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Where Do They Not Govern?

April 8, 2010

Where Do They Not Govern?: Women Writers, Yamen Staff, and Litigation Masters in New Qing Historiography

Dahpon D. Ho (2003)

The writing of history, as Marc Bloch eloquently put it, is hardly a formulaic mechanical art like watchmaking. Rather, “it is an endeavor toward better understanding and, consequently, a thing in movement” (Bloch 1992, 10-11). Qing studies are also in a state of constant renewal. New scholarship and unprecedented access to archival sources have opened up amazing new windows on eighteenth and nineteenth century China. Elite women, litigation masters, and yamen clerks and runners – groups that have suffered from scholarly neglect in previous treatments of Qing history – have been brought to the fore in recent years and shown to have had powerful agency far beyond anyone’s expectations. One is left with a radically revised portrait of late imperial society. Upon reading Bradly Reed’s recent monograph on yamen clerks and runners (Reed 2000), Professor Paul Pickowicz was struck with the realization that in local government, “these people ran China.” Why have these important actors remained unstudied for so long?

In light of the groundbreaking works of recent years, it would be easy to criticize earlier scholarship for negligence. Indeed, it is possible that the intense focus on women, yamen staff and litigators is precisely a reaction against the ignorance of preceding generations of historiography regarding these key groups. Such a view, however, is too simplistic and fails to give credit to foundational works like those of Frederic Wakeman, who had begun stressing the importance of local history and endogenous social change as early as the 1960s (Wakeman 1966). Though their foci and conclusions vary widely, all the authors discussed in this essay devoted themselves to an understanding of the endogenous social changes that shaped Qing society before the arrival of Western imperialism. Wakeman’s early preoccupation with isolating the inner sources of social change (Wakeman 1975, 2) and the question of who really ran Chinese society may in fact lie at the beginning of a continuum with the queries of newer generations of scholars.

This is not to say that Wakeman’s China-centered approach was the origin point for all of the recent advances in gender and legal history. Far from it – the new works of Melissa Macauley, Susan Mann, and Bradly Reed chart very different courses from older works like Wakeman’s The Fall of Imperial China and Strangers at the Gate. The important issue is why these pivotal subjects remained unexplored for so long. Are the questions being asked nowadays so different from those that were asked in the 1970s? Have the new works rendered old scholarship obsolete? How well did Wakeman’s work anticipate these new directions in the field? Such questions ask us to think about just how far the field of Qing studies has come. A brief essay of this sort cannot claim comprehensive comparison, but if it can open a dialogue between the old and new scholarship, its purpose will be achieved.

A Matter of Sources?

Historians of China have benefited immensely from the opening of archival sources over the past few decades. Studies like Melissa Macauley’s Social Power and Legal Culture and Bradly Reed’s Talons and Teeth are part of a new series on “Law, Society and Culture in China” that has been made possible by the opening of legal case records. Reed prefaces his work with remarks on just how frustrating it was for earlier generations of historians to work with a Qing historical record that was “so abundantly rich at the central level and yet so very nearly barren at the level of country government” (Reed 2000, xiv). Before the mid-1980s this deficiency was especially clear because the only country-level archives accessible to Western scholars were those of Taiwan’s Danshui and Danxin counties. In other words, up until the past ten years studies of Qing local administration were largely limited to descriptions of formal structure and official policy. Quotidian practice of the sort described by Reed (yamen runners and clerks) and Macauley (plaint-writing litigation masters) would have been all but invisible to scholars like Wakeman working in the 1960s and 1970s.

The biases of official and elite documentation have also left us with distorted portraits. Macauley is wary of relying on elite materials that reflect the official rhetoric of vilification and fulmination against the litigators, or “loafing pettifoggers” as they were called (Macauley 1998, 1, 17); Reed also strives to go beyond the official recriminations of local clerks and runners as the “most cunning and venal of scoundrels” (Reed 2000, 1). The fact that Frederic Wakeman’s Fall of Imperial China reflects just such a dismissive view speaks to the disadvantage of a reliance on imperial documents and official compilations. Beyond a reference to the Qing government’s attempt to counter “pettifoggery” and keep the “rapacious and ravenous” yamen staff in check, scant else is said about these key local actors in Wakeman’s analysis of imperial society (Wakeman 1975, 30-32). Without recourse to a rich local archive like that of Ba County, Wakeman could not have reached the same conclusions about the self-policing nature of yamen staff as Reed. The importance of unprecedented and exciting new source openings should not be underestimated.

Neither should it be overestimated. Sources alone do not define the practice of good historiography. We might well remember Bloch’s admonition that all sources, whether fragmentary puzzles or clear texts, “will speak only when they are properly questioned” (Bloch 1992, 53). Historical research is founded on conscious inquiry, not mere passive observation. Thus, if we wish to inquire as to why older generations of scholarship focused on particular issues while neglecting others, we cannot see the answer as only a matter of sources. For instance, Wakeman’s Fall of Imperial China says nothing about women or gender issues in late imperial China, but this cannot be attributed to lack of archival access. In her new book Precious Records, Susan Mann makes a pointed note of the fact that all of her cited evidence comes from published – not archival – Chinese sources which were widely available in the High Qing era. Source-based excuses for ignoring Chinese women writers cannot comfortably be used by historians, according to Mann. “Although we will always need more and better sources, we cannot ignore the new ways to read the rich sources we already have” (Mann 1997, 224). What really shape the character of any generation of scholarship, then, are the issues with which it is preoccupied. Have the essential questions that historians ask about the Qing dynasty shifted in tandem with the opening of new sources?

