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  • Telling Chinese History: A Selection of Essays
  • Margaret Kuo
Telling Chinese History: A Selection of Essays. By Frederic E. Wakeman Jr. and Lea H. Wakeman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. 480 pp. $60.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

Telling Chinese History is an omnibus volume that contains fifteen previously published essays by Frederic E. Wakeman Jr., selected from the more than one hundred essays that span the four decades of his career. The collection, edited by Wakeman's widow, Lea H. Wakeman, provides a representative sample of the breadth of Wakeman's scholarly work, which ranges across seven centuries of Chinese history and addresses major topics like the Ming-Qing transition, the effects of Western imperialism, Republican Shanghai, and state-society relations [End Page 527] in late imperial and modern China. The format of the volume is diverse, including works that originated as book reviews, journal articles for China as well as non-China audiences, chapters from edited volumes, and a presidential address to the American Historical Association, with the oldest essay dating from 1972 and the most recent from 2004, two years before his untimely death. The essays display Wakeman's methodological versatility in full, with excellent examples of grand political narrative, intellectual history, social history, and local history. This temporal, topical, thematic, and general intellectual expansiveness animates the opening essay, "Navigating History: Voyages." Here Wakeman takes the reader on a journey across time and space, embarking on voyages both literal and figurative: Wakeman's boyhood memories of sailing with his father, his first professional trip to the People's Republic, Christopher Columbus's second voyage to the New World, Admiral Zheng He's early fifteenth-century expeditions, and Chinese coolie laborers' arduous oceanic crossings in the nineteenth century.

The essays in part 2, "The Ming-Qing Period," demonstrate one of the remarkable qualities of Wakeman's work: its ability to lend pathos to the harsh social and political realities of late imperial China. In writing about the political struggles and military rebellions of this period, Wakeman chooses loyalty, what he refers to as "that tragic moral issue" (p. 420), as his major motif. As Wakeman details, the fall of the Ming dynasty posed a moral dilemma of extraordinary proportions for Confucian scholar-officials. In "Romantics, Stoics, and Martyrs in Seventeenth-Century China," he presents biographies of various Ming and Qing officials to illustrate the paths of collaboration and resistance taken by Chinese elites. This is sorrowful history, like his account of the martyrdom of Ma Xiongzhen, a Han Chinese official who served in Guilin during the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories. Because of Ma's unswerving loyalty to the Qing, thirty-seven members of his household either were murdered (including two of his sons and several male retainers) or committed suicide (including his daughters, concubines, wife, and eighteen female servants). In addition to his poignant portrayals of Chinese elites during the Ming-Qing transition, Wakeman also evokes how the chaos and suffering that attended the fall of one dynasty and the rise of another affected ordinary people. In "Localism and Loyalism during the Qing Conquest of Jiangnan," he revisits one of the most famous examples of Ming loyalism, the city of Jiangyin's resistance to Qing rule. He recounts the devastating effects of the decision by Jiangyin gentry, militia leaders, townspeople, and surrounding villagers to [End Page 528] oppose the Manchu haircutting order of 1645 (Manchus shaved the front of their heads and grew a queue in the back). In the course of an eighty-day siege, only fifty-three out of an estimated 100,000 inhabitants of the city survived.

In the essays on republican Shanghai in part 3, Wakeman again addresses questions of corruption and collaboration in a time of great chaos and political turmoil, in this instance with the Guomindang, Chinese Communist Party, and Japanese all vying for power. In "Licensing Leisure," Wakeman examines GMD attempts at "disciplining Shanghai's rowdy and restless urbanites" (p. 219), who enjoyed the various pleasures of gambling (horse racing, dog racing, roulette, lotteries), prostitution, and drugs (opium, heroin, morphine), among other entertainments. Wakeman argues that policing efforts failed to impose social order on Shanghai largely because...


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