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Throne and Mandarins

January 29, 2010

Lloyd Eastman. Throne and Mandarins: China’s Search For A Policy During The Sino-French Controversy, 1880-1885. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

For Eastman, the treatment of conflicts between China and France in the early 1880s is not merely to reconstruct one of the obscure but important episodes in modern international relations. What interests to him is the “striking similarities” the Sino-French confrontation bore to American involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s. In the hope of understanding Communist China’s reaction to Vietnam War from a historical perspective, Eastman in this book examines the origins and evolution of Sino-French controversy. The deep roots, he claims, were to be found in the incompatibility of the Chinese traditional tributary system and French conceptualization of modern international relations, out of which arose misunderstandings, miscalculations, confusion and adventurism. The tensions finally escalated to an undeclared war that was unwanted by both sides.

The major contribution of this book, however, is not the theme repeated by Eastman about the cultural gap between traditional China and the modern West with which we are quite familiar. What is fresh about this study is Eastman’s attempt at dissection of the Chinese response. On the assumption that it would be more fruitful to do so in terms of dynamic power relations in practice, not of power embodied in a more or less fixed institutional framework, Eastman focuses on the complex process of political decision-making. His analysis, as Adhead points out in a book review, gives us one of the best pictures of the Qing political system as opposed its institutional structure.

Three power-holders played active roles with regard to Chinese imperial policy during the Sino-French controversy: the throne, high officials with substantial power resources of their own, and junior officials who, lacking administrative practice, tried to influence policy by stressing ideological considerations. This last group was commonly known as the qing-yi (pure discussion), whose attitudes, according to Eastman, were basically conservative. They rejected the modernization efforts of “self-strengthening” reformers and held an agonized hostility to compromise in the face of foreign aggression. Eastman shows that in times of crisis, such as the Sino-French encounter, the qing-yi group, low-status as it was, had considerable influence upon government policy formation by carrying their opinions directly to the throne and exerting formidable pressure on high officials like Li Hongzhang.

The influence of the qing-yi group, however, must also be understood in terms of political games played by Cixi, whose power rested on a quite tenuous base, and her main aim was always to consolidate and extend it. To this end, she had to create a balance between different political factions. In this sense, the qing-yi group was significant not only for its capacity to affect policy decisions, but also for its impact on the internal mechanisms of power.

The subtle power game among ruling classes belied the existence of a strong and absolute central power in China, thus it posed a serious problem regarding China’s failure to modernize. Eastman does not regard imperialism as an obstacle to China’s early modernization effort. Rather, comparing Chinese development to the Meji restoration that created a strong leadership, he points out that the weakness of state power in China, revealed in encounter with regionalism and traditional Confucianism, had a negative impact on China’s response to the Western challenge. This leads him to a final conclusion that the Chinese conservatives, reactionaries, and obscurantists were ultimately responsible for China’s modern fate.

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