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  • Localities at the Center: Native Place, Space, and Power in Late Imperial Beijing
  • Michael G. Chang (bio)
Richard Belsky . Localities at the Center: Native Place, Space, and Power in Late Imperial Beijing. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 258. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. xii, 309 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 0-674-01956-3.

This comprehensive and empirically rich institutional history examines the place of Beijing's native-place lodges (huiguan) in China's transition to political modernity. Writing against the "negative reassessment of the Beijing lodges" that took hold in the early twentieth century, Richard Belsky reminds us that the huiguan "played an enormously important role in shaping the modern nation that came to reject them" (p. 4). If Beijing's native-place lodges were "vitally important elements in the construction of modern China" (p. 4), they were, by the author's own admission, "far from typical" and "not representative of those elsewhere" (p. 17) by dint of their metropolitan clientele. Indeed, an overwhelming majority (something like 86 percent) of Beijing's huiguan were "established by and maintained on behalf of government officials, expectant officials, examination candidates, and other members of China's national political elite" (pp. 59-60). Far from diminishing their historical significance, this distinctive aspect of Beijing's huiguan, Belsky suggests, offers insights into China's complicated transition from empire to nation.

Echoing previous work by Bryna Goodman, Belsky claims that "native-place ties contributed to a new sense of national identity"; however, for him, nationalist consciousness among scholar-officials "emerged as a potent political force in Beijing by the 1890s, well before similar developments in Shanghai." More importantly, "in Beijing this process had its roots in urban transformations that date to the eighteenth century" (pp. 16, 138). Indeed, one of the author's central premises is that a full understanding of nationalism in China must include the longer history of native-place lodges more generally, not least because "corporate lodges independently established by the various sojourning communities" in Beijing became "the main nexus of regional/center interaction at the center" over the longue durée of the fifteenth to the early twentieth centuries (p. 259). Here nonspecialists may appreciate how the author's interest in the deeper cultural and institutional roots of Chinese nationalism resonates with Benedict Anderson's observations regarding the role of "dynastic states"-more specifically, the "passages created by the rise of absolutizing monarchies" and the "absolutist functionaries" who embarked upon them-in inculcating nascent modes of nationalist consciousness.1

It has long been assumed that China's native-place lodges were natural outgrowths of long-term (and intertwined) processes of commercialization, urbanization, and mercantile sojourning in the sixteenth century. Building upon the [End Page 352] seminal work of Ping-ti Ho (He Bingdi), the author casts serious doubt upon such conventional wisdom by showing that the founding of China's first huiguan occurred in Beijing and was a direct, if unintended, result of the Yongle emperor's decision to move the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing in the early 1400s-a "far less exuberant" period than the boom times of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (p. 33). Equally important, the establishment of these earliest native-place lodges was "most closely associated" not with "farmers or prosperous families but officials and bureaucrats from the lower Yangzi region and the southeast, who came to staff the many positions within the imperial government" and who brought with them a "strong tradition of corporate organization" (p. 34). From the get-go, then, the institutional innovation of the huiguan grew out of scholar-officials' responses to imperial fiat, not mercantile activity spurred by market forces as is usually presumed.

In chapter 4, perhaps one of the book's strongest, the author confirms William Skinner's hypothesis regarding the spatial segregation of Beijing's Outer City into two increasingly distinct "scholar-official" and "merchant" nuclei. However, he also convincingly demonstrates that this bifurcation occurred only in the Qing (not in the Ming) period, specifically over the course of the eighteenth century. In spatial terms, an evolving "community of scholars" took shape in Beijing's southwestern ward (the so-called Xuannan shi...


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