- The Making of the Chinese State: Ethnicity and Expansion in the Ming Borderlands
In studies of late imperial China, there is a widening and deepening field of scholarship on the formation of local and imperial identities under the pressures of conquest. Leo Shin tackles many of the same issues from a different perspective. Instead of the overt conditions of full-scale warfare and occupation, Shin looks at the evolution of identities and identity-related policies in a negotiated milieu. Guangxi, like much of the rest of southwestern China, was brought under Ming control as a result of the evaporation of Yuan administration, such as it had been. As the Ming attempted to establish their own civil control over the region and encourage expansion of commercial and agricultural economies, they encountered both manifest resistance and stifling complexity. Their solution, which was largely continued in the Qing era, was to contrive institutional accommodation with local society, economy, and culture. The effect was a coalition government—not only the local-central political coalitions on which all Ming and Qing provincial governance was based, but a local-central cultural coalition that allowed political practice to become intertwined with evolving early modern notions of who was Han and who was not.
Though the Ming did not in any real sense conquer Guangxi or other parts of the southwest, economic development in southern China and a markedly increasing Han population pressed harder and harder on earlier residents of Guangxi—whether descendants of native populations or immigrated Hakka or Muslims—to make way for Han farmers demanding not only land but conformity to the legal and commercial behaviors of central south China. The Ming state described the expanding territory of standardized economy and culture by registration divisions between min (the conventional way in both the Ming and the Qing of demarcating the majority, central, ostensibly normal civilian population) and the manyi (or man and yi)—the native, unassimilated in situ populations who obstructed the Han settlement. By default the Ming state was all on the side of the min. One of the virtues of Shin's discussion here is his explicit focus on the disparity in power —that is, disparity in standing before the state's power to distribute identity and status—between the predecessor and the novel populations. Some dialects of cultural studies that have strongly influenced scholarship on identity in China have tended to let power disparities sink below the horizon, but Shin's study keeps power disparities in the center of its analysis. We know the outcome of the story: Despite the Ming state sometimes dealing with local challenges from a position of weakness, it never compromised its long-term goal of pacifying and assimilating [End Page 264] the southeastern borderlands. Though the min immigrants were a minority in numbers, they were seen by the state as the intentional majority, and this teleology guided all state behaviors—whether strategic or ideological—in Guangxi. To pursue their own interests, local populations had to use political resistance and often outright force to mitigate the state's determination to impose undifferentiated Ming rule on a distinct society.
Shin suggests—sometimes merely suggests—that these dynamics shaped the policies and outlook of the later Ming state. Like all historians of the southwest, Shin gives the chieftainship system (tusi) its due. The book provides very rich detail on the degree to which the ranks of both the accommodationist chieftain system and the framework of Ming civil administration in Guangxi were dependent upon the chieftains as administrators and as representatives of the true majority population. Shin argues that Ming dependency on the cooperation (and often the co-optation) of local leaders combined with other changes in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century China—among them the development of a commercial publishing industry that makes travel writing profitable, the refinement of a travel network making travel more common, and the general development of a sense of the strategic importance of the southwest as a buffer...