important step in creating an analytical approach to Qing history capable of overcoming binary contrasts between East and West, or Tradition and Modernity.

Both Rowe and Crossley attempt to address some disjunctures commonly found in narrative summaries of the Qing dynasty: Rowe focuses on continuity and challenges behind changes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while Crossley presses forward to consider how the Qing’s approach to governance led to periods of “local hypertrophy” (the concentration of power in regional networks sometimes operating against the interest of the central government) and massive social movements during critical periods of imbalance during and after the last dynasty. The two books are balanced, up-to-date narratives of a difficult subject, and provide today’s student of Chinese history an opportunity to reflect on how far the scholarship has come – as well as where it might head in the future.Wobbling Pivot cover

One of the most important dynamics outlined in both Rowe’s and Crossley’s studies is the relationship between the central government and local society. Rowe explains the Qing approach to governing its huge empire as an attempt to conduct “government on the cheap.” In this characterization, the principles of benevolent rule (light taxes, little direct involvement in local society, encouragement of local initiative for social welfare projects) enable the Qing to consolidate control over China with relatively few resources. The price of this approach, however, was the relatively fragile relationship between the central government and local society. Demographic and economic trends in the second half of the dynasty only exaggerated the inability of the state to mount a strong presence in society, Rowe argues, and the political upheavals of the second half of the nineteenth century (internal unrest and privation by Western powers and Japan) simply proved too much for the Qing to handle.

In dealing with the path to republican revolution, Rowe represents the Hundred Days Reforms of 1898 as “an abortive initial attempt to grow a modern state,” and the New Policies of the last decade of the Qing as a “new beginning” in China’s turn to “big government,” which would culminate in Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign of the late 1950s. Thus, in Rowe’s formulation, the fall of the Qing was not a handy illustration of the triumph of Western modernity over Confucian feudalism, but rather an illustration of the limits of the Chinese state’s ability to mobilize and support a growing population in turbulent times with a small central state apparatus. The exigencies of turmoil brought about by contact with European nations and the U.S. (and later, Japan) comprise only one part of this narrative, which highlights the importance of internal demographic, political, social, and economic trends in producing structural tensions that led to the end of the Qing.

Crossley’s work also concentrates on the implications of China’s historically small central state in shaping relations between center and locale, but with an emphasis on the formative role of disobedience and local resistance to the center. In the first chapter of her book (whose name – The Wobbling Pivot – is a reference to the state’s enduring challenge of balancing tensions between center and locale) she lays out the terms of her approach:

Chinese history is not a history of despotism or unfettered authoritarianism, but one that has been sustained during long periods of peace and stability by the awareness of the limits on government power presented by a volatile and organized public, and the limits on public expression presented by a government equipped to violently suppress what it regards as threats. In the centuries of balanced intimidation between state and society, China has been overall peaceful and prosperous . . . When the power on one side or the other has grown excessive [a phenomenon she refers to as either central or local hypertrophy], revolution or effective fascism has resulted.

Crossley’s portrayal of tensions between the central government and local society is thus animated by fears of revolt, on the one hand, and the ruthless pursuit of state prerogatives, on the other. In Crossley’s account, the state reached unprecedented heights of hypertrophy under Mao (which constituted a “deviation from the historical pattern”), and has since shifted back into a balance resembling those maintained by earlier governments. While she asserts that the Qing and the PRC “bear no resemblance as administrative presences” because of the massive infrastructure of the PRC’s government apparatus, her attention to the negotiation of center/local interests reveals some of the interesting connections between contemporary China and Qing China.

Crossley concludes that “the expanse of the country, the tremendous disparities in regional resources and regional wealth and the deep divide between the cultures of the cities and the countryside virtually require that every government allow its decision-making to devolve to the locality,” and “when that is combined with a degree of financial independence at the local level – perhaps forced upon it by a bankrupt or overly-thrifty state – the pendulum that swings between state dependence on the locality and state fear of the locality is set in motion.” She offers this historical mechanism as an alternative to the earlier “iron equation of increasing wealth and increasing political liberalization,” which has led many a scholar and China-watcher to predict that China’s economic development and liberalization must lead to an increasing political resemblance to other developed nations, such as the U.S.

By creating historical surveys of the Qing that trace secular trends and intricate patterns of governance linked to the specific attributes and challenges of the Chinese polity, Rowe and Crossley offer historical perspectives capable of saying something about today’s China that relies upon lessons from Qing history, rather than simple comparisons with European or U.S. history. These two works are milestones on the path toward new ways of constructing a history of China that doesn’t rely upon the assumption of an increasingly homogenous ‘modern’ world compelled by the overwhelming power of economic and political forces capable of rendering every state in the world in the image of the celebrated West.

Because Crossley’s and Rowe’s books attempt to incorporate the latest scholarship on the Qing, these surveys also provide scholars with the opportunity to assess the state of the field, and contemplate future directions for research. The process of de-coupling China’s history from presumed processes of global modernization is hardly a finished project: in addition to producing new surveys, scholars are also in the process of researching smaller subject areas in order to describe more fully the dynamics of Chinese history that link the present to the past. Each scholar has his or her own agenda and emphases, and in this respect what one takes away from these new Qing histories is bound to be specific to the perspective of the reader.

At the same time that historians write against a narrative Qing decline in the face of imminent modern homogeneity, we can also aspire to construct new comparative frameworks that resist the Eurocentric event horizons of many conventional approaches to the social sciences. This movement is already apparent in recent works in the field of world history, where scholars of China (among others) continue to ask how previous approaches to global connections may be modified to reflect the agency and salience of non-Western countries. These concerns may also continue to be reflected in studies of China’s local histories, where writing a history of China from a patently Chinese perspective includes the danger of an emphasis on Chinese characteristics, or the notion of a Chinese Sonderweg separate from the concerns of world history. Now that Crossley and Rowe have presented us with foundational approaches to reclaiming the importance of Chinese experience in dictating Chinese history, we must continue to ask how the history of China can propel further discussions about the emergence of today’s interconnected world.

Reading Crossley’s and Rowe’s histories inspires a sense of hope that historians of China are more prepared than ever to negotiate the double jeopardy of Eurocentric bias and provinciality. The wide-angle narratives that both scholars have managed to present encompass how far we have come in the last few decades, and represent a starting point for reflecting on how historians can produce scholarship on China’s past that is relevant to anyone concerned about the present.

Maura Dykstra is a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has previously reviewed China’s Monetary Challenges for The China Beat.

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