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  • Finding Distinctive Chinese Characteristics in Qing Era Popular Protests
  • David D. Buck (bio)
Ho-fung Hung. Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 288 pp. Hardcover $50.00. ISBN 978-0-231-15202-0.

This title already has won the Social Science History Association’s President’s Award for 2010. The award is given to a first published work, and this book displays careful social science research and broad interpretative scope. Ho-fung Hung has extracted from the Qing dynasty’s Veritable Records (Qing shilu) more than 950 cases of popular protests against the Qing government in the hundred years from 1740 to 1839. He has supplemented this material with work in the First Historical Archives in Beijing and the Palace Museum in Taiwan as well as careful reading of secondary materials.

The century under investigation covers most of the Qianlong emperor’s reign (1736–1796) and the reigns of his successors: his son, the Jiaqing emperor (1796– 1820), and grandson, the Daoguang emperor (1821–1851). Then Ho-fung Hung breaks down his data into three shorter time periods of twenty years each and draws conclusions about the different patterns of protest he finds. He uses established categories from other social science scholars of protest, particularly Charles Tilly, to classify this data. To supplement his statistical analysis, Hung adds detailed descriptions of several incidents from each subperiod.

Hung finds shifting patterns of protest in three twenty-year subperiods and devotes more than half of this work to discussing these differences. The first subperiod, from 1740 to 1759, comes during the early years of the Qianlong emperor’s long reign. It was marked by general prosperity and aggressive state expansion, including the pacification of the far western regions of Mongolia and the establishment of Xinjiang (new territory). Hung is not concerned with this expansion, but rather deals with protests within the Chinese heartland of the Qing empire. He characterizes the protests from this period as “filial-loyal demonstrations” (p. 68), [End Page 128] in which Chinese protesters accepted the Qing mandate to rule and sought to bring about changes by impressing the emperor with their loyalty and filial devotion. Many protests from this era took a peaceful form and showed respect toward officials as parental figures. Demonstrations included kneeling in worshipful postures before magistrates.

The second subperiod runs from 1776 to 1795, during the last decades of the Qianlong emperor’s reign, when his Manchu protégé, Heshen, dominated the government. In these years, the elderly emperor exercised lax control and tolerated corruption at all levels of government, led by Heshen’s own avaricious behavior. Hung finds that under these conditions, protestors became defiant toward both the emperor and his officials. No longer respectful, the protesters took forceful action, including open rebellion. The White Lotus Rebellion (1796–1805) was the culmination of this period. He labels this as a time when “riots [turned] into rebellion” (p. 102).

The final subperiod, from 1820 to 1839, comes in a time known as the Daoguang Depression, marked by financial and monetary instability of the Qing empire, resulting from declining tax revenues, silver outflow to purchase opium imports, and the breakdown of the Grand Canal grain shipments. These made up the most obvious examples of failing state policies. Hung sees this period as an era of “resistance and petitions” (p. 135) during which the Qing empire’s Chinese subjects resumed a filial and loyal manner toward the emperor, but vented their antagonism on local officials. Tax riots and open rebellion declined because of general awareness of the declining capacities of the Qing administration. Protestors resumed their appeals to the emperor’s mercy and sought his Confucian responsibility to his subjects. Nevertheless, popular resistance to state policies grew as economic and social conditions worsened.

Hung’s statistical data reveal continuing forms of protests across the century, and he draws his general characterizations for each twenty-year subperiod from increased percentages of certain kinds of protest within each. When Hung’s conclusion about the century from 1740 to 1839 is compared with those of his John Hopkins colleague William T. Rowe’s in China’s...