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A Scholarly Continuum: The Impact of Subject, Space, and Time

March 27, 2010

A Scholarly Continuum: The Impact of Subject, Space, and Time on Qing Dynasty History Narratives

Miriam Gross (2003)

One of the key issues that has haunted Western Sinologists is China’s response to the West during the Opium war period (1839-1861). Why did China not respond rapidly and effectively like Japan, especially given that its limited response contributed to the downfall of the empire? While some scholars blamed the unchanging ideological nature of the Confucian state (Wright and to a certain extent Fairbank), others felt that the large number of peripheral distractions made it impossible for the state to respond effectively (Wakeman). More recent scholars have come to the conclusion that the problem may not have been the West at all. For example, Polachek argues that the literati and bureaucracy exploited the coming of the West to achieve their own domestic policy aims. Finally, for Macauley, the West is entirely irrelevant since the crucial problems were structural ones; for example massive population growth unmatched by similar increases in bureaucratic size and efficacy. Despite differences as to ultimate motivation and cause, Wakeman, Fairbank, and Polachek all share the notion that there were empowered individuals, groups, or classes that had a crucial impact on China’s response to the West.

Since this paper is exploring why these scholars chose to concentrate on particular groups, authors such as Macauley will be excluded. Further, while it is clear that the early generation of scholars could not possibly have accessed sources that provide detailed information on local society and decision-making, the problem of sources is mainly not addressed in this paper.

Instead, this paper explores who Wakeman, Fairbank, and Polachek focused on as central decision-makers and how that choice influenced their arguments about China’s response to the West. In addition, because these scholarly decisions mirror developments in the field, they provide a mechanism for examining changing perspectives in Chinese historiography. After exploring how these historians’ division of Chinese society helped determine which groups were deemed most important, the paper will examine how the predominancy of center or periphery, i.e. space, and static or evolving philosophies of response motivated by exogenous or endogenous factors, i.e. time, also helped predetermine their central arguments. Finally, after a summation of historiographic issues, the essay will conclude by indicating future areas of inquiry that might address some of the problematic aspects of these approaches.

Picking the Players: Carving up Chinese Society

Divisions of society by class, party, or individual appear to be one of the crucial means by which these scholars determined the “prime mover” behind the cascade of responses to the West. When Fairbank was examining Chinese society, he discovered that there were basically two classes, which he described as a “literate ruling elite and the politically inert mass of the peasantry,” (pg. 44). Not surprisingly, he did not place agency in the hands of the peasants.

In contrast, Wakeman divided Chinese society into many classes, which included: peasants, lower level or local gentry, upper gentry, and bureaucrats. While Wakeman shows fluctuations over time, in general, he privileges the power of lower level, sometimes non-degree holding, gentry. This surprising choice is explained by showing how gentry in Guangdong mobilized the locals to the point of revolt because the gentry objected to the conciliatory policies of the Qing dynasty toward the invading Westerners. As Wakeman (and his source) puts it, “If the government continued to appease the barbarians at the expense of local patriots, ‘I sincerely fear that we shall be cutting off our own limbs.'” For this reason, no matter what the central government and upper level bureaucracy might have desired, they were forced to alter their policies to match the expectations of the local elites.

Finally, Polachek divides society even further. He focuses not only on the upper level literati and bureaucrats, but on the leading individuals in a specific faction (the Gu Yan-Wu Shrine Association). These literati promulgated a populist, anti-foreign line that objected to the Manchus’ policy of avoiding military confrontation and to their notion of accepting the status quo through the legalization and subsequent taxation of opium. Polachek believes this faction’s approach is influenced by three factors: traditional notions of purity and morality, anti-Manchuism, and personal power aspirations that could be achieved through decentralization and censorial free speech. In this interpretation, the West serves mainly as a pretext that allows those literati who are currently underdogs to gain ascendency. The Gu Yan-Wu Shrine Association, and its predecessor, the Spring Purification Circle, are crucial because the tremendous swing away from Mu-chang-a’s more prudent policies enacted by the new Xian-Feng Emperor, “took place as a consequence of aggressive political maneuvers initiated by the literati themselves, and were not merely a reflection of the new monarch’s instinctive bellicosity in foreign-policy matters…” (pg. 238). The logical conclusion is that the most forceful individuals in a single faction were not only able to determine the directions of Qing policy, but also to place group members in key positions so that their program was fostered on the ground.

