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From Royalist to Localist

March 28, 2010

From Royalist to Localist: Shifting Scholarship on Local Gentry of Late Qing

Jiangsui He (2004)

Although it originated in western European history, the term “gentry” has been often used in the studies of traditional China, namely China before the 1911 Revolution. Scholars use this term, gentry (shenshi or shishen), to refer to a specific group of persons “with a definite position and definite functions in the traditional China” (Fei, 1953: 17). Since the mid-nineteenth century, China experienced domestic rebellions and foreign encroachment at the same time, which led to the decay of Chinese traditional society. The role of the gentry during this dramatic period attracted great attention from generations of scholars. Scholars from different social and academic milieus share concerns on these questions: Who were the gentry? As the intermediate layer between state and the common people, what were their relations with the government, at both the central and the local level? What were their relations with the common people? Especially, in late Qing, a period when dramatic and essential changes of traditional China were fostered, what kind of changes did the gentry experience?

Mary Wright’s book, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-Chih Restoration, 1862-1874 (1957), Frederic Wakeman’s book, Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861 (1966), and Bradly Reed’s Talons and Teeth: County Clerks and Runners in the Qing Dynasty (2000) all shed light on the social and political roles the gentry played in late Qing, but they provide different answers to the questions above. This paper will focus on their dissimilar portraits of the gentry, especially local and grassroot gentry, to explore their divergent views on the changes taking place in late Qing and the state-society relations at that time. Based on the divergences among these three authors from different generations, we will be able to trace not only the shifting scholarship on late Qing, but also the shifting intellectual trends in Chinese studies as a whole.

The Loyalists of Confucianism in a Homogenous China

As one of the pioneers in Chinese studies, Mary Wright originally derived the major theses of The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism from years of researching in Qing central archives on the personal writings of Chinese officials, and documents from British government and other foreign agencies in China at that time. Consequently, in her picture of governmental activities during the Tongzhi restoration period, the high officials, as leading reformers, dominate the stage. Yet according to Wright, local gentry are also indispensable actors in the efforts to save Qing from collapse.

The term “gentry” were always defined as degree-holders in the early studies. Wright notices Maurice Freedman’s criticism on the strict definition of the gentry as degree-holders, and she brings out a simple working definition of gentry: she uses this term to “denote the whole social class which, from the ownership of land, derived the leisure to become educated and thus eligible for public office” (127n). Therefore, although Wright depicts the gentry as “an open class with multiple determinants of membership,” in fact, she still emphasizes that gentry were the reserve pool for the government (127n).

In Wright’s view, the local grassroot gentry working with the people and the local government were in a pivotal position in the political structure of Qing: “the gentry had been instrumental to the government because of their influence over the people and to the people because of their influence with the government” (127). Wright does not say much on how the people relied on the gentry, but she reveals that a magistrate always maintained control by using the local gentry as a bridge between himself and the vast mass of the population within his jurisdiction. Without support of the gentry, the local official could not fulfill his duties.

To gain the support from the gentry, the state guaranteed them legal and economic privileges. However, Wright argues that the cooperation between the state and the gentry was firstly based on “the universal acceptance of Confucian ideology” (126). According to Wright, because of the gentry’s faith in Confucianism, and because the Confucian system of the empire was in fact a “complete system of the interests, the aspirations the ideas” of the gentry, the gentry became apologetics for the Qing empire in crisis (129). The years of rebellion in the 1850-60s modified the gentry’s sense of duty toward the state. But the rebels, including Taiping rebels, failed to offer the gentry any viable alternative to the Confucian system. Therefore, the central government soon recovered its hegemony at grassroot level by reasserting Confucianism. The gentry put their local interests away, and tried to help the government re-establish local control after the rebellions.

