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Beyond State and Society

May 1, 2010

Beyond State and Society: In Whom Does China Trust?

Ellen Huang (2003)

In seeking to understand Chinese history, scholars such as Joan Judge and Mary Rankin have chosen to focus on the nature of the Chinese “state” or “society.” Indeed, the theme of state-society relations has been especially prominent among Western scholars in their attempt to adopt a “China-centered” historiographic approach. Rejecting the “response to the West” paradigm, which posited an unchanging, stagnant China prior to the influence of the West, historians of China found “long-term structural processes more intellectually interesting than the short-term effects of foreign [West] contact” (Kuhn, 1991:2, quoted in Wakeman, 1993). Yet, regardless of whether a study pivoted on endogenous change in China or Western impact, the underlying assumption behind all such studies was that, with the Communist revolution, China had somehow failed at every step to evolve into a free and democratic nation. Thus, scholars strove to find in China and Chinese history instances of an incipient “society” exercising power or resisting the “state,” borrowing such terms as public sphere, civil society, or bourgeoisie from European social theory to describe these social precursors to democratic formation.

The act of writing history can reflect a historian’s own social hopes, which are in turn projected onto their analysis. In this sense, scholars like Stuart Schram or Benjamin Schwartz, who do not wish to foreclose the possibility of democracy and freedom in contemporary China, often conclude that groups in premodern Chinese society have always “manifested some degree of resistance constituting a limitation on state power” (Schram, 1987: xii, 2). This approach to state-society relations has recently undergone critical review, charged with undertones of inaccuracy and Western bias. In his 1993 article “The Civil Society and the Public Sphere Debate,” Frederic Wakeman criticizes the mechanical application of Western models of state-society relations to Chinese historical experiences (Wakeman, 1993: 109-111). In the same issue, Philip Huang argues that simple binary oppositions of state and society “are not fully applicable to the Qing,” as these terms are either “too specific or too general to be useful” for understanding China (Huang, 1993: 222). These drubbings have, for the most part, discredited simple state-society dichotomies as misleading. Indeed, studies that center on state-society relations have almost always portrayed China as lacking or inadequate – be it in relation to democracy, civil society, freedom, or “weak social classes.” More recent scholars have responded by examining other aspects of interaction in Chinese history in order to move beyond the state-society framework.

In this paper, I will examine several books published in the past few decades that represent such an attempt to bypass the reductive state-society relations dyad. My purpose is twofold. By reflecting on different approaches to understanding Chinese state and society, this paper attempts to highlight other binaries and categories that emerge as agents of development and freedom. I will discuss how they shed light on different aspects of such important concepts as resistance, revolution, and social progress. Secondly, this paper also tries to relate the differences between these approaches to the authors’ own investments in various political practices and tools for human liberation.

Discovery of the ‘Social’ in late Qing China

One of the major issues reexamined in recent years is the category of society itself. Instead of studying society as a necessary entity in opposition to the state or as an autonomous space of human activity, some scholars – such as Stefan Tanaka (in an unpublished manuscript) and David Harvey (in The Condition of Postmodernity (1989))– have argued for a historicization of the concept of society itself. They see a need to look at the conditions under which the term “social” first became abstracted into an object of theoretical knowledge, a goal of government policy, and a site of agency. Here the “social” refers not to a universal category in some unproblematic social science sense but to the historically located methods, techniques and practices that allow such a category to be constructed in the first place.

Benjamin Schwartz’s book In Search of Wealth and Power about Yen Fu’s translations of European liberalism was perhaps the first study of this kind in the field of Chinese studies. By examining Yen Fu in the throes of Chinese defeats at the hands of the British after the Opium Wars and to the Japanese in the first Sino-Japanese War (1895), Schwartz illuminates the historical context in which early notions of a “social organism” developed. As an intellectual who feared the loss of Chinese sovereignty to the world powers, Yen Fu’s chief concern was to discover the secrets of Western strength in order to restore wealth and power to China.

In Herbert Spencer’s thought, Yen Fu found an “entirely new vision of reality,” in which the secret to Western success resided. The West’s emphases on energy, dynamism, struggle, and the fearless realization of human liberty for the preservation and growth of the social unit were entirely lacking in Chinese culture. Furthermore, Spencer provided Yen Fu with the most vivid the notion of China as a “society-nation.” From Spencer, Yen Fu derived a dynamic worldview in which the primary actors in the evolutionary process are “whole social groups” and the struggle for survival occurs on an “intra-society plane” (Schwartz ,1969: 46). Schwartz’s examination of Yen Fu’s new vision of the world and social order thus narrates the specific process through which the concept of the “social group” emerged in modern Chinese thought.

