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  • The Qing in Historiographical Dialogue
  • Evelyn S. Rawski

During the late 1960s, when I obtained my Ph.D., the leading questions confronting China historians concerned China’s failure to modernize/industrialize, and the circumstances that led to the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party in establishing a nation-state in 1949. The field at that point was just emerging from focusing on the “western impact,” a period which Paul Cohen’s essay describes very well. One pragmatic reason for the emphasis on China’s response to the West in many graduate student papers was the comparative ease of access to western-language materials, as compared to Chinese-language sources. Yet in retrospect, the training program I went through assumed that I already knew exactly what the western experience in adoption of new technologies had been, and my weakness in European history led me to overestimate the degree of advance in mid-nineteenth-century “western” business organization, medical knowledge, etc., when studying the issue of technological transfer in late Qing times.

China’s emergence as a major force in the global economy of the early twenty-first century has transformed the questions that historians ask today. “Why did China fail?” has become “What historical factors contributed to China’s current success?” Publications presenting archival research into post-’49 policies and their repercussions, as well as the spate of detailed social science analyses of contemporary conditions, often show an amazing resonance with earlier patterns of political and economic behavior that spurs our interest in the nature of Chinese society and economy in the period before the Opium War. Whether it be the particularistic way in which patronage networks can coexist with economic competition, or the ways in which kinship, native-place, [End Page 1] and ritual activity combine to create new frameworks for competition or cooperation, there seem to be more reasons than ever for scholars to search the Qing record for the historical roots of contemporary behavioral patterns.

Since the end of the Mao era, Chinese historians have revised many previously-held tenets, including the judgment that the Qing was a foreign conquest regime that failed to defend China from Western European aggression. Positive re-evaluations of the Qing, as well as of the Han Chinese officials such as Li Hongzhang and Zeng Guofan who led the Tongzhi Restoration, have created a boom in publishing. Even as the state produces its officially commissioned Qing history, however, scholars outside China have tapped newly accessible Manchu-language archival materials to argue for an interpretation of this conquest dynasty that departs from the traditional narrative. Interest in identity formation among ethnic minorities has even spurred serious study of the historical formation of Han identity, a subject which has considerable resonance in China today.

The implications of what some have called the “new Qing history” go beyond the subject of Han nationalism. A new generation of scholars are learning Asian languages beyond Chinese in order to study Qing relations with neighboring groups from fresh perspectives which frequently deviate from those held by the Qing court. These studies promise to present provocative new stances for analyzing the Qing empire’s historical legacy. Chinese hegemony in the Asian world order, which some have assumed as a historical given, does not hold up to detailed scrutiny for earlier periods, and the extent of Qing control over the Inner Asian periphery is itself undergoing detailed analysis in new research. Recent writings highlight trade as a framework for Qing relations with its neighbors, supplanting the oft-cited “tribute” framework as a persistent long-term historical theme.

Furthermore, discarding the dynastic framework opens up the possibility that the Qing was actually a unique historical formation. Qing policies with respect to the Inner Asian periphery retained significance past 1911. How should we interpret the Qing role in tightening the court’s control over provinces and over the entire bureaucratic apparatus? Recent scholarship suggests that the centralization of government during the Qing was the result of ad hoc decisions at court, undertaken during military mobilizations. Ongoing research by James Lee, analyzing official [End Page 2] appointments by ethnic origin, promises to expand our understanding of the degree to which the Manchu rulers retained...


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