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Culture, Power, and the State

January 31, 2010

Prasenjit Duara. Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Jeremy Brown (2002)

In this ambitious work, Duara utilizes South Manchuria Railway Company (Mantetsu) data on six villages to examine increased state involvement in local affairs in early twentieth century North China. In so doing, the author questions previous models of state-society relations and introduces new conceptual terms that attempt to “mediate between the universality of our ideas and the specificities of the culture being studied” (p. 262).

Building upon and partially discarding Skinner’s marketplace and Huang’s village-centered explanations of rural Chinese society, Duara argues that authority and legitimacy emanated from a “cultural nexus of power,” or a complex web of lineage and religious ties. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, the state was but one symbolic player in the nexus. After 1900, when the Qing, warlord, Republican and Japanese regimes attempted to deepen fiscal control over the countryside, this traditional nexus was forever altered. In a process Duara terms “state involution,” the state’s fiscal and functional growth in the early twentieth century gave rise to an informal, inefficient and uncontrollable “entrepreneurial brokerage” structure of tax collectors, clerks, middlemen and bullies.

Onerous new tax surcharges, such as the tankuan, forced patron-style village elites to choose between squeezing indigent villagers for funds, bankrupting themselves to pay the tax, or simply quitting and leaving town. Many did leave, and Duara posits that this dearth of good local leadership delegitimized state authority and gave rise to a potentially revolutionary situation in the 1940s.

Duara’s bold claims and his injection of new terminology provide much for students of modern Chinese history to ponder and debate, but at times get in the way of a richly nuanced portrait of how the state-building project altered the lives of people in rural China. For example, in his explanation of state involution, the author advises readers to “pay more attention to the phenomenon than the term” (p. 76), which leads one to wonder why he bothered using the unwieldy term in the first place!

To this reader, the strength of the book lies not in its conceptual terms but in its detailed discussion of how kinship, religion, and patronage in the six villages of the study affected power in remarkably different ways. In certain villages, lineage ties determined who wielded authority, while in others the structure of religious worship was replicated in the village’s power structure. To be sure, Duara carefully notes that many factors came into play in each village, but if six villages in Hebei and Shandong differed so greatly among themselves, one can only imagine what Duara’s cultural nexus looked like in other parts of China. All the same, his contention that lineage played a significant role in some North China villages successfully challenges the notion that kinship networks were only important in the southern part of China.

Reviewers all deemed the book important for its complexity and willingness to grapple with difficult issues, but opinions differed widely as to the utility of Duara’s conceptual terms. One reviewer predicted that the concepts “are certain to acquire wide currency in the field” (Esherick, Journal of Asian Studies, 48.3: 587-588), while others complained that the cultural nexus of power is “terribly elusive” and “not a theory” (Eastman, Modern China, 16.2: 226-234; Sutton, Journal of Social History, 23.4: 851-853, respectively). In his long review, Lloyd Eastman criticized Duara’s claim that state building continued throughout the warlord period as “utterly ahistorical” (p. 232). Another reviewer noted that because all six villages of the study are near railroads, they cannot fairly represent “rural North China,” and also lamented Duara’s excessive focus on state extraction, rather than on institution building (Pomeranz, Agricultural History, 63.3: 108-110). The debates sparked by Power, Culture, and the State only ratify its significance in the field; that the book won both the John K. Fairbank Prize of the American Historical Association and the Joseph Levenson Prize of the Association for Asian Studies confirms the value of Duara’s complex study.

© Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.

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