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Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China

January 29, 2010

Philip A. Kuhn. Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Rachel Scollon (2000)

This work, one of the first to take advantage of a wealth of local history sources available in libraries outside China, examines the militarization of 19th century rural society, stressing the organizational, or even organic, similarities between orthodox and heterodox military groups. At a time when the government’s professional armies were too decrepit to be effective against either external invasion or internal uprising, the government had little choice but to encourage the suppression of rebellion by locally organized militias. These forces were legitimized through adoption of the tuanlian system, largely run by local non-office-holding gentry, whose interests coincided with those of the state to a degree sufficient to justify official support of their activities. Tuanlian resolved a long-standing tension between arbitrary groupings for purposes of local control and “natural” groupings for efficacy of action in favor of the latter. The lowest level of administration was composed of units originating outside the state structure, such as a single village’s self-defense organization, and more extended groupings were generally bound together by existing ties such as those of lineage or marketing community .

Kuhn sketches a symmetry between three levels of organization (tuanlian, the mercenary force, and the regional army) on the orthodox side and three (the secret society lodge, the bandit gang, and the community in arms) on the heterodox. Pleased by the beauty of this structure, he allows himself to call both “hierarchies,” but then admits that if indeed the levels of heterodox organization were vertically linked the linkages are obscured by the lack of a written record. On the orthodox side, his case studies of the raising of anti-rebel forces in central and southern China clearly demonstrate how the connections formed between members of the gentry in their pursuit of degrees and high office allowed them to speedily agglomerate their small military forces into larger ones in times of need. Kuhn also elaborates the horizontal links that show these patterns of organization to be more than merely parallel, but complementary parts of the same basic rural social structure. An administrative tuan, for example, might be formed on the basis of an existing secret society lodge, or a gang of bandits hired as anti-rebel mercenaries.

Kuhn begins repayment of the debt he acknowledges to John Fairbank by situating his inquiry within the theoretical framework that regards China’s modern history as shaped largely by its response to external stimuli. Kuhn poses the question in an open-ended fashion, providing a clear statement of an alternative view. “We might then hypothesize that the West was impinging, not just upon a dynasty in decline, but upon a civilization in decline: a civilization that would soon have had to generate fresh forms of social and political organization from within itself” (p. 6). His eventual conclusions regarding this hypothesis are left implicit. In her review for the Journal of Asian Studies (Vol. 30 No. 3, 664-665), Marie-Claire Bergere takes his later references to population pressure and rural economic competition as evidence that “the hypothesis has been thus transformed into a solid fact” (p. 665). The substance of his argument, however, gives little support to the hypothesis. He concludes, rather, that if Chinese society entered a fatal decline of its own accord, it must have happened after 1864. In the more speculative section with which he ends the book, he attributes the elite’s later (post-1911) loss of its traditional capacity to reintegrate society after social upheaval to its bifurcation into a modern, treaty port elite and a traditional, conservative, rural one, an analysis that gives substantial weight to Western influence.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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