- Philip A. Kuhn, A Scholarly Appreciation
Over the course of his academic career, which lasted nearly forty years, Philip Kuhn shaped the field of Qing history more profoundly than any other scholar of his generation. He did this mainly with his books, each of which opened up new directions of research. He also shaped the field through his teaching, his presence at academic conferences, and his numerous lectures, but here I will concentrate on his major writings. These monographs laid the groundwork for investigation of some of the most significant topics of eighteenth and nineteenth century China, and they continue to guide our studies today.
This is a personal account of the evolution of Kuhn’s thinking, from the point of view of a younger colleague. I cannot really count myself as a student of Kuhn, since I finished my dissertation in 1980, shortly after he arrived at Harvard. He did me the great favor of signing it with no comment, but his influence on my own approach at that time came through his writings rather than in person. Later, however, I read his writings religiously, and often had the opportunity to discuss his new work over lunch, or to listen to him present it at the Fairbank Center. Rather than attempt a comprehensive survey of Kuhn’s works, I will focus on his major studies and compare his scholarship to others researching related topics at the same time. All of his books influenced other scholars, and they inspired others to head in new directions. But was Kuhn an outlier, a leader, or a trend setter? Did he march to his own drum, or did he seek to shape the collective wisdom of his time? His contributions embraced all of these facets.
Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China (1970)
In Rebellion and its Enemies, Kuhn laid out the essential themes that would guide his work for many years. He focused in particular on the relationship between the Qing bureaucracy and the non-official elites who assisted its rule. Chinese scholars who emigrated to the US in the postwar period had examined carefully the roles of this group they called the “gentry class.” 1They all recognized that the Qing rulers governed a population of hundreds of millions of people with an incredibly small bureaucracy, and they extracted only a small amount of tax income from [End Page 154]the agrarian society. How could they maintain their rule for hundreds of years on such a limited basis? The key lay in the examination system and its associated institutions: the private academies and lineages which instructed young men in moral values and practical statecraft. Only...