UCSC seminar on early modern China–Part 1

I am reading some recent scholarship with six graduate students in the fall quarter. The first set of readings includes Frederic Wakeman's China and the Seventeenth-century World Crisis," the first two chapters of Wai-yee Li's Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature, and James Frankel's chapter “Making Manchus and Muslims” in the edited volume Cosmopolitanism in China.

The Chinese collaboration

For the previous millennium (1000–2000), China was twice conquered by an alien minority. The first time was Mongol conquest and the second the Manchu. The Mongol Yuan dynasty was short-lived because, among other reasons, the Mongol rulers displaced the Chinese elites institutionally and deprived them of political power. The Manchu, on the other hand, shared power with the Chinese elites, kept their land and privilege, and promised them more. Wakeman provides the following statements regarding how the ethnic Chinese elites who worked for the new Manchu regime:
"Critical to this political process of rise, adjustment, and fulfillment were the Chinese who collaborated in the Manchus’ development into imperial Confucian dynasts. These Han played different roles at different times, and their social backgrounds corresponded to successive stages of the conquest: early transfrontiers men who took on a Manchu identity among the tribal aristocracy as Nurhaci rose to power, Liaodong militarists who formed a new Han banner elite of their own as the northern provinces were brought under domination, northern Chinese landed gentry who claimed high political roles for themselves in exchange for helping the Manchu prince regent Dorgon take over the central government in Beijing, and Jiangnan literati who accepted jobs as pacification commissioners in order to facilitate the civil conquest of the south without bloodshed and strife. With the exception perhaps of the first group, many of these Han supporters of the Qing remained ambivalent toward the Manchus. The Manchus were not without comparable ambivalences of their own."

These Chinese collaborators and supporters of the Manchu regime at different phases of conquest were clearly making a very different political choice from those who joined the resistance. Who were traumatized? How many of them were traumatized? The overwhelming amount of poems and literature produced during Ming-Qing transition, according to Wai-yee Li, show strong feelings and sharp demarcation between Chinese subjects and Manchu conquerors. But Wakeman argues long ago that the majority of Chinese intellectual and political elites chose to work with the Qing dynasty. It is important to separate the majority of bureaucrats who decided to protect their interests by working with the new regime from those minority of scholars who fought Manchu tooth and nail and produced the national trauma literature Wai-yee Li analyzes.

National Trauma?

In what sense could we speak of "national trauma" during the Ming-Qing transition? Who was traumatized? Whose nation was it? Ming or Qing were dynasties, defined by the patrilineal succession of the rulers' family. The father's house itself was not a nation. The Chinese collaborators were supporting the new Heavenly mandate and Aisin Gioro family. Those who figured the fall of Ming dynasty as collective trauma were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Chinese collaborators. The poems of those who remained nostalgic and resisted the Manchu conquest persisted and resonated with many anti-Manchu reformers and revolutionaries at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of twentieth century.

There are two kinds of evidentiary analysis in Li's book: (1) biographical studies to identify male and female voices, and (2) allusion to historical precedents and what these precedents meant or implied in the contexts of Ming-Qing transition [For example, the discussion on Wang Zhaojun on p. 18 or Zhang Liang on pp. 119–120]. The biographical analysis grounds male or female voices in historical reality. Then Li shows how these historical figures manipulated masculine and feminine dictions in order to convey variety kinds of political messages.

Who were these traumatized poets? Wai-yee Li identifies the following poets:

  • Male voices: Wu Zhaoqian, Deng Hanyi, Qu Dajun, Chen Zhilong, Xia Wanchun, Li Wen, Song Zhengyu, Xia Yunyi, Song Zhengbi, Wang Shizhen, Mao Xiang, Xu Ye, Gu Yanwu, Qian Qianyi.
  • Female voices: Xu Can, Wang Duanshu, Li Yin, Liu Shu, Liu Rushi, Wu Qi, Zhou Qiong, Cai Yindu, Gu Zhenli.

Contextual evidence and dating are both critical for Li's interpretation. At times Li's analysis reads like an endless regression of evidential exegesis and is seriously testing her reader's patience. But I think it is important to separate historical figures from their masculine and feminine personae–a solid but difficult task for advancing our understanding of literary representation of Ming-Qing transition.

This small but exceptional group of Ming loyalists left us a tremendous body of poems that defied psychological and gender boundaries in so many meaningful ways. Its legacy as Li argues, continued to resonate through China's turbulent century of wars and revolutions.

Chinese Identity under Conquest Dynasty

Given that majority of the intellectual and political elites in China collaborated with the Manchu conquest dynasty, how do we make sense of subsequent formation of various kinds of identities under the alien Manchu dynasty? Elite families continued to thrive, living standard rose to a high level, and population expanded in the eighteenth century. The conquest dynasty, like it or not, was here to stay. The anti-Manchu voices described by Li slowly faded away. Frankel shows that new identities emerged in Qing China cannot be simply categorized as "Chinese," "Manchu," "Buddhist," "Islamic," or "Catholic." China's last empire–Qing dynasty–was no less brutal or hierarchical than other territorial empires, but it did embody some kind of institutional commitment to ensure the peaceful existence and development of several ethno-religious communities. To what degree this imperial mentality could be considered "cosmopolitan" is still up to debates. For comparative historians, however, this should point to a fruitful direction to analyze ideological and political differences of early modern territorial empires.