In Wright’s account, Confucianism was not only the vital link between the local gentry and the state, but also the leading theme in the interactions between the gentry and their local communities. Wright argues that within the Confucian system, the gentry accepted their role not only with its privileges but also with its responsibilities. Therefore, in the Restoration period, the gentry were very conscientious in carrying out their social obligations in fields such as education and community services. The record of the gentry’s activities in public affairs is “quite remarkable” (128). The gentry’s leadership in these activities and their connections with the government gained them considerable influence over the peasantry. Based on this point, Wright believes that, in the mid-nineteenth century, the local communities were still stably governed by the local gentry without in any way undermining the central authority.

Although Wright portrays the gentry as a class standing between the state and the people, in fact, she inclines to position the gentry as agents of the state who helped the state control and govern the people. At this point, Wright argues that the loyalty of the gentry was “essential to the state” (127). In Wright’s account, this specific social class was supporters of the state. Due to the education background of the gentry, they were subject to constant Confucian indoctrination. Actually, the gentry were portrayed as staunch believers of Confucianism by Wright. As long as the state was built on the Confucian system, the gentry would support the central government. It is obvious that Wright believes that it is Confucianism that bound China into a homogenous country.

Wright’s viewpoints reflect the academic tendency among the first generation of Western historians. As an associate of John King Fairbank, Wright accepts that the changes China experienced since the advent of the west in the mid-nineteenth century were Chinese response to the Western impact. Therefore, while Wright regards China as a subject of foreign impact, it is understandable that she postulates China as a whole fused by Confucianism. Moreover, partly due to the influence of structuralism, scholars in Wright’s generation tend to emphasize the absolute control from the imperial state over the society. Therefore, Wright portrays the gentry mainly as help hands of the state, although she notices the intermediate position of the gentry between the state and the people. Wright’s sources force her to carry on her studies by the top-down approach, which prevents her from exploring the agency of local communities. Later area studies show the deficiency of Wright, and challenge her accounts of the role of gentry in late Qing.

The Indispensable but Ambitious Agents of the State in Crisis

Although a scholar in the next generation after Wright, Wakeman focuses on an earlier period than Wright’s Restoration. In Strangers at the Gate, Wakeman situates his study of late Qing in the turbulent South China, especially in the city of Canton in 1839-1861. At that time, the region was under the threats of both the Britain occupation and numerous domestic rebellions. The traditional system was in danger and the society in disorder.

Wakeman shares with Wright the open definition of the gentry. He also emphasizes that holding official rank is not the crucial criteria to be a member of the gentry. Wakeman puts forward some clearer criteria than Wright to define gentry. He believes that the privilege of this “local class of prestigious notables” can come from either economic or political factors (29n).

Similar to Wright, Wakeman also points out that the gentry were indispensable agents of central control in a vast agrarian empire ruled by a thin layer of appointed officials. However, in Wakeman’s view, the gentry were not mere agents of the state. In contrast with Wright, Wakeman is conscious of the different interests of the state and the local gentry. Instead of assuming the gentry and the state as fused together by Confucian values, Wakeman depicts these two as rivals in power. While Wright believes that the gentry played their ideal Confucian role and did not try to control political power in their own interests, Wakeman argues the gentry “constantly tended to appropriate local power” (31). Wakeman also points out that since the middle of the 1800s the “fair consistent balance” between the central government and the local gentry had been broken (34).

Wakeman shows that the social disorder in the1840-60s Canton empowered the local gentry. When the regular defense system failed to beat away the strong foreign armies and rebels after the Opium War, the Qing government had to approve the gentry control of local militia (tuanlian). The establishment of tuanlian eventually shifted the local balance of power in favor of the gentry for the first time. The recruitment of militia during the Taiping years placed new judicial and fiscal power in the hands of the local gentry. Moreover, after the rebels were repressed, Wakeman notices that it was difficult to get the local notables to give up the power in their hands, especially since the government was too weak to take it back at that time.

