UCSC seminar–Part 2

The second set of readings includes the first chapter of Rosenthal and Wong's Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe, John Elliott's "A Europe of Composite Monarchies," and the second part of R. Kent Guy's Qing Governors and Their Provinces: The Evolution of Territorial Administration in China, 1644-1796.

The Language of Union:

Conquest, territorial management (such river work and transportation), ecological characteristics, and provincial governance (such as tax collection and disaster relief) all featured in Guy's Qing Governors and Their Provinces. We only read the second half of the book. The first half is about the extraordinarily active appointment and dismissal of Qing governors, assessment of their competence, and central coordination of territorial control, tactical and logistical concerns of border defence, revenue collection for the imperial coffer, etc. Elite activism on behalf of the Qing state, along with other titanic efforts, stitch the provinces together into the Qing territorial empire. One cannot help but wonder: Why didn't China break into smaller states? Wasn't that an easier solution politically? Disunity occurred periodically in history of imperial China. The conventional wisdom that many Chinese elites believed, is the dynastic cycles will always bring China back to a unified state. But why? Why was it a better political solution? Given the diversity and political price so many political elites had to pay in order to maintain a territorial empire, I wonder why so many political forces eventually came together for the unity of the Qing state?

One thing for sure was the powerful language of union to which virtually all Chinese elites subscribed. Perhaps this time the Qing state had to forge a different language of union from before? Does the language of union reflect but not explain the desire of the intellectual and political elites to maintain their imperial vision and unity? In the European case:
seventeenth-century rulers were everywhere talking the language of union. Yet by the 1620s there are indications among these rulers of growing impatience with the system of union aeque principaliter, and its corollary of unification by slow, pragmatic, methods.
Elliott continues to argue:
war and economic depression appeared to strengthen the case for the concentration of power. Resources had to be mobilized, economic activity directed, and crown revenues increased to meet the costs of defence. All this made a higher degree of union the order of the day.

Yet in reality, small, competitive and some composite states remained the norm in Europe by 1700. Their language of union was primarily conceived in terms of "uniformity of religion, laws and taxation." In China, the Qing empire was coherently ruled by a centralized polity coupled with flexible provincial governance. As R. Bin Wong suggests, the large-scale of political structure in Qing China should be explained, not taken for granted. In turn the size of Chinese polity should serve as one factor among many to explain why, for instance, relative development of formal economy and informal economy, diverged from Europe throughout the eighteenth century.


  1. In contrast with composite monarchies in Europe, the Qing government ruled under a centralized system in which governors are often personally appointed and communicated closely with the emperor. R. Kent Guy shows us that the emperor often took local conditions into serious consideration when appointing governors and perhaps chose to overlook acts of corruption when stability and successful tax extraction were maintained.

    While the organizational and possibly philosophical differences in governance between China and Europe were manifest during the early modern period, I still see internal flexibility within China’s wide polity that at times gave way to aeque principaliter-like practices. For instance, in the Southwest, the tusi system of entrusting local chieftains to rule over the people and facilitate tax collection did not end until Ortai’s appointment as governor-general in the 1720s. In fact, we can tell that the local elite was active and reluctant to forgo powers previously enjoyed based on the revolts that followed Ortai’s reign of military suppression. It seems that this narrative of slow integration resembles more strongly the European model than R Kent Guy represents.

    In class, we discussed the lack of ethnocentrism in the imperial administration of the Qing rulers, that posts were filled and policy assessed based on efficacy, not ethnic bias. At the same time, we emphasized the role of a dominant Confucian ideology in setting forth this bureaucratic agenda in the first place, which is inherently a Han and later Manchu artifact. I find it difficult to accept a tone of neutrality when it comes to Qing governance towards minority ethnic groups, as assimilation and suppression played important roles in the unity of the empire as a whole. In the early 1700s, the Qing government funded public schools and enrolled Miao students in an attempt to assimilate them culturally. In this way, I also see a parallel between Qing empire’s Confucian centralism and the religious centralism of European monarchies during the same period.

  2. Astute observation. The Qing state was by no means neutral or benevolent! I also notice that you change your writing style to the one historians in general would prefer.

  3. Adding on to Sarah's comments on Guy's work, I will say that the Qing empire had great flexibility in their political appointment in relation to local military, economic, and cultural demands. For example, the case of appointing less capable but literally renowned scholars to be governors in lower Yangtze region shows that the Qing had to acquire local elites' cooperation, or at least their acquiescence to Qing's rule. Guy's work also points out the dynamics of cooperation, negotiation, and conflict between local power holders and the central state as the Qing state absorbed and institutionalized different provinces into their rule.

    In his work, Guy also challenges the notion of macro-regional economy, and the idea of a crude binary between the rich, southern provinces versus the poorer northern provinces of China. In the case of Fujian's economy, it was nothing similar to its nearby provinces (Zhejiang or Guangdong), and hence required different qualities for its governing officials.

    After reading all of the readings for this week, I have been pondering on this question of mine: Was the Qing state a union of aeque principaliter in areas outside of China proper? Would it be wise to consider the Qing Empire as an agglomeration of multiple parts,, one of them the Han-populated China proper, while the other parts consisted of Manchuria and areas outside of the China core? An additional reading on the Qing's governance of the frontier would be extremely helpful to understand the complete profile of territorial governance of the Qing state.

  4. Wilson, the territory outside China proper was not managed like provinces. There were no de facto territorial management outside China proper. Lifan Yuan (Court of Colonial Affairs) was the closest administrative office that coped with Mongols, Central Asians, Tibetans etc., although the Qing Dynasty cared little about relations with countries that did not border its domain in the eighteenth century. The Lifan Yuan was established at the time of Huang Taiji to deal with the Mongols. After the establishment to the Qing dynasty it continued to be a separate institution for dealing with Mongols and Russians. Both were replaced by the Zongli Yamen in 1861.

    I do not include readings on this dimension of Qing history in this seminar. David Bello's work in week 10 will give you some sense of borderland management, though.

  5. I thought this readings did a great job of integrating some macro and micro views of Qing governance, and in R. Kent Guy’s case animating bureaucracy in a way that clearly look an immense amount of archival research. In answer to the questions above, I get the sense from the Guy reading that separate states would not have necessarily been politically easier to rule, in part because of the interests of elites. Many seemed motivated by access to composite forms of power, rather than an explicitly political one. With the province system, they might have local influence and economic power without having to worry about maintaining military strength to oppose the encroaching Manchus, as an independent state would. It does not surprise me, taking into account Wai-yee Li’s work that depicts a range of collaborators and martyrs during the Ming-Qing transition, that many who collaborated for personal gain or safety would ultimately see benefits to a large but flexible government rather than a tight, homogenous state. Guy’s point on corruption, and bureaucracy feeding corruption rather than seeing it as an unfortunately side-effect is one example of these personal benefits for the elite. Of course, all sorts of governors change their perspective over time on the leadership structure and in some cases meet dramatic ends when they act against the constraints of this position. Considering state or empire strength through the opinions and desires of “middle management” is certainly different than other pieces we’ve read, as in Rosenthal and Wong’s text that views empire from the macro level, but I find it ultimately more convincing because it paints a much messier picture of a government always adapting and experimenting rather than experiencing continuous growth and success.

  6. Historians tend to be suspicious of neat pictures (code word for simplistic and mechanical explanation?) I am not quite sure whether or not messiness conjures up a more positive association? Care to elaborate?

  7. R. Kent Guy’s Qing Governors and Their Provinces is a formidable work. A massive contribution to the field of Qing history, it proves a vital reference tool for both historians of early modern Chinese politics and scholars specializing in almost any provincial history. As both Sarah and Wilson commented, Guy’s piece further illustrates the complexity surrounding the Qing takeover of China proper. The Manchus truly did not conquer China overnight through martial might alone; it was a meticulous process of economic, social, cultural, and military negotiation. While I am tempted to borrow Elliott’s notion of absorbing ‘composite’ states through processes of aeque principaliter to narrate the consolidation of Manchurian power, I instead feel that historians must locate Chinese or Manchu terms and concepts to describe Qing strategy.

    Similar to Bristol, I am interested in placing Guy’s work into further conversation with both Wai-yee Li’s Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature and Frederic Wakeman’s “China and the Seventeenth-Century World Crisis” to better understand (1) the social history of the collaborators and martyrs discussed in Li’s work and (2) incentives for local elite to join the larger Qing nation-state rather than take a route of independent governance. As Wakeman argued, economic depression placed severe pressure on local leadership during the Ming-Qing transition to fund local enterprise; there was monetary incentive for former Ming governors to collaborate with the new Qing regime rather than go it alone. However, Guy’s work highlights the complexity of negotiation between local and central elite—collaboration did not occur instantaneously. Guy’s piece also leaves me pondering the role of a ‘national’ trauma once more, particularly in local-level decision making. Could submission to a conquest dynasty for the sake of a coherent China prove less devastating than fragmentation, particularly considering the cosmopolitan nature of the Qing state? How does Qing success in utilizing diplomacy to conquer confound the paradigm of Han/wen and Manchu/wu?


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