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Strangers at the Gate

January 29, 2010

Frederic Wakeman, Jr. Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

E. Elena Songster (2000)

From his in-depth study of the small region around Canton, Frederic Wakeman, Jr. draws the bold conclusion that “the economic and social crisis around Canton after the Opium War directly caused the Taipings to form” (p. 131). Wakeman incorporates peasants, secret societies, officials, militia, British governors, and imperial edicts into his micro history of social unrest to create a narrative of the desperation and fury that led from the Opium War to the Taiping Rebellion. In so doing, he tugs at the many distinct threads in Canton society to reveal their exact position in the social fabric.

Wakeman, the first scholar to link these two events so directly, presents the story in a social history format that was also new to scholarship on China in 1966. Canton was a key opium trade center. The changes in the political structure of the region and the economic crisis that followed the Opium War threw Canton and the surrounding region into social turmoil. Wakeman introduces the Canton setting by telling the story of the San yuan li incident. This event appears in its multiple and contradictory historical versions as both a major and minor incident. This little “skirmish” in the eyes of the British, became a fond war story of heroism for the peasant militia, and a glorified class struggle for Marxist historians. The multiplicity of these voices, something that seems like it would cause frustration for an historian seeking the real story, becomes a key tool in Wakeman’s effort to represent every echelon of society and to illustrate the interconnectedness between them. The formation of the militia that fought bravely against the British in the San yuan li incident, for example, occurred because of a combination of tight imperial purse strings, economically strained peasants, a strong clan system, and the threatening presence of British troops.

Wakeman demonstrates how the multiple-level impact of the Opium War and subsequent disputes created a volatile, uncontrollable society. According to Wakeman, Lin Zexu’s anti-opium stance created a xenophobic frenzy in the delta. Wakeman is careful to point out however, that “this was not nationalism. In fact, a strong sense of national identity is not usually found among peasants in such societies” (p. 56). Wakeman is specifically writing against a number of western scholars and Chinese Marxist historians who have proposed the thesis that such anti-foreign sentiment displays national consciousness. He further cautions his readers to refrain from the temptation of reading class-consciousness into the revolts and uprisings of this period. For example, in his discussion of the Red Turban Revolt he states, “In truth, there was no plotted conspiracy, no coordinated plan. Rather, rebellion engendered rebellion in a distinct crescendo of disorder after Ho Liu’s revolt” (p. 139). Wakeman’s story is one of large-scale material impact, namely the disruption of the opium trade unravelling into wide-spread discontent. Silver mines closed, inflation spread, rice riots flared, militias proliferated local conflict, and secret societies flourished in the chaos. He explains the prevalence of anti-Qing sentiment as “restorationism” not as “revolutionary” (p. 120). It was the simultaneity of these events compressing on each other, not an overriding movement, that led to the Taiping Rebellion.

Wakeman departs dramatically from the intellectual history that his advisor and later senior colleague Joseph Levenson produced. In this study, Wakeman brings innovation to the field of Chinese history by mining eclectic sources and transforming disenfranchised peasants into important historical actors. Although diplomacy plays an important role in Wakeman’s account, he continually spotlights the people involved in the negotiation rather than the negotiation itself. By examining how the local population influenced official exchanges, he moves beyond John Fairbank’s elite diplomatic history and begins the tradition of popular-based historical writing. Wakeman does not completely ignore the ideology espoused by the Taiping leaders as a factor leading to the rebellion, however his emphasis on social theory in explaining mass mobilization may be dissatisfying to some. C.P. FitzGerald (Pacific Affairs, 40.3/4: 372-372) and Edgar Wickberg (Journal of Asian Studies, 26.4: 702-704) praise Wakeman for embracing the complexity of Chinese society in his fresh approach to historical analysis. Wickberg is less convinced, however, that Wakeman succeeds in effectively tying the many threads of his analysis together. Wakeman may see such a critique as a victory because it suggests that Southern Chinese society was itself falling apart.

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