Wakeman is aware of the ideological nexus between the state and the gentry. He knows that the gentry “embodied and diffused the social beliefs that had held the civilization together so long and so successfully” (30). But while Wright believes that the gentry could not ask more than Confucian social system, Wakeman displays the tension under the surface of cooperation. In fact, Wakeman portrays the gentry as a potential rival of the state, although these privileged people assisted the government in local governance. In Wakeman’s view, gentry power and bureaucratic power balanced on “a perpetual seesaw”: if one went up, the other went down (31).

As to the gentry’s role in public affairs in local communities, Wakeman insightfully points out that the establishment of local militia not only resulted in the expansion of gentry power over both the state and the peasants, but also alienated the gentry from their local people. On the one hand, since peasants were officially asked to enroll in the gentry-led local militia, and to pay defense assessments to the gentry bureaus, the local gentry unquestionably enjoyed more power in the communities. On the other hand, in the multiple-lineage militia, all potential horizontal ties between the gentry and tenants of one clan and those of another were suddenly established or strengthened. The class interests, which were mollified by the vertical ties of kinship, were awakened. Moreover, Wakeman points out that without official local power to counterbalance the control of the gentry, there was no need for the local gentry to protect the peasantry. Therefore, in late Qing, “the gentry, bereft of degrees and functions, had become parasitic” (156).

Different from Wright who portrays the gentry as the loyal believers of Confucianism, Wakeman provides a more complex portrait. On one hand, the gentry were the necessary agents of the state in local administration. On the other hand, the gentry were also rivals of the state power. Through assisting the state to defend foreign invaders and domestic rebels, the gentry gained more power over the state and society. They were not Confucian sages loyal to the emperor and taking care of their communities selflessly, but actors with their own interests. Here, Wakeman benefits from the sources he uses in his research. Instead of limiting on the national documents as Wright did, Wakeman had access to the local archives of Canton city. The local archives provide more autonomous pictures of local affairs. Therefore, Wakeman is able to bring agency back to the local gentry. Through challenging the assumption of a homogenous China in Wright’s research, Wakeman shows that Chinese society was not a simple dependent of the absolute state in late Qing. The sources Wakeman uses help him open a new window into Chinese studies. However, the limited quantity of the data also restricts his focus on the gentry, which dominated the stage in the 1840-60s Canton in Wakeman’s research. The access to more and more newly-released data facilitates later scholars to restore the gentry in the complex local society.

The Localist in Cooperation and Competition with the Local Government

Reed is one of the new scholars who benefit from the newly accessible data. Based on Ba county archive, “the largest and most comprehensive Qing local government archive known to exist in China” (xiv), in Talons and Teeth, Reed focuses on the role of the clerks and runners in local governments in Guangxu reign (1875-1908). Local gentry were an indispensable actor in his discussion. The open definition of the gentry since Wright is accepted by Reed. Reed further points out that the gentry’s status stemmed from “their relative access to economic, cultural, and interpersonal resources” (228). In his research, following Wakeman’s concern on the self-interests of the gentry, Reed treats local gentry as an independent actor in daily local administrative practices, and situates them in a unique position in the triangular relationship with local magistrates and the yamen staff.

Reed agrees with Wright and Wakeman that without the cooperation of the local gentry, a magistrate had little hope of effectively administering the people within his jurisdiction. The local gentry were referred to as “ears and eyes” of the local magistrate (260). Moreover, Reed shows that in the local administrative practices, the gentry also established cooperation with the clerks and runners who were in fact in direct interaction with local communities. For example, Reed finds that it is common for the local gentry to go to yamen to discuss matters of divisional policy directly with yamen staff.

Similar to Wakeman, while pointing out that the cooperative attitude of local gentry was based on their self interests, Reed reveals that the gentry’s self interests created tensions in their cooperation with local governments, and eventually undermined the cooperation. For example, when the yamen staff came to the village and invaded the gentry’s dominance in villages, the gentry denounced the yamen staff as “the imminent threat to the community’s well-being,” while portraying themselves as “the guardians of local interests” (235). This strategy not only maintained but also extended the gentry’s authority over local affairs in late Qing.

