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Late Imperial China 28.1 (2007) 92-127

Beneath the Republican Revolution, Beyond Revolutionary Politics:
Elite Associations and Social Transformation in Lower Yangzi Towns, 1903–1912
Zhongping Chen

Previous studies of the 1911 Revolution have usually focused on its national and metropolitan contexts but have rarely paid attention to its local arenas, such as market towns. They also have tended to stress political and cultural changes rather than the social transformation that occurred during this revolutionary movement. The prevalent opinion in early studies is that social regress shadowed the era because social elites, especially those at the local level, used reformist organizations and the Republican Revolution to strengthen their dominance over the populace. Recent investigation of these local elite associations, including those in Lower Yangzi towns, has begun to stress the contribution of their social mobilization to the anti-Qing revolution. However, neither the township elite associations themselves nor their influence on social changes beyond revolutionary politics have received enough scrutiny.1

Social changes are complex and comprehensive. They can range from the social mobility of a person and the gradual evolution of a family to abrupt, violent, and fundamental transformation of the entire society, or what is called "social revolution." Although social transformation could lead to political [End Page 92] revolution or drastic change in political regimes and systems, it could also involve varied changes in the society itself and in its multiform relations with the state. Even in the revolutionary era of modern China around 1911, social changes from the individual to the national level were too complicated to be dominated by anti-Qing revolutionary politics.

This article is not a comprehensive survey of social changes in Lower Yangzi towns but rather a deep investigation of their expressions in the elite associations of these township communities, especially of Nanxiang, a satellite town of Shanghai, between 1903 and 1912. It aims to examine how the associational activities of the local elites changed their interconnections and their relations with both society and the state. Such relational changes demonstrated a new trend toward social and political integration of diverse elites and a new pattern of their participation in communal and national affairs, although social regression toward local elite dominance also happened during this revolutionary era.

The transformation of the tripartite relations among the elites, society, and the state can be analyzed as both social and political phenomena. However, the social dimension of such relational changes will be the focus of this study because it underpinned political transformation in modern China from the early twentieth century, including the Republican Revolution, but it has not received appropriate attention in previous studies. In order to understand the long-term social and political influences of the late Qing elite associations in Lower Yangzi towns, it is necessary to review relevant previous scholarship.

Late Qing Elite Associations and Lower Yangzi Towns: A Review

In previous research on new elite associations of late Qing China, the Lower Yangzi region has long been regarded as one of their major birthplaces, hotbeds, and arenas. While such associations in Shanghai and other Lower Yangzi cities from the late Qing to the early Republican period have already aroused strong interest among scholars in China, Japan, and the West, those at the township level have not received much attention. The lack of empirical research on these township elite associations has led not only to scholarly ignorance but also to the predominantly negative judgment of their activities during the late Qing reform and revolutionary movements.

Previous literature on new elite associations in late Qing and early Republican China has covered study societies (xuehui),2 professional associations [End Page 93] like chambers of commerce (shanghui),3 agricultural associations (nonghui) and educational associations (jiaoyuhui),4 self-government institutions such as local councils (yishihui) and provincial assemblies (ziyiju),5 as well as other reformist and revolutionary organizations.6 Most of these studies emphasize the elite associations in Shanghai and other large cities in the Lower Yangzi region. Even their statistical data...


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