The Questions Asked

Frederic Wakeman’s two books Strangers at the Gate (1966) and The Fall of Imperial China (1975) were groundbreaking works at their times of publication. Wakeman opens Strangers at the Gate with a provocative call for “a different kind of study: let us engage in local history” (Wakeman 1966, 7). Wakeman’s emphasis on local history is important because it presented an early challenge to the existing view of China as monolithic, static and passively reacting to changes brought on by the arrival of the West. “Was China essentially inert before the Opium War began in 1839?” Wakeman asks provocatively (Wakeman 1975, 1). Throughout Fall of Imperial China, Wakeman is keen on showing a dynamic, changing China that developed its own adaptive mechanisms to internal crises before the heyday of Western imperialism. Wakeman’s pioneering efforts to focus on endogenous social change, which built on his mentor John King Fairbank’s China-centered approach to history, seem to resonate quite well with the newer works by Mann, Reed and Macauley.

However, I would argue that there is a difference between Wakeman’s “endogenous change” approach and Mann, Reed and Macauley’s approaches to studying China. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s, Wakeman was consciously responding to older generations of scholarship that had been dominated by the question of China’s response to the West. In trying to overturn the “Western impact, Chinese response” framework and show instead a dynamic China that would have developed according to its own social forces, Wakeman allowed his questions and answers to be driven by teleological concerns about China’s path of development. A primary example of this is his attempt to explain why China did not successfully modernize or develop its commerce beyond “sprouts of capitalism” (Wakeman 1975, 40). Of particular concern to him in this narrative is the accretion of power in the hands of the gentry and the resulting breakdown of the state’s control and ability to deal with the Western challenge. Women, low-level yamen staff, and litigators are presumably left out of the equation because they do not, in his view, weigh in on the central question of “gentry power versus bureaucratic power” (Wakeman 1966, 31) or the tumultuous changes that marked the “final evolution, and extinction, of the Chinese gentry” (Wakeman 1975, 254).

The persistent issue of the Chinese response to Western forces thus looms in the shadows and influences the questions Wakeman asks about the top decision-makers and the gentry. John King Fairbank’s remark about how historical problems condition scholarly inquiries is applicable here: “The rule seems to be, if you want to study the mid-period of a century, begin at the end of it and let problems lead you back” (Fairbank 1969, ix). Indeed, for a general survey of the 19th century, especially one dealing with the “fall of imperial China,” an understanding of the interaction between dynastic decline and Western invasion seems almost de rigueur. Wakeman’s explicit attempt to deny the primacy of exogenous change is a noble effort that still cannot escape this coloration.

In contrast, the new works by Mann, Reed and Macauley reflect an implicit confidence in China’s distinctiveness and internal social dynamism. It is telling that none of them feels compelled to ask, as Wakeman does, this forceful question: “Were there then no endogenous transformations in China before the mid-nineteenth century?” (Wakeman 1975, 1). Far from laboring to overturn the shadow of “China’s response to the West,” Mann, Reed and Macauley represent a new generation of scholars who are secure in their purpose of understanding the dynamics of China itself. Banished are the shibboleths of China’s declining society and inevitable failure to modernize in the face of Western encroachment. Mann’s primary concern is to examine women’s writings on their own terms and to recapture a sense of “women’s own subjectivity” in the High Qing (Mann 1997, 3); the motivation of Reed and Macauley is to see beyond official Qing policy (or rhetoric) and depict the actual practice of local judicial administration. Reed, for one, feels no compunction about omitting momentous historical problems like Western imperialist incursions, the Tongzhi Restoration, or the New Policy Reforms from his discussion for the simple reason that from the perspective of local yamen staff, such events were “largely irrelevant to the way things worked” (Reed 2000, xviii).

The questions guiding the scholarship of Mann, Reed and Macauley clearly differ from those that dominated Wakeman’s inquiries in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the break between the old and new scholarship may not be as stark as it seems. Wakeman’s efforts to wrest scholarship of late imperial China away from exogenous forces contributed greatly to the development of a China-centered approach in Qing studies. Let us conclude with a discussion of how well Wakeman’s work anticipated the new developments in the field.