Moreover, Reed shows that the gentry were not only actors with self-interests, but also leaders in the active although weak society. Reed shows that the local gentry took every chance to extend their influences in local administration in late Qing. Due to the fiscal inadequacies of county governments in late Qing, the collection of legal case fees was essential in local administrative operations. The local gentry sought some sort of limits on the types and amounts of such fees. The most significant of the gentry’s efforts was to establish Three Fees Bureaus (sanfei ju), a gentry-led quasi-independent bureau. The bureau was founded with the sole purpose of providing an independent source of revenue. But through controlling the source and monitoring the amount of the case fees, the bureau provided local gentry with a vehicle for greater involvement in the county government. Later, such involvement reached out in other areas of local administration, until it fleshed out into an essentially autonomous administrative organ at the end of the nineteenth century.

In portraying the gentry’s relationship with their local communities, Reed focuses on two status-bearing roles commonly assumed by local gentry: defenders of community interests and mediators in community disputes. In their efforts to drive the yamen runners out of their domains, the local gentry placed themselves in the position of “benevolent protectors of a local populace” who were fighting against the corruptive yamen (234). The situation was similar when the local gentry tried to limit the litigation in yamen by reasserting their own mediation. In Reed’s view, to the gentry, their relations with local communities were firstly used as a discourse weapon to protect their hegemony, instead of making real contributions toward the local residents.

Reed’s portrait of local gentry is very similar to Wakeman’s. The local gentry were not the loyal flunkies of the state. Instead, they played as mediators between the state and the common people, which firstly served their own interests. The local gentry undermined the state’s control over local communities, while aiding local magistrates in daily administration. They endeavored to extend their authority over local communities, while caring for the welfare of local people. However, different from Wakeman, in Reed’s research, the gentry is not the only intermediary between state and society. Through emphasizing the role of the yamen clerks and runners, Reed locates the gentry in more complicated power relations, in which the gentry were neither the dominant actors nor the only privileged one.

The Shifting Scholarship

Wright, Wakeman, and Reed all portray the gentry as an important political and social actor in late Qing. However, their portraits of this social class are different. Wright believes that the gentry were loyal believers of Confucianism, and therefore definite supporters of the state, while Wakeman and Reed show that the gentry undermined the state power for their own interests and their cooperation with the state was due to the same reason. Importantly, in Reed’s research, the gentry were depicted as actors in a competition with the state and other local agents of the state.

These authors from three generations are representatives of the scholars in their respective generation. Their arguments also reflect the social and academic milieus of their generations. The first generation focuses on the Western impact on China in late Qing, and they naturally assumed a homogenous integral China, characteristic of Confucianism. Therefore, Wright portrays the gentry as loyal believers of Confucianism. The first generation believe that local communities were “entirely controlled by the imperial state” (Duara, 1988: 38) partly because they are only able to access the national documents. The area studies based on some limited local archives help the second generation bring agency back to China and Chinese society. They believe that before the advent of the West, internal changes had begun, and these change are always a topic of late Qing. Therefore, in Wakeman’s research, the gentry were situated in the power struggles with the state, and became actors with their own interests. While opposing the first generation’s assumption of the absolute control of the state over the society, the second generation accepts the gentry’s absolute control over local communities. This deficiency has been overcome by the third generation of scholars such as like Reed. By aid of more available local data, the new scholarship emphasizes Chinese logic in late Qing, and is also able to situate local gentry in more complex interactions. When the gentry were not only actors in discussing state-society relations, it is possible for us to approach ordinary people further.


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

Fei, Xiaotong, China’s Gentry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.

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

Wright, Mary, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-Chi Restoration, 1862-1874. New York: Atheneum, 1957.

Reed, Bradly, Talon and Teeth: County Runner in the Qing Dynasty. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

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