  1. In Li’s comparison between male poets writing and female diction and female poets writing in male diction, we discussed the ways in which male literati engendered a violation of sovereignty by mapping it onto the bodies of women. At the same time, I am intrigued by the adoption of a female narrator, such as Wu Zhaoqian’s quatrains assuming the feminine name Liu Susu. Here, the feminine voice is also a point of self-expression, especially the invocation of famous, ill-fated courtesans in such poems that convey the sense of pitiful fate and lack of agency. I see that this communicates the self-pitying lamentations of the literati and the sense of de-masculinization in the experiencing the conquering the nomadic Manchus, who embody a “wu” (martial arts) masculinity in contrast. In this way, the literati remove themselves from a responsibility or blame of the loss of country; rather, they seem to see it as an unfortunate but fateful event that is outside of their individual control.

    If Li has problematized the categories of male and female as points of analysis for social conditions and poetic expressions in the Chinese tradition and particularly during the Ming-Qing transition, the works she presents also display the shifting dynamics of power ascribed to masculine and feminine. In feeling disempowered and humiliated, the poets resort to a feminine voice to alienate themselves from the confrontation with their Manchu counterpart.

    With regard to the presence of cosmopolitanism in early Qing China, James Frankel chose compelling examples to show the ruling elite’s commitment to foster a peaceful coexistence between diverse ethnic communities. While looking to conditions nearing the end of the Qing empire may be completely anachronistic in analyzing cosmopolitanism in the early Qing, I am still curious about the extent to which foundations of federalist administration set during the early Qing may have resulted in the mayhem during its downfall. An example of this may be the brutal ethnic conflicts that took place in places like Yunan, where long-term neglect and active discrimination against non-Han, non-Manchu groups finally resulted in bloody revolts and massacres. Was there a key moment of shift during 250-year reign of the Qing dynasty or were those conflicts rooted in its administrative organization from the beginning?

  2. The Manchu wu masculinity at first seemed incompatible with the Chinese wen masculinity. Neither was defined biologically. The discursive (wen) masculinity could be clearly identified in masculine diction? Could we say the same about discursive femininity?

    Federalist administration? An interesting way of putting it. I look forward to reading your response on R. Kent Guy's book.

  3. Were these collaborators based on the fact that they surrendered to the Qing, or was it because they argue that the Qing administration is a better alternative when compared to the peasant rebellions? If we fail to recognize that historical precedent, it would be hard to gauge the motivation and justification for collaboration. It seems that there is insufficient attention spent on the peasant rebellion that caused the fall of the Ming Empire. My question then, is to ask whether it was morally upright to save the people and join the reformist Qing regime, or to maintain moral purity by refusing to serve the Qing state on the basis of ethnicity?

    Li’s subjects were describing their reactions to the national trauma, but what about regional identity and variation of devastations caused by the war in different regions of China during the Ming-Qing transition. In Li’s book, the regional identity and regional effects of Qing occupation are masked by the rhetoric of national humiliation and the lost of one’s country, but referring back to Minghui’s point, whose national trauma was it? Is it still considered a national trauma today? Compared to other dynastic transitions, this transition affected more people than before. Could one say that this was the trauma experienced by everyone at the time, as they were forced to change their customs , hairstyles, and dresses?

    In Li’s National trauma to the scholars during the time was about losing the Ming dynastic state to a foreigner, a manchu-family. In light of this, I want to ask how is this viewed in contemporary PRC’s textbook. On one hand, the transition from Ming-Qing was considered a national trauma by the ethnic Han people, but now that the PRC government expanded the definition of Chinese national identity, I wonder how is this transition or trauma discusses in official texts? Would it not be inconvenient for the Chinese state to uphold similar position as their revolutionary predecessors?

  4. PRC took the playbook from Qing and declared itself a multi-ethnic state. Unlike Qing, PRC is a modern republic and warrants equal legal status for all minority groups. To be fair, this is not the main thrust of Li's argument.

  5. Although Women and National Trauma is a work of literature and philology, it benefits historians in a myriad of ways. For one, the poems featured and Li’s analysis allow historians a glimpse into the minds of devout elite throughout the Ming-Qing transition. From their perspective, how many traitorous collaborators did there appear to be? How promising was the pro-Ming resistance? How prevalent was Manchu theft of wives?

    In future work, scholars must avoid the notion that trauma and collaboration are mutually exclusive. Officials who opted to join the ranks of the Qing state may have concealed their trauma for the sake of opportunity; all Ming loyalists did not necessarily experience trauma, let alone one of a scale so severe it fostered a collective identity. As male loyalist writers employed female diction as a veil, who else was hiding?