Thus Fairbank, Wakeman, and Polachek each divided Chinese society into progressively smaller units. The result was their possible pool of empowered classes and agents increased. Further, they gained greater flexibility in the explanations they discovered and the sorts of stories they could tell.

Positioning the Decision-makers: The Impact of Space on Authorial Narratives

These scholars not only divided up society in divergent ways, they also emphasized different arenas of activity within the Chinese body politic. Once again, the particular locale of their narrative helped to determine the thrust of their arguments.

Interestingly, Fairbank appears to have the least focus on spatiality. His book mainly centers on high level discussions of trade and diplomacy, where he can concentrate on those individuals of the Chinese upper gentry and bureaucracy and the British diplomatic corps that interest him most. Since the actors on the Chinese side are all unified under the direction of the dynasty and thus share a similar perspective, their particular arena of activity is relatively unimportant. Instead, their distinctive characters and relationships with each other take precedence. This tendency is aggravated when Fairbank includes only a limited analysis of local rebellions and almost no descriptions of battles during the Opium war. By excluding the sort of event that would have pinned the narrative to a particular locale, Fairbank’s story, like his main actors, feels as though it floats above the petty, quotidian details that were taking place on the ground.

Wakeman takes the opposite approach: his narrative is almost wholly grounded in the events surrounding the city of Guangzhou. In fact he is the only author who precedes not only his text, but even his title with a detailed map of Guangzhou delta. By the end of the story, readers feel as though they have tramped through every village and over every hill. This type of storytelling is not only an effective authorial device for captivating the reader, it also underlines three of Wakeman’s main points. First, as mentioned above, it gives local power precedence over imperial policy. Second, it emphasizes the tensions between the rural Guangzhou gentry and the urban merchants and bureaucrats who were often viewed by the rural population as traitors for their conciliatory and supportive attitudes towards the foreigners. Finally, by focusing on the unique nature of the region of Guangdong, Wakeman can differentiate between xenophobia and provincial loyalties (or devotion to the “ecumene of Canton,” pg. 56), and nationalism, which requires a “sense of universal application… (and) revolutionary potential” (pg. 58) that the activity around Guangzhou lacked. Thus the spatial specificity of Fairbank’s narrative becomes an essential mechanism for persuading the reader of the validity of his arguments.

Polachek, in an explicit rejoinder to the above perspectives, believes that the political center must be the focus of inquiry. After all, the primary diplomats determining local policy were appointed by the Emperor and reflect his current sentiments about the appropriate reaction to foreign invasion. Thus Polachek’s focus on the center makes his particular choice of actors logical and legitimates designating events that occurred in the periphery, a peripheral concern.

Once again, by moving from a terrain that is spatially undivided to one that gives preeminence to a specific area, scholars have many more choices as to the topic they wish to pursue. In addition, manipulation of the spatial arena provides a deft means to subtly persuade readers of one’s argument’s rationale.

Temporality: The Forces which Usher in Change

All three authors focus on changes that occur over time. However, they differ in whether they believe exogenous or endogenous factors were responsible for propelling narrative events.

Fairbank describes a fairly unified and stable system of upper level Chinese bureaucrats, gentry and British diplomats. Although there were shifts in personnel, differences of opinion, and close or distant relationships between individuals, in general Fairbank believes there is a momentum leading towards the re-creation of a traditional synarchy between Han natives and the newest incoming invaders. This discovery is surprising because it proves that, unlike earlier scholarly portrayals, the Chinese diplomats are actively and successfully negotiating towards a familiar and (relatively) desired aim. The system fails, not because the actors change over time, but because there are exogenous economic forces in Chinese society and among British merchants that topple the self-contained treaty and diplomatic systems.

