- White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire by Wensheng Wang
In a seminal Cambridge History of China article published in 1978 and entitled “Dynastic Decline and the Roots of Rebellion,” Susan Mann Jones and Philip A. Kuhn reclaim the first few decades of the nineteenth century for Western scholarship on Chinese history.1 Based on a combination of their own original research and existing scholarship in East Asian languages (notably the work of Suzuki Chūsei), they do at least two revolutionary things. They dispel forever the Eurocentric notion that Qing politics, society, and culture prior to the Opium War was “stagnant” or “stationary.” And they establish irrefutably that the crisis the empire faced in the early nineteenth century was far more complex and internally generated than the concept of a simple “response” to Western expansionism would suggest, contributing decisively to what Paul A. Cohen shortly thereafter describes as a process of “discovering history in China.”2 What they do not do, however, is to challenge the dominant failure narrative of nineteenth-century Chinese history; indeed, as their article’s title makes clear, one of their most significant contributions is simply to push back the origins of this failure perhaps as much as a half-century earlier than we previously located it.
In recent years, however, a growing cohort of younger scholars has begun to view the early nineteenth century differently, focusing largely on the policy innovations of the Jiaqing emperor following his assumption of full power following the death of his father in 1799. These scholars all have in common, to a greater or lesser degree, a far more positive view of the emperor and his reign. Based on elements of discourse in the archives, Daniel McMahon has urged us to see this era as a deliberate and rather successful “Jiaqing restoration,” a propaganda initiative [End Page 379] in which the emperor took control of the mess left by the Heshen clique and offered himself as a remedy and personal model of proper governance.3 Syeunghyun Han presents the Jiaqing reign as the first real unleashing of “elite activism,” accompanied by a renaissance of local cultural autonomy.4 Matthew Mosca argues that it was this era, rather than the later Western shock of the Opium War and the unequal treaties, that witnessed the dramatic transformation of the Qing’s understanding of its place in the world and its first formation of a comprehensive and properly so-called “foreign policy.”5 Within this new historiography, no scholar has been bolder and more forceful in pushing a positive revisionist view than Wensheng Wang, who argues for viewing the Jiaqing project as nothing less than a deliberate exercise in energetic “restructuring” and comprehensive “state-building.”
Wang’s book does present some new empirical observations, but its major contribution is to impose a bold, highly unified, new narrative on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Qing history, combining perspectives “from the bottom” with those “from the top.” He begins by identifying the fin-de-siècle moment as a transition from an “era of political dividend,” during which the Qianlong emperor enjoyed the legacies from his predecessors of domestic peace, rising economic productivity, and comfortable state revenues, to an “era of political debt,” when the costs of these achievements fell due, a situation that was aggravated by Qianlong’s own mismanagement during the later decades of his reign. The narrative kicks off with the Wang Lun rebellion of 1774, the Lin Shuangwen rebellion of 1787–1788, and the Miao rebellion of 1795–1806, the latter a “delayed response” to overaggressive efforts at “state-making” (in the form of gaitu guiliu), and the first two prompting the emperor into overly ambitous and unenforceable blanket prohibitions on otherwise non-seditious deviant behavior. These led to the “all-encompassing contentious crisis” of the book’s title.
These myriad challenges from below aggravated the strains resulting from “constitutional dilemma ingrained in the Chinese imperial system” [End Page 380...