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The Fall of Imperial China

January 29, 2010

Frederic Wakeman. The Fall of Imperial China. New York: The Free Press, 1975.

Miriam Gross (2006)

In this account of Qing history, Wakeman writes that he is trying to create a book disputing the Western view of China as primarily static and reactive to exogenous (i.e. Western) changes. To accomplish this, he writes of the first Qing histories that moves beyond governmental elites to focus on social history. He begins with a descriptive analysis of the traditional roles of the major actors in Chinese society, namely: peasants, gentry – both upper and lower – and merchants, and then explains the established mechanisms behind dynastic transition, the Mandate of Heaven. After giving this foundation, Wakeman launches into a chronologically-organized history that covers the origins, rise, and eventual decline of the Qing dynasty.

In addition to his fundamental concern with demonstrating endogenous change, Wakeman appears to focus on two additional issues. First, he explores social history in order to understand how the dynasty was able to gain power and to build and maintain an effective administrative structure. As a result, Wakeman is particularly strong when discussing the examination system and the tax system, two of the main mechanisms for maintaining imperial efficacy and control. In addition, he chooses to relate his history by describing intrusive events and then analyzing the new series of equilibria that resulted between different layers of society. This method makes power vacuums at the local and provincial level particularly clear. His focus on state-building allows him to take a long and confusing period of history and give it a clear, narrative thrust. However, the result is that many aspects of Qing society that have become a focus of current scholarship, for example, women, minorities, or even cultural production and social change below the level of the emperor are not explored. In effect “China” comes out of this history appearing as a monolithic actor. Unfortunately for Wakeman, the sources that might have counteracted this problem were not available when he was writing.

Wakeman’s second focus is to explore why China did not succeed in becoming capitalist and in modernizing through self-strengthening. For this reason he examines some of China’s newly forming modern industries, but determines that they were merely “sprouts of capitalism.” He also analyzes both the intellectual underpinnings of the self-strengthening movement and how imperial-gentry relations and the breakdown of imperial control became an impediment to effective societal transformation. The reader is left with Wakeman’s own sense of puzzlement or even frustration as to why China’s modernization attempts faced such difficulty.

Thus, Wakeman, greatly hindered by available sources, does leave the impression that in many respects China was static, except when forced to change in reaction to the West. Wakeman’s initial description of the main parts of Chinese society, though extremely innovative at the time, nonetheless discourages an appreciation of individual striving and response to a changing world. Wakeman ends his book by claiming that the inheritor of the new China is the “one heir left intact from the old order,” (the peasant) (255). This unfortunately is a particularly effective means of reinforcing what an unchanging society China remains.

Reviews of the book, (S. A. M. Adshead in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 49, No. 4; James H. Cole, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2; John Schrecker, China Quarterly, No. 70; and Dun J. Li, The American Historical Review, Vol. 81, No. 5) were very positive. They especially appreciated the book’s possibilities as an admirable introductory textbook. Cole notes that Wakeman neglects Japanese scholarship and that the book has uneven and occasionally nonexistent footnoting. However, source problems aside, reviewers at the time recognized Wakeman’s novel approach and appreciated the book as one of the best resources then available.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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