- White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire by Wensheng Wang
Scholars of the Qing empire (1644–1911) have conventionally divided its history into two halves: first, the “High Qing” that lasted until the Qianlong emperor’s death in 1799; second, a slow nineteenth-century decline culminating in the regime’s collapse. Consequently, according to historian Wensheng Wang, the transition from the Qianlong to Jiaqing emperor has been unjustly overlooked as a “dead middle period,” which does not fit neatly into either epoch. In his study White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, Wang attempts to remedy this oversight and “to restore continuity” across the two halves of Qing history “by reconceptualizing the place of Emperor Jiaqing and his seemingly unremarkable reign” (p. 4).
Wang argues that once the Jiaqing emperor took power in 1799, he initiated a set of “sustainable” reforms that strengthened the Qing state. Specifically, Wang examines the emperor’s response to two ongoing political crises at the time: the sectarian White Lotus rebellion in the Han [End Page 636] River highlands and the chronic threat of raiding pirates in the South China Sea. Whereas past historiography viewed these events as harbingers of eventual decline, Wang asserts that the two frontier threats, one inland and one maritime, actually “propelled a major reorganization of the Qing state” which “better prepared the dynasty” to deal with larger crises following the first Opium War (1842). In admirably ambitious fashion, then, Wang simultaneously analyzes short-term events, century-long trends, and judgments on the Qing empire as a whole.
After a historiographical introduction and background chapter, Wang divides his argument into two sections. In Part II, “A View from the Bottom,” he dedicates one chapter each to the rebels and pirates, explaining both the ideological and social-economic conditions behind them. If these chapters lean toward “sociocultural history” (p. 5), then Part III, “A View from the Top,” adopts the tone of political history. Across four chapters, Wang contrasts the shortcomings of an octogenarian Qianlong emperor and his corrupt regent He Shen, on the one hand, versus the successful reforms of the Jiaqing emperor on the other. Whereas the late Qianlong regime nearly bankrupted the empire through costly wars, the Jiaqing emperor curbed military overexpansion by pragmatically compromising with the rebels and pirates while simultaneously setting institutional limits on the power of inner court officials. These policies, laid out in chapter six, represent the “major thrust” (p. 113) of Wang’s story.
As the book progresses, Wang begins to shift his claims about how exactly the Jiaqing reforms were related to the rebels and pirates. Although he initially argues the two crises “propelled” change, his story in the end primarily revolves around the Jiaqing emperor. The rebels and pirates, therefore, served less as an impetus for reform than an opportune occasion for the Jiaqing emperor to execute his plan. Consequently, Wang’s detailed analyses of the Han River highlands and the south China coast in Part II could have been shortened and better integrated with Part III. This is a focused political history of an emperor’s reform program, and in this endeavor the book succeeds.
Stylistically, Wang writes clearly and presents vivid details. For readers less familiar with late imperial China, Wang elucidates basic issues, such as the falling ratio of resources to population and the Canton System. For Sinologists, Wang helpfully synthesizes secondary literature on more niche topics, such as the colonization of the frontier and diplomatic relations with Vietnamese and European powers. For well-read Qing specialists more familiar with these events, however, judgment will hang upon their evaluation of Wang’s efforts to “reconceptualize” such details into broader theoretical claims.
On this point, Wang’s interventions are ambitious but also raise several questions. First, Wang liberally borrows from modern social scientific [End Page 637] literature on sustainable development, institutions, and realist international relations. Wang admits that he uses such ideas anachronistically but unfortunately declines any deeper discussion of...