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Hankow: Conflict and Community in a Chinese City, 1796-1895

January 31, 2010

William T. Rowe. Hankow: Conflict and Community in a Chinese City, 1796-1895. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Christian Hess (2002)

In the second part of his masterful two-volume study of Hankow, William Rowe continues his quest to complicate our understanding of late imperial China’s urban landscape. Meticulously researched, the book examines the social fabric of Hankow, a rapidly growing inland trading metropolis. Rowe takes advantage of the city’s unique position outside the Qing urban administrative hierarchy to further investigate issues of urban life and local governance. The books primary aim is to forge an understanding of how those who lived there developed a distinct, urban sense of community. Rowe challenges generations of previous scholarship that argued that Chinese cities were marked by a lack of communal character (p.10). Rather, he believes that an urban social coherence, indeed a unique urban identity, emerged in Hankow. Rowe finds that new institutions ranging from welfare organizations to local defense efforts were created by and for urbanites in their efforts to alleviate community problems, particularly during the post-Taiping era.

Central to his analysis is social conflict. In comparing Hankow to comparably developed cities of pre-modern Europe, Rowe is struck by the relative lack of large-scale social conflict in Hankow. The answer as to why, he argues, “was the compelling strength of the Chinese urban community” (p.6). Following a wonderfully detailed description of city people, urban space, and neighborhood layouts, the book launches into its two part examination of community building institutions, and a description of how various conflicts arose only to be extinguished by largely local efforts. Rowe illuminates the development of urban elite activism in Hankow as it related to the creation of new, non-governmental institutions like benevolent halls, which fostered community solidarity. Such an institution, he finds, “represented the triumph of local societal initiative in public welfare” (p.127). Indeed, Rowe goes so far as to label such extrabureaucratic action evidence of a rising “public sphere” (p.183-186). Subsequent chapters focus on conflict and its role in the development of such institutions. Heavily influenced by Georg Simmel’s definitions of community, Rowe’s strategy is to show the ways in which community conflict reinforced a communal definition. He finds this true in conflicts against the government in the case of the dragon boat festival, and against “outsiders” in cases of rebellion.

There are interesting parallels here with rural society. Rural communities often experienced a heightened sense of “us versus them” when outside threats arose. Moreover it was often the elite which organized action. What is unique to Hankow and likely other cities, Rowe clearly shows, is the rise of new urban institutions like benevolent halls and an early form of a professional police force, staffed by locals for local protection. Yet the book has problems. To be sure, uncovering the formation of sentiments of urban community from late Qing sources is extremely difficult. Leaving behind the elite-founded institutions he focuses on for a moment, the reader is left with a puzzling picture of cellular neighborhoods and a community divided by native place and occupational distinctions. Chapter Five, for example, opens with a series of cases of violence that reflected such fissures. The dragon boat races represented conflict along these lines, and the link remains blurry as to the mechanics of Rowe’s conclusion that “intergroup contention in Hankow was itself a key form of social integration” (p.206). What is apparent is that Hankow elites, through new institutions, developed new claims to power somewhat free from the state. The degree to which the majority of Hankow’s population saw this as exemplary of a new sense of community needs further elaboration.

Despite minor shortcomings the study remains a watershed for the study of late Qing cities. In terms of the details covered, sources marshaled, and issues tackled, the book presents a formidable raising of the bar for future urban historians to follow. In their respective reviews of the book, Linda Cook Johnson and Keith Schoppa have nothing but praise to offer. Both are extremely excited by Rowe’s comparisons with Europe and the future possibilities such an approach might offer (Pacific Affairs 63.3:387-388, The American Historical Review 96.1:230-231, respectively). With hindsight, this proved to be a dangerous path to follow, as the subsequent “public sphere” debates in the China field demonstrated. Nevertheless the study successfully frees future urban historians from the trappings of previous theoretical shortcomings dealing with urban development in China.

© Copyright 2002. All Rights Reserved.

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