In contrast, Wakeman discovers that the social class that takes the lead changes over time. In addition, factors motivating the passing of power tend to be both exogenous and endogenous. Originally, the lower-level gentry are empowered in order to retain their loyalty and to gain their fighting prowess and that of the local militias (tuanlian) they control. However, the Emperor and higher level bureaucracy become increasingly concerned about the dangers of giving too much authority to the locals at the expense of the center. As a result power is shifted, first toward the centrally-appointed bureaucrats and then back to the rural elite. However, due to the mass disruptions and executions in the countryside, “the leading county notables were no longer simple sheng-yuan or clan elders. Rural affairs were now being managed by a new generation of specialists, sanctioned and approved by the Emperor himself,” (pg. 150). Thus Wakeman not only discovers that the actors who possess agency change over time, he also argues that social classes, which are the basis of his analysis, are mutable, reconfiguring themselves based on the changing conditions that surround them. Further, both the constantly shifting and often unfathomable actions of Westerners on the outside, and the internal power dynamics between the center and periphery impact on who the decision-makers are at any given time.

Finally, Polachek focuses on a world composed solely of those at the political center. Changes do occur in leadership: from Mu-chang-a’s faction to the Gu Yan-Wu Shrine Association. However, because the presence of the West in negligible and reactions from the Chinese provinces are fairly inconsequential, change appears to be wholly motivated by endogenous factors.

All three scholars describe how shifts in society or within an intellectual community resulted in disparate groups assuming a leading role. However, they give strikingly different weight to exogenous and endogenous factors. One of the results is that in studies such as Fairbank’s, where forces are mainly exogenous and power remains in the hands of a single group, the older image of China as a monolithic or inert entity is reinforced. This is unfortunate since Fairbank is simultaneously so successful at showing the agency of Chinese leadership. Wakeman, and to an even greater extent Polachek, are much more able to show China trying to forge its own destiny. This is because they highlight internal factors and dynamic leadership, rather than reiterating the older paradigm of a dormant China reacting to the West.

New Ways of Dividing the Pie: Alternative Perspectives On China’s Response to the West

Fairbank, Wakeman, and Polachek have presented three divergent visions of China during the Opium war period. They have divided society in different ways, emphasized disparate spatial arenas, and demonstrated exogenous and/or endogenous change over time. Some of their choices can be deciphered by analyzing these scholars’ personal backgrounds and the intellectual and political milieu in which they worked.

Fairbank, a New Englander who was the child of missionaries, learned his Chinese at a missionary-influenced school and translated his initial texts under the linguistic and intellectual guidance of Chinese and Manchu gentleman. His natural appreciation of the interests and accomplishments of rational elites is bolstered by sources from the Chinese government and customs system that share his focus and concerns. In addition, Fairbank’s book was published in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era’s “red scare.” It coulsphere by the passage of time. Further, it accounts for how Fairbank could simultaneously give his gentleman such personal agency, while continuing to portray China as an inert entity.

Wakeman, a liberal who was probably influenced by the some of the concerns of the 1960s and Vietnam War era, like Fairbank, tries to retain a balanced account. He simultaneously seeks to counteract older scholarly notions that China was immobile and reactive, and newer Marxist scholarship that tried to pin the origins of China’s nationalistic rise to the Opium war period. As a result, his social history walks an intellectual tight rope trying to demonstrate the vigor and mutability of Chinese social classes that were propelling the state from the bottom, while carefully attributing a leading role to the gentry, rather than the peasantry. I believe Wakeman is able to accomplish this subtle, but extremely persuasive argument only by his artful delineations of class, spatial, and temporal domains.

