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Reviews 65 Jerome Ch'en. The Highlanders ofCentral China: A History, 1895-1937. Armonk and London: M. E. Sharpe, 1992. xxii, 302 pp. Hardcover $50.00. Jerome Chen's history ofCentral China's revolution smells not only of the library lamp, but ofthe motor odors ofmountain van rides, of the fertilizers and flowers of farm towns, and of the damp ofminor archives long undisturbed. Its immediacy is matched by the limpidity of the tripartite intellectual quest that took Professor Chen to these memorable, unimportant places. What happened as people commercialized the backwater hills where Hubei, Hunan, and Sichuan join, and as they made dieir region the civil war belt between north and south? Did "morality " or "rationality" drive highlands peasants—Han, Miao, Tujia, and the rest—to remake their world? How can such questions be answered about ordinary people who left so little direct evidence of their lives in an epochally troubled time? Chen answers the last question botii by the example ofthe book itself, and by his wise conclusion in an appendix, "On Statistics": The heart ofthe matter is not precise knowledge, which may not be attainable, but a reliable pattern or trend to weave into a coherent story. That I believe is often attainable. For that one needs a great deal of patience, extensive reading, careful collation, and a robust common sense consolidated by theoretical and historical reading (p. 251). In this summary ofhow to be a good historian, Chen might well have made more ofthe travels, conversations, and memories that enrich his study. A poignant anecdote that links his life to those ofhis subjects shows his father resigning his magistracy in disgust when the tax police began to collect not just money, but "silver hair-pins, rings, bracelets, ornaments on children's headwear, babies' charms, and so forth" (p. 114). Experience and empathy have enabled Chen to transcend the very considerable limitations ofthe written record. He keeps ordinary people in view at all times, transmitting with extraordinary fidelity the voice of this subaltern regional culture. In addition to scholarship and moral concern, Chen brings a freshness ofvision to the book's problematic. He sees past the geographic, administrative, and ethnic boundaries that crosscut central China, espying a distinctive regional political economy in an area generally seen as residual and socially chaotic. The mountainous, refractory region briefly grew rich on tung oil and opium, attracting tax scavengers and, ultimately, war.© 1995 by UniversityAnother author might have made more of ethnic divisions in the highlands; ofHawai'i Pressmuch work could still be done on this topic. By choosing not to point up the distinctions among these highly Hanified populations, however, Chen keeps us attending to their interactions rather than their separatenesses. While he is well 66 China Review International: Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1995 aware of Han-minority conflicts, he is more interested in the regional division of labor in both civil and military affairs. We learn, for example, that in turn-of-thecentury Fenghuang (Hunan) government and army, the Han commanded Miao low-rankers (p. 163), and the Miao were often garrison-land tenants, whose rents helped pay for their own repression (p. 167). The mutual constitution of ethnic categories in these years remains unexplored, but Chen has given us the framework of events within which it may ultimately be better understood. As well as writing a fine-grained and insightful example of regional history, Chen addresses important theoretical issues. Between 1895 and 1937, tung oil, opium, pig brisde, and the pickle zhacai made local fortunes: "the highlanders never had it so good" (p. 80). Yet the result was involution rather than a leap to self-reproducing capitalism. Why? In chapter 1, Chen explores and discards many possible answers to this question , examining theories developed for peasant contexts in which capitalist relations of production held sway. His alternative explanation is less Eurocentric, precisely grounded in China's particularities. In the central highlands, the wealth produced by shavers ofpigs, scrapers of opium, picklers ofvegetables, and crackers of tough tung tree seeds flowed to cities because of the role of taxation in the economy, not only or principally through the market mechanism. With great ingenuity , Chen produces convincing (if...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 65-68
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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