Voices Old and New

On the surface, it seems that Wakeman’s treatment of late imperial Chinese history neglects the pivotal social groups brought to light by Reed, Macauley and Mann. It can well be argued that Wakeman’s focus on the gentry overshadows all other groups in his analysis. However, I find that Wakeman’s division of the gentry class into upper bureaucratic gentry and the lower gentry (sheng-yuan) does resonate with the portrait of Qing legal culture that we obtain from Reed and Macauley. Since Wakeman uses the term “lower gentry” or “sheng-yuan” to include all lower-degree holders (Wakeman 1975, 36), it seems that many of the so-called “litigation masters” described by Macauley would fit under this category. In Wakeman’s analysis, the lower gentry relied on influence peddling and abuse of “informal offices” as a source of income – “legal mediation turned into pettifoggery” (Wakeman 1975, 32). Wakeman’s characterization of lower gentry as people who peddled their literacy and meddled in yamen affairs has much in common with Macauley’s treatment of the growing “lumpen literati identity” of those who made a living from plaint-writing (Macauley 1998, 56). That Macauley was once Wakeman’s student at the University of California, Berkeley should not come as too much of a surprise. Macauley’s research is definitely more nuanced with regard to who the litigation masters were and what they did, but to say that Wakeman deals only with the “gentry” and ignores the litigation masters entirely would be a gross simplification.

Reed’s research illustrates that yamen clerks and runners were neither as desperately poor nor as opportunistically venal as official Qing stereotypes claimed. In fact, many of the clerks hailed from lower-scholar and small merchant background. Wakeman’s insightful breakdown of the “gentry” class into upper and lower segments can be brought to bear on this issue as well. A large proportion of the yamen clerks may have hailed from the socio-economic class that Wakeman called lower gentry. These “illicit bureaucrats” (Reed 2000, 249) are shown by Reed to have been in both competition and cooperation with the magistrate and the local gentry. Reed presents us with a delicate relationship at the local level that goes beyond the traditional conception that the yamen staff and the gentry were implacably opposed to each other’s interests. This new scholarship surely makes a great contribution that goes beyond Wakeman’s framework of local administration.

However, had Wakeman had access to local government archives, he might well have come to similar understandings about the local power dynamics. The fact that Wakeman was deeply interested in the internal diversity of the gentry suggests that he might have linked the two groups – yamen staff and litigation masters – together based on similarities of socio-economic class. Had Talons and Teeth and Social Power and Legal Culture been available in the 1970s, Wakeman might have drawn links between the findings of Macauley and Reed to study sub-statutory administration in the Qing dynasty. In his introduction to Conflict and Control in Late Imperial China, Wakeman speaks precisely of the importance of local analysis. “Beneath the centrally ordered pattern of local administration there existed another China: out of control, disorderly, unruly” (Wakeman 1976, 3). The role of the local gentry is one area in which Wakeman was asking very incisive questions, but lacked the source base to go further than he did in Fall of Imperial China.

Regrettably, the same cannot be said for gender issues. Here we must acknowledge a neglect that is due largely to Wakeman’s emphasis on state-building and local power in Fall of Imperial China and Strangers at the Gate. Because his concerns in these two books are colored by the political and economic quandaries of China’s response to the West, women do not appear in his discussion. Nor does Wakeman’s work anticipate the new breakthroughs in the field of Chinese gender studies. Susan Mann, whose scholarship draws inspiration from the groundbreaking works of Patricia Ebrey and Dorothy Ko, is critical of Wakeman and other scholars for labeling the Qing as a time of “Neo-Confucian puritanism” and oppression of women (Mann 1997, 225). State-building does not play a key role in Mann’s monograph; the West hardly appears at all. Mann’s insistence that we cannot understand eighteenth-century Chinese life without placing women at the center of historical analysis is provocative and seems to be a radical break with Wakeman’s work.

Nevertheless, there are continuities between new scholarship like Mann’s and Wakeman’s early efforts three decades ago. One of Mann’s primary concerns, like that of Wakeman in the 1970s, is combating the spurious notion that late imperial China was a static entity “as Hegel imagined it: a civilization without a history, a society where nothing changed until the advent of Western ideas” (Mann 1997, 8). Although Wakeman’s work did not predict all of the new trends in the field, it is not unreasonable to say that it set the emphasis on endogenous change that helped make possible much of the new historical thinking on Chinese society.

“What place would you say that women do not govern?” Mann quotes the Qing woman writer Jiang Lan (Mann 1997, 204). The same must be asked of litigation masters and yamen clerks and runners, who are revealed to us by Macauley and Reed as such powerful local actors that Qing administration cannot be understood without them. The three new works of Qing historiography discussed in this essay open up such important new vistas that any new social history on late imperial China would be ill advised to ignore them. Does this mean, then, that students ought to jettison any old scholarship that fails to mention these groups? Absolutely not. The craft of history is one that instructs us in the “nearly infinite number of lines of force which all converge together upon the same phenomenon” (Bloch 1992, 159). To study the historiography of China is to understand not only Chinese history itself but also the fountainhead from which it is unceasingly being written and rewritten. In this sense Wakeman’s works from thirty years prior can speak as clearly to us as the new scholarship of Mann, Macauley and Reed. Only by placing them alongside one another can we begin to see how far the field has come, and how far it has left to go.


Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft [translated from the French by Peter Putnam]. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992 [1954].

Fairbank, John King. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969 [1953].

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

Mann, Susan. Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Reed, Bradly W. Talons and Teeth: Country Clerks and Runners in the Qing Dynasty. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

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

_______. The Fall of Imperial China. New York: The Free Press, 1975.

Wakeman, Frederic and Carolyn Grant, eds. Conflict and Control in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

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