Polachek, as part of the next generation of scholars, overtly poses his argument as a response to the shortcomings he perceives in Fairbank and Wakeman. He attacks the notion that China was entirely reactive, which can still be divined in Fairbank’s portrayal of Chinese society, by highlighting endogenous forces, placing agency at the highest levels of the intellectual elite, and pointing out that their particular policy stance was a choice (since the Warring States period and Early Tang provide viable alternatives). At the same time, he moves away from Wakeman’s local, social history to an older-style institutional and intellectual history focused on decision-making at the center. Once again, Polachek aptly uses distinctions in class, space, and time to fashion an especially potent argument.

While I appreciate Fairbank, Wakeman, and Polachek’s arguments, I disagree with some of their conclusions and believe there is room for new ways of exploring this period. For example, I take issue with Wakeman’s complete dismissal of peasants as possible empowered actors. While Wakeman does an excellent job of persuading the reader that the peasants were not motivated by a self-conscious nationalistic impulse, I do feel that they had an important impact on decision-making. I believe that China, like India, had evolved the notion of a community defined by shared cultural norms (Duara, pg. 152). This notion is distinct from an identity that is attached to a nation state. Thus, while I agree that the peasants portrayed by Wakeman acted because they were Guangzhou ren, I also believe that they had some conception of themselves as defending a “Chinese” culture or a way of life that extended beyond their village or their region.

On a more basic level, I question the need each scholar had to identify a single class, group, or faction that at any given time assumed a leading role. It appears likely that multiple groups were simultaneously influencing decision-making and that each group’s actions were based on separate motivations. Thus to pin responsibility on, or to take the perspective of a single group predetermines the scope of one’s inquiry in a problematic way. I believe the most interesting discoveries are to be found in how each group’s responses interacted with each other to create a momentary consensus. Such a consensus will provide insight into societal power dynamics as well as possible solutions to any particular problem presented by the West.

For the same reason, I believe it is problematic to give precedence to the center or to the periphery. Clearly, the Emperor in conjunction with high level cliques had a decisive influence on decision-making and on placement of specific personnel that would support the policy goals of the moment. Yet, once in place, such bureaucrats had tremendous room to maneuver and were frequently able to conceal the imperative local factors that were influencing their decision-making on the ground. Unless one looks at the ideas of the center, the perceptions of the periphery, and the responses of the officials mediating between them, significant parts of the story will be lost.

Finally, I feel the inclusion of both exogenous and endogenous forces are necessary. However, I am concerned by the need to find a single actor, or a series of successive actors that, like a relay race, passed on the torch of agency through time. This implies a linear vision whereby a prime mover initiates an action and then every other actor’s response develops naturally in reaction. I believe there are multiple simultaneous actors whose responses are mutually constitutive making it unlikely that decision-making ever proceeded in a single direction during the same period. Yet this very diversity of opinion probably allowed for responses that were undreamed of in the eyes of any single beholder.

I believe it is crucially important to respond to the new generation of scholars, such as Macauley, that concentrate on structural factors, because such arguments could make the entire previous discussion irrelevant. The problem is that a society which changes primarily due to structural factors implies leadership that lacks both responsibility and agency for existent social concerns. In the end, while it is absolutely necessary to include structural factors, it is dangerous to wholly rely on them since the historian then risks returning to older portrayals of a China incapable of modifying its own fate. Once again, I would argue it is essential to demonstrate that the multiple empowered agents at all levels of society and throughout the entire body politic engaged with the issues at hand: both the exogenous problems brought by the West and the endogenous ones that included structural, as well as other factors. By constructing such a multilinear and multispacial history, the historian has a much better chance at understanding China as a society in motion.


Prasenjit Duara, “Historicizing National Identity, or Who Imagines What and When,” in Becoming National: A Reader, Geoff Eley and Ronald Suny, eds., New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

John King Fairbank, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969 (originally published in 1953).

Melissa Macauley, Social Power & Legal Culture: Litigation Masters in Late Imperial China, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

James M. Polachek, The Inner Opium War, Cambridge, MA: The Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press, 1992.

A. J. Toynbee, A Study of History, London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Frederic Wakeman, Jr., Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966.

Mary Wright, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-Chih Restoration, 1862-1874, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.

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