- Negotiated Power: The State, Elites, and Local Governance in Twelfth- to Fourteenth-Century China by Sukhee Lee
For four decades, historians of China’s middle period have tried to run before they walked, ruminating on the evolution of the country’s political and social elites at a macro level before building the necessary foundation in empirical research, especially in the realm of local history. Sukhee Lee’s impeccably researched and deftly executed book delivers a major salvo to prevailing assumptions in the field, while providing alternative ways of reading some of the same texts that informed earlier scholarship. This is the rare book where the footnotes are nearly as meaty as the text itself, due to the author’s tendency to consign his most biting criticism to the notes.
Lee addresses elite development at Mingzhou 明州, modern Ningbo 寧波, from the Southern Song (1127–1279) through the Yuan (1271–1368), when the fortunes of Mingzhou’s elite families soared to dizzying heights, in pace with Ningbo’s growing economic and cultural development. This is terrain familiar to me as a political historian of the Southern Song. Court and Family in Sung China, my 1986 book on the Shi of Yin county 鄞縣史氏, examines the crème of the region’s political crop—a lineage that produced three generations of chief councilors, five generations of assistant councilors, and hundreds of lesser officials in the course of two centuries. 1 I knew that my limited focus on the political story would prompt later writers to take up the many social history issues not addressed there, such as kinship organization, marriage strategies, and community leadership. Since then, new primary sources have come to light and archeological discoveries made, including a cluster of several dozen tombs dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries in the Ningbo suburbs. 2 At the same time, interest in the wider history of China’