    I thank Sarah for bringing up wen and wu. Perhaps poetry and other expressions of wen served as a mechanism for emasculated Han elite to reclaim their masculinity, classifying their wen as superior to the Manchu wu? Further, I second Wilson’s interrogation of approaches to the morality surrounding collaboration. As Wakeman explained, Qing collaborators utilized the regime change to implement stabilizing socio-political reform that they could not under the static Ming regime.

  6. Perhaps you have more to say about Wakeman's piece? Some of your notes will suffice.

  7. Wan-Yee Li's Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature delves into the psyche of Qing loyalists poets through literary analysis. Here, Li makes two significant contributions to the study of Ming-Qing transition. First, Li gendered Ming-Qing transition by differentiating male-female personae and male-female dictions. Also, although this book falls into the category of literary scholarship, Li provides a useful tool to historicize national trauma.

    At first glance, it may sound anachronistic to term the psychological aftereffect of dynastic transition a "national trauma," as "nation" is rather a modern terminology. Yes, Ming-Qing transition was a pivotal political change which influenced the entire Ming territory and its subjects, but would the collaborators have perceived the fallen Ming as their nation? What exactly were their sense of belonging to and loss of Ming (that could be termed "nation" or "national")? It strikes me that we don't have a term that could explicitly indicate the collective trauma evoked by a massive dynastic-wide turmoil in the pre-modern era; for we borrow modern language to explain pre-modern psychology.

    Yet, Li's analysis signals that there might be some form of continuing psychological similarities (and rhetorical similarities) between the trauma of Qing loyalists and their modern descendants. As she briefly mentions, the nostalgia of the fallen dynasty was frequently used rhetoric to express national trauma of the modern Chinese elites. Then, to what extent does Li's analysis enlightens historians to historicize emotions and trauma?

    1. Yes, in this sense Li's choice of national trauma is a reasonable one.

  8. Wow, I just wrote a lengthy response that somehow did not post and got lost to the universe! A reminder that I should always be typing somewhere else first, I suppose. I will try to recreate.

    This week’s readings, especially the Li piece, were an interesting starting point for me in this course, as I do not have a lot of background knowledge of the Ming-Qing transition but I do have some context for the historical tradition of writing on women as symbols of the nation (more so in the case of prostitutes considered to be symbols of a modern and/or decaying nation at the turn of the 20th century.) Li’s argument about male and female diction being used as tools to express political opinions in different ways intrigued me. Though I gather sinology does not make a lot of crossover with gender theory, I could not help but be reminded of Butler’s “gender as performance,” and writing as a way to access different gender presentations is an interesting example of what can count as “performance” and how fluid it could be - to write under female diction could literally just meet writing on certain topics and under a pen name, without feeling connection to gender as a full-time identity. What I did not get a sense of from the reading is some of the power dynamics behind men writing with female diction might have coopted women’s narratives, especially considering the ratio and relative audiences of male and female authors. It seems the literal experiences of regime change and collaboration could take on starkly gendered forms such as men taking jobs in the Manchu government or women literally collaborating through “sleeping with the enemy.” What does this mean for women’s sexuality to be treated as their primary political agency? Was this mostly a narrative propagated by men or also by women writing in women’s diction?

    I also agree with Lauren’s point about not treating collaboration and trauma as mutually exclusive. I think collaboration could be seen as a trauma in itself, as many elites seemed to have to choose between two bad options of alliance with the Manchus or martyrdom. And while it is hard to not read trauma, especially national trauma, as a bit of a buzzword or propaganda, thinking of trauma as a loss helps me connect this to the other readings. Even though Frankel talks of cosmopolitanism as a productive process, it also appears to me fraught with certain sacrifices of culture that could be considered a different form of national trauma. And though Wakeman likely did not intend for his article to be read in this way, much of his argument could be considered breaking up that trauma/collaboration dichotomy as well. Moving away from the moment of regime change as a sudden upheaval and considering the needs of people (both peasants and elite) on a more long-frame economic level seems to challenge the dynastic narrative as one of trauma. Wakeman treats the Ming-Qing transition as something not only inevitable in the state of late-Ming society, but also something with precedent and logic in the broader state of world history. So while I greatly enjoyed Li’s take, the other articles have challenged their efficacy in my eyes by showing different, somewhat less elite if more abstract views of the transition period.

    1. Also not sure why it says "unknown" but shows my name when you click. I guess I'm still learning, but this is Bristol :)

    2. Hi Bristol, you replied Kyu's comment. What you need to do is to create your own comment and publish it to the blog.

    3. For Kyu: Wakeman's piece is sweeping. Your point on Frankel is an interesting one. The flip side of simultaneity is compromising the purity or integrity of one's former cultural belonging. The idea of "negotiation" may be more applicable here for the process of identity formation on an individual level.


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Irmy Schweiger's review of Cosmopolitanism in China, 1600-1950, published in Comparative Literature and World Literature, Vol. 2, no. 1, 2017, pp. 72–75.