- State Versus Gentry in Early Qing Dynasty China, 1644−1699 by Harry Miller
Among the burgeoning historical understandings of late imperial Chinese history, one essential question is whether the transition from the Ming dynasty (1368−1644) to the Qing dynasty (1644−1911) in the seventeenth century was a period of rupture defined by a dynastic crisis or a continuous unit with persisting social problems. In his new book State Versus Gentry in Early Qing Dynasty China, 1644−1699 , historian Harry Miller uses a paradigm of power struggle over political sovereignty between state and gentry to investigate the founding years of the Qing dynasty. 1 Miller developed this paradigm in his previous book exploring the last quarter of the Ming dynasty, where he examined the factional strife in late Ming as resulting from an ideological struggle over whether political sovereignty should reside with the state or the gentry. 2 Following [End Page 464] this narrative, in the current book on early Qing history, Miller argues that the political and ideological struggle between the state and the gentry persisted during the dynastic transition, and, more importantly, that such power relations also greatly shaped state building in the early Qing. Miller argues that in terms of the state–gentry power struggle, the dynastic shift from Ming to Qing in the seventeenth century was less a rupture than a period of political continuity and synthesis. 3
Miller organizes his discussion chronologically, dividing the narrative into four consecutive time periods: Dorgon regency (1644−1650), the Shunzhi emperor’s reign (1651−1661), Oboi regency (1661−1669), and the early years of the Kangxi emperor’s reign (1661−1699). During the Dorgon regency, the Qing state had just seized the imperial capital of Beijing, and was still in constant battle to claim new territory and quench various Ming restoration efforts. At this turbulent moment, any factional strife, which once flooded the late Ming court, needed to be avoided or suppressed. Hence, Dorgon absorbed many Chinese gentry into the newly formed court, hoping to create some congeniality and bond the gentry more with the state than with their previous faction allegiances in the late Ming. The Shunzhi emperor, who was already emperor in 1644 but only gained full control after Dorgon’s death in 1651, expressed a welcoming attitude to the gentry similar to Dorgon. Meanwhile, however, the Shunzhi emperor welcomed the gentry’s factional chaos because he could take advantage of it in his own fight to claim imperial authority. Hence, under the Shunzhi emperor, gentlemanly influence in the government surged, but the conflict between the state and the gentry also emerged.
Confronted with the rising gentry, the next ruler regent, Oboi, launched a direct attack on gentry power. Under the Oboi regency, the state exhibited in Miller’s words a “policy of zero tolerance toward the gentry” (P. 84). The state’s “zero tolerance” was particularly voiced over fiscal matters, especially in the Tax Clearance Case where the gentry in the south “surrendered” to the state and lost their former significance [End Page 465] to the state (Pp. 84–101). 4 The last ruling figure in Miller’s discussion, the Kangxi emperor, who ascended the throne in 1661 but again only gained full control after the regent’s death, finally settled the long-lasting conflict between the state and the gentry. The Kangxi emperor gained the favor of the gentry by reestablishing court lectures presented by those elite Chinese scholars and patronizing their literary projects. Furthermore, he drew the gentry even closer to the state during the revolt of the Three Feudatories when the gentry in the south depended solely on the state’s protection. Thus, according to Miller, when the Kangxi emperor toured southern China in 1699, wielding sovereign power over the gentry’s own territory, the long disagreement between the two parties reached an end (Pp. 129–32).
In presenting his argument, Miller has effectively used numerous primary sources, including imperially commissioned veritable records of the emperor, imperial diaries of the regent Dorgon...