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In the historical study of contentious politics, political economy theories see the transformation of the dominant form of contention from reactive violence to proactive demonstration in early modern Europe as a result of large-scale political-economic processes like state formation and market expansion. Culturalist theories emphasize instead the significance of large-scale cultural reconstitutions in forging such transformation. Judging between these two theories is no easy task, as macropolitical-economic and cultural changes were concurrent in most cases. Mid-Qing China (c. 1683–1839), which experienced state centralization and commercialization in conjunction with a relatively stable neo-Confucianist hegemony, constitutes a telling case that helps resolve the debate. By analyzing a catalog of political protest events derived from archival sources, I find that Chinese protest changed from predominantly reactive violence in the seventeenth century to proactive demonstration in the mid-eighteenth century and back to reactive violence in the nineteenth century. The general direction of change can be explained by the cyclical trajectories of state formation and market development alone. At the same time, the specific claims and repertoires of protest were always delimited by the cultural idioms available in the overarching neo-Confucianist orthodoxy of the time. This study suggests an integrated perspective synthesizing both culturalist and political economy accounts to offer a fuller explanation of macrohistorical changes in contentious politics.