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Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness

March 24, 2010

William T. Rowe. Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Jeremy Brown (2004)

Saving the World is much more than a political biography of the man William T. Rowe calls the “eighteenth-century Qing empire’s most influential Chinese official” (p. 2). Rowe draws upon the extraordinarily rich life and writings of Chen Hongmou (1696-1771) to meld intellectual and social history and illuminate the complex issues that dominated elite thought and practice in the high Qing period. In so doing, the book issues a bold challenge to those who would assert that only Europe held claim to the label “early modern” during the eighteenth century.

Instead of guiding readers through a chronology of Chen Hongmou’s achievements as a leading official who served the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors in over a dozen provinces, Rowe organizes his work topically. The book’s three parts, “Being a Man,” “Creating Prosperity,” and “Ordering the World,” feature chapters about Chen’s views and policies in areas as diverse as famine administration, trade, granary management, and the education of minorities and women. Rowe depicts Chen as the embodiment of three tensions that were particularly salient during the mid-Qing period: the tension between Confucian moralism and administrative pragmatism, between the imperial state and “local societal self management,” and between individual and group (pp. 3-4, 450-455).

Rowe utilizes a broad array of court documents, secondary materials in Chinese, Japanese, and English, and Chen’s own prolific writings to assert that agents of the Qing state exercised a remarkable degree of flexibility and creativity in the face of pressing population problems. Richly detailed discussions of Chen Hongmou’s crucial role in local cases like a Guangxi land reclamation scam and food crises in Jiangxi and Shaanxi represent one of the book’s main strengths.

Because other Western scholars have drawn upon parts of Chen’s writings as primary sources to discuss late imperial law, culture, economics, and women’s history, Rowe’s reading of Chen’s corpus allows him to engage in a number of debates. His fresh takes on issues ranging from the mutable nature of Qing statecraft (jingshi) to Chen’s activism in promoting profit seeking and self-interest as solutions to economic problems are bound to spark controversy. Rowe’s portrayal of Chen Hongmou as a pro-market “protoindividualist” who held nuanced views on gender distinctions flies in the face of previous scholarship by Susan Mann and others who have labeled Chen as a conservative reactionary (p. 323).

While for the most part Rowe is up to the considerable challenge of using Chen’s huge body of writings to reassess the tireless official, Chen was so prolific that he inevitably contradicted himself. Although Rowe cautiously navigates Chen’s inconsistencies to depict how the complicated man reflected a complex era, the author’s conclusions sometimes seem strained, particularly in the area of gender relations. For example, in chapter nine Rowe contends that Chen eschewed rigid hierarchies and “believed in the common humanity of all people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status” (p. 291). Rowe recognizes that many of Chen Hongmou’s writings on the role of women failed to correspond with his basic egalitarianism, but the most damning contradiction – that Chen had four concubines in addition to his first wife – remains unsaid here.

Yet in the end Rowe’s proclivity for bold claims makes Saving the World a stronger work. It is clear that nothing irritates Rowe more than scholars who insist that late imperial China was backward, “non-modern,” or “pre-modern” in comparison with Europe (p. 186). He regularly draws comparisons between European enlightenment trends and the pro-market, humanist strain in China represented by officials like Chen Hongmou. Given the increased intercourse between Europe and Asia during the eighteenth century and comparable trends of population growth and marketization in the two regions, Rowe’s case for a shared “early modernity” is compelling (p. 456).

Reviewers lauded the book as an important contribution to our understanding of eighteenth century China. Lynn Struve notes that although Rowe does not consciously engage the issue of Sinicization versus Manchu identity, the almost total absence of Manchus in the book, plus Rowe’s emphasis on Confucian statecraft, “assures the perpetuation of the debate” (Journal of Asian Studies 62.3: 942-3). Similarly, Jerry Dennerline eagerly awaits further scholarly inquiry on the many challenging issues Rowe raises in his masterfully written work (American Historical Review 108.1: 171).

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