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  • Introduction: The Significance of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Transition in Qing History
  • William T. Rowe (bio)

Over the past decades, we have learned a great deal about the Qing’s “prosperous age” (shengshi) of the eighteenth century, and about the first kaifang era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the first half of the nineteenth century, and especially the reign of the Jiaqing emperor (1796–1820) have, in general, attracted much less scholarly attention. The appearance in 1978 of Susan Mann Jones and Philip A. Kuhn’s landmark Cambridge History of China article on the early nineteenth century “Dynastic Decline and the Roots of Rebellion” struck like a lightning bolt, precisely because, unlike most of the other articles in that volume, which summarized the well-known work on their topics, Jones and Kuhn were providing remarkably new stuff, since the period they were covering had been so largely ignored in previous English-language studies. Ironically, the magisterial power of their article may have contributed to the continuing dearth of scholarship since that time, since few scholars may have felt they could alter its conclusions very much.

This lacuna is understandable but also rather surprising, since the Jiaqing reign is arguably the transition era in modern Chinese history. A recent Chinese biography of the monarch by Guan Wenfa, indeed, characterizes his reign straightforwardly as a turning point “from prosperity to decline” (cong sheng dao shuai).1 There was an immediate and complicated crisis of great severity (see below), but also a more broad-based malaise: things that had seemed easy or routine in the past now were increasingly difficult to do. And what’s more, people within and without the administration—pointedly the emperor himself—knew this, were achingly frustrated by it, and fretted over how things might be done better. On the other hand, from a later perspective these men and their world looked positively good—post-Taiping political discourse is [End Page 74] strewn with nostalgic references to the lost golden age of “Xianfeng yiqian” (prior to the mid-century Xianfeng reign). The officials and literati of the Jiaqing reign, again including the monarch himself, impress us generally as capable, knowledgeable, pretty much honest, and energetic, but so very troubled.

Recently, however, there has been a wave of new scholarship in both Chinese and English on the Jiaqing reign, the general impact of which (and I am tipping my hand here) tends to reevaluate contributions of the newly-empowered emperor and his administration upward—asking less “What did they do wrong?” than “Just how did they manage to put the Qing Empire back on track sufficiently for it to survive another hundred years?” A milestone in this new scholarship was a panel organized by Matthew Mosca for the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies under the title “Reconfiguring Sovereignty,” for which I had the pleasure to serve as discussant. In addition to the papers by Mosca and Seunghyun Han that served as the bases for the two articles to follow here, there were papers by Cecily McCaffrey on “Three Rebellions, Three Resolutions: The Evolution of State/Sect/Society Relations in Qing China, 1774–1813,” and by Wensheng Wang on “Social Crises and ‘Inner State Building’ during the Qianlong-Jiaqing Transition.” The four papers in fact fit together very well, and, with the kind permission of Professors McCaffrey and Wang, I will comment on their papers along with the two published in article form here. As in my discussion at the panel itself, I will be less interested in critiquing the individual contributions than in contextualizing them and opening them up for general reconsideration of this key transitional era.

Several generations of scholarship—at least since Suzuki Chūsei’s seminal 1952 A Study of the Mid-Qing Period—have outlined for us the myriad ways in which the turn of the nineteenth century signaled the rather sudden and pronounced downturn of Qing dynastic fortunes. Many at the time recognized the existence of a demographic crisis; as early as 1793, Hong Liangji had written that over the past century the empire’s population had increased “ten to twenty times,” while the amount of available farmland...


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