Schwartz’s main objective however, is to offer an oblique critique of Western developmental thought and modernization. He bemoans Yen Fu’s subordination of individual liberty to “social” needs (Schwartz, 1969: 58). Still, Schwartz’s disappointment does not cause him to accuse Yen Fu of distorting Western intellectual thought; rather, he sees the tendency to prioritize the social group over the maximization of individual liberty in Western thinking itself. Schwartz’s account of Yen Fu attempts to sidestep the theme of “lack” in China by redirecting the object of criticism to an “inadequate” West.

Despite Schwartz’s remarkable achievement in challenging the conventional view of Western development and state-society relations, he is unable to escape the usage of such fixed notions as “liberal,” “conservative,” “traditionalist,” and “nationalist.” In describing his withdrawal from politics and turn to Confucianism during the 1920s, Schwartz offers a portrait of Yen Fu as a contradictory figure who was “liberal” who had always possessed “conservative” political bents (Schwartz, 212). Thus, Schwartz’s own preoccupation with individualism and liberalism as stark opposites to nationalism and socialism precluded him from seeing Yen Fu’s commitment to Confucianism as anything other than a return to “traditional” cultural values.

Other Forms of the “Social”

By comparison, Rebecca Karl’s treatment of late Qing nationalist discourse offers an alternative to the tradition-modernity framework. She too analyzes different meanings of the “social,” but shows how they historically emerged as China became implicated in the spatial relations of global capitalism. Many works, including Benjamin Schwartz’s book, have contextualized China in a temporal progression of social development, which culminates in a mature nation-state. Prioritizing temporal aspects of societal development, as some scholars now argue, implicitly privileges the Euro-American liberal capitalist experience as universal. Such an approach again renders China as “lacking.” According to Karl, recasting the formation of Qing concepts of the “social” as a function of space de-thrones the West as the superior bearer of freedom, modernity, and progress.

Like Schwartz, Karl argues that late Qing China experienced a transformation in elite perspectives on the world. She focuses on a moment of global consciousness between 1895 and 1905, during which Chinese intellectuals recognized global inequalities. Through an exploration of how such Chinese intellectuals as Liang QiChao, journalist Lin Xie, and student activist Tang Erhe identified with other countries dominated by imperialism, overseas Chinese in Hawaii, the Philippine revolution against the United States (18989-1903), Egyptian and Turkish revolutions (1908, 1910) and the African Boer War, Karl demonstrates how various categories of social relations as understood by turn-of-century intellectuals came to widen the scope of opposition against the imperial Manchu state and foreign encroachments. In her view, late Qing categories such as qun, guomin, or shehui cannot automatically be interpreted as “society.” These terms were not different words referring to an incipient “civil society,” fixed in some determined political role that evolved in opposition to the state; rather, Karl prefers to see the meaning of such categories as articulations of a more inclusive category, “the people,” which could form the popular basis for national transformation.

To demonstrate, Karl analyzes Chinese intellectual reactions to the dissolution of the Polish state. The frequent appearance of a newly created verb “to be Polanded (bolan wo)” in articles in student journals indicated a recognition of Poland by late Qing literati as a “lost state” (wangguo) (Karl, 2002: 33). However, to some intellectuals, like playwright Wang Xiaonong, the loss of the Polish state did not mean the demise of the Polish “people.” Through a textual analysis of intellectual discussions about Poland, Karl concludes that Chinese intellectuals attempted to define, instruct, and ultimately mobilize a new political agent of change, the “people.” Whereas society is always defined in contrast to the state, the late Qing category of the “people” was a much more fluid inclusive category.

Karl’s concerted effort to shift the emphasis from state-society to “people-society” relations in late Qing understandings is no doubt influenced by her Marxist inclinations (Karl, 119). In Marxist revolutionary logic, civil society is a bourgeois concept and therefore not the precondition for true democracy. Just as Yen Fu found the secret to Western strength in notions of social evolution and struggle, Karl’s late Qing intellectuals saw revolution as a viable “solution to China’s problems” (Karl, 86), just as it was a viable option for the Filipinos and Boers. Her emphasis on the “people” as the basis of “revolution” for the transformation of oppressed countries defends the concept of revolution in Chinese thought. The conceptual connections Chinese intellectuals made to revolutionary movements in other places of the world helped legitimate revolution as a “modern mode of being” (Karl, 84). Revolution, therefore, was a legitimate modern form of thinking and not merely an anomaly of modernity so often described as “premodern.”

Central to her argument is a materialist, synchronic conception of modernity. Whereas many other scholars have viewed modernity as a stage of development, Karl conceives of modernity as a set of co-eval experiences that occur simultaneously, although in different relations to global capitalism. Her grounding of modernity in the global dynamics of capitalism indeed allows her to avoid pitting a backward China against the advanced West. Because she does not conflate the “social” to the “nation,” as Schwartz does when he refers to the “society-nation” (Schwartz, 50-52), she de-centers the nation-state and enables us instead to trace the origins of the concept, the “social,” and its multiplicity of meanings.

Yet by bringing to fore the influence of capitalist spatial relations, Karl accepts the dichotomies of core-periphery and colonizer-colonized. Marxist critiques of capitalism tend to view all such relationships as exploitative. Under the lens of critical Marxist theories, inequality determines all human relations, and subsequently overemphasizes the oppressed nature of the “colonized.” Further abstractions of the “dynamic of capitalism” may overlook real forms of resistance, leaving utopian dreams as the only option for the oppressed.

Toward a Third Realm?

Melissa Macauley challenges this monochromatic view of hegemony by revisiting the dynamic relationship between state and society in her social history of China’s litigation masters. She does not however, position the two concepts as dichotomous opposites. In centering her study on the despised and at the same time appreciated masters of litigation, Macauley follows in the steps of Philip Huang, who notes the need to study a “Third Realm” (Huang, 1993: 225). Huang advocates a conception of a third space conceptually distinct from state and society but inclusive of the simultaneous influences of both. To Huang, a more complex understanding of this realm, its growth and changes, furthers a fuller understanding of China without the baggage of “teleological suggestiveness” (Huang, 220). Ideally, an investigation into the workings of China’s third realm can present China as “having” not, “lacking.”

In Macauley’s study, litigation masters operated in the crevices of society opened up through limited state expansion after the Song. As power brokers, litigation masters were the “links between local and state” (Macauley, 1998: 3). More importantly, Macauley believes that these local elites at times reinforced the local order and at other times empowered weaker actors against dominant authorities. Macauley finds that these liminal characters were not a part of the formal legal courts, but occupied a space of informal dispute mediation that at times reached into the legal system itself. In this sense, Macauley concludes that, “the very tools for legal domination could be transformed into tools of social resistance” (Macauley, 6). Sure enough, her narrative portrays a litigious society in which locals challenging the state, widows repudiating male dominance, and disempowered individuals circumventing the local nexus of power through the reliance on legal experts were all possibilities.

Finally Macauley concludes by discussing the meaning of this fluid, multifunctional group. Loathed by the imperial court and lauded as “cunning” by the popular imagination, they are, to the author, champions of some form. The scathing opinions of these litigation specialists expressed the bureaucratic anxiety created by these lawyers as they disrupted the status quo of inequality. In choosing litigation masters as her heroes, Macauley promotes a view of harmony that is achieved paradoxically only through struggle for dignity, power, and oddly, “revenge” (Macauley, 229).


The examples of social or intellectual history discussed above do not focus on state-society interaction as part of a teleology of modernization or rationalization. In doing so, they have avoided presenting China in terms of “lack.” Instead of reducing the fabric of Chinese society into a simplistic state-society binary, these studies have shed new light on other forms, real and conceptual, of social organization. As a result, Schwartz, Karl, and Macauley have not reduced history to teleology. Rather, they note the possibilities opened up by the new articulations of constructed categories of the social, ranging from the triumph of liberty, freedom from colonialism, and social justice.

This shift away from teleology has been informed by recent theories of nationalism that have now made it common knowledge that nations are envisioned differently by different people at different times. The desire to write a history of difference, open-endedness, and possibility rather than a universal history of development can also be situated in the current academic reaction against the purported “end of history” and seeming victory of global capitalism in the post-1989 era. Even so, these studies, like prior works, reveal an even deeper need for hope and the possibility of humanity’s improvement.


Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity : An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford:� Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Huang, Philip. “Public Sphere/Civil Society in China?: The Third Realm between State and Society,” Modern China, 19.2, Symposium: “Public Sphere/Civil Society” in China? Paradigmatic Issues in Chinese Studies (April, 1993): 216-240.

Judge, Joan. Print and politics : ‘Shibao’ and the culture of reform in late Qing China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Karl, Rebecca. Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

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

Rankin, Mary B. Elite Activism and Political Transformation in China: Zhejiang Province, 1865-1911. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Schram, Stuart, ed. Foundations and Limits of State Power in China. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1987.

Schwartz, Benjamin. In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West. Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1969 [1964].

Tanaka, Stefan. Unpublished manuscript. 2003.

Wakeman, Frederic. “The Civil Society and Public Sphere Debate,” Modern China, 19.2 (April, 1993):108-138.

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