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The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism

January 29, 2010

Mary Wright. The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T;ung-Chih Restoration, 1862-1874. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Xiaowei Zheng (2005)

The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism is one of the most influential books in print on Chinese history. Published in 1957, it offered at that time “the fullest insight into the many factors of the Chinese state on the threshold of the modern era” (Journal of Economic History 18.3). In 1860, the Chinese empire and its traditional order seemed be on the verge of collapse: the Taiping Rebellion had disrupted people’s lives for more than a decade and the British and French navies had defeated the empire’s finest troop. However, beginning in 1862, the first year of the T’ung-chih reign, a miraculous turn seemed to occur; the upper classes, Hans and Manchus, rallied around the discredited throne with virtually undivided loyalty. During this time, the Western invaders stood back, the great rebellions were put down, the agrarian economy was revived, inflation was checked and revenues increased. The new style military forces with high morale and modern arms were organized and the Qing ruling house survived for more than fifty years until 1911. Wright attributes this miracle to the Chinese conservatists who sincerely believed in and acted to solve the crisis by reviving the “Confucian” doctrine of governance.

Believing that the application by restoration officials of Confucian thoughts was genuine and brilliant, Wrights shows her great sympathy toward their efforts. For Wright, these officials were trying their best to avoid the fate of India, Burma, Annam, and Egypt, and to master Japan’s secret; however, the restoration still failed for it failed to bring China into the modern world. Though the restoration was carried out under extraordinarily favorable conditions (the co-operative policy of the British) and was carried on by men of outstanding ability, a failure was doomed because the “requirements for a modern state run directly counter to the requirements of the Confucian order” (312).

Wright tries to avoid two extreme directions of social studies: the “brick by brick” approach which assumes that any topic and any phenomena are worth attention without thinking of their meaning in terms of building the field, and the “magic method” approach which presupposes that one can be concerned about the formulation of general propositions without mastering the relevant empirical data (6). She succeeds in combining a thorough examination of a great range of primary sources with sharp and illuminating pursuit of basic theoretical questions such as modernity and the “unavoidable” revolution. Her source base is extremely phenomenal. It includes the Qing central documents, Shih-lu (Vertical Records) and I-wu shih-mo (Management of Barbarian Affairs), the various local records such as diaries and anthologies of local officials and literati, the British Parliamentary papers, and both Chinese and English newspapers at that time. Moreover, she is aware of the latest studies by the Chinese Marxist historians and tries to extract the historically meaningful parts from their partisan or politicized claims.

The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism is an unquestionable masterpiece and it stands the test of time. Nevertheless, Wright was bound by general convictions of her time period, when strong beliefs in modernization (embodied in Western economic, political and legal systems and Western-style nationalism) prevailed. Besides, the more or less stereotyped image of a “Confucian China” was so powerful in the 1950s that it caused her to overemphasize the impact of Confucian principles in the actual political practice of those elites and ground her interpretations on the basis of Confucianism. However, as we now know, Confucianism and the equalization of China to a Confucian state were both constructions of the Westerners centuries ago. Moreover, as Elliot and others have shown the extent to which China was a culturally sinicized “Confucian state” remains open to question.

Despite these problems, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism indeed “sets a high standard and is a credit to American sinology” (JAS 17.3). It is essential for our understanding of the history of modern China.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.

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