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  • Images of the Qing1
  • R. Kent Guy

When I was first teaching the Qing field I gave a lecture that, as I thought, would introduce the Qing Dynasty to undergraduate students at the University of Washington. Unconsciously, I personified the Qing, and found myself saying “The Qing did this,” or “The Qing did that.” One student quietly raised her hand, and asked: “What is a qing?” The question stopped me short, for I didn’t have an answer. The easiest answer would have been “read your textbook,” but that didn’t come to mind at the time. I have since reflected on the question, it seems appropriate on this occasion to look back and also forward at these images.

In recent years, I have found it useful in my teaching and writing to organize my understanding of the field into categories, based on what sort of regime scholars in the field imagined the Qing to be. In brief, I find there are three categories. When I first encountered the Qing, as a student in the late 1960s, the Qing was counted a failed dynasty. When I published my first book, it was the fashion to understand the Qing as an early modern state, engaged in same processes of state building as contemporary states in Europe. Most recently we have come to regard the Qing as an empire, with all of the complex nuances of imperialism and domination, control and subordination that phrase entails. This kind of Qing-as-empire history has come to be known recently as the “New Qing History.” Although we have learned much from the new Qing history, I fear now we must begin to consider a post New Qing Qing History. The facts of Qing history have of course not changed, though to some degree the documents we learn them from have. What has changed [End Page 14] is the context, political and intellectual, of the study of Qing history. It may well be that American scholarship is particularly affected by the changes of context, since it is our role to explain Chinese history to other westerners, and in doing so, often have to use terms and paradigms our fellow westerners will understand.

Post New Qing Qing History

What sort of work will constitute the future of Qing history, post-imperial Qing history, if you will? Historians aren’t trained to predict the future, and do so only at very great risk. However, a review of the past thirty years suggests several needs that should be addressed. First, any view of the Qing in the future will have to acknowledge that it was an empire. But what kind of empire was it? World history has seen many polities that ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-lingual populations. Have they all been the same, in any but the broadest outlines? Can we find a new vision of the Qing empire which distinguishes the dynasty from ancient empires, like Han and Rome, and modern empires like the British or, if you will, the American? Second, any vision we evolve of the Qing should be able to account both for its eighteenth-century strength and its nineteenth-century weakness. We must learn to explain the triumphs of eighteenth-century Qing in a way consistent with what happened in the nineteenth century. Rather than say the eighteenth-century operation was a success but the patient died, we must find a new diagnosis, and it seems to me we must do this by carefully working our way from the end of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth. Several recent books have started this study, and I regard it as one of the most productive directions in Qing history at the moment. Third, we must populate the history of the middle Qing period with real people, and develop a social and institutional context for the documents were read. We must approach lives not because they fit paradigms, whether derived from ideology or sociology, but because they played a significant part in the lives of empires.

Both Paul Cohen and Evelyn Rawski point to the importance of the “modernization” paradigm and its related “western impact, Chinese response” notion in the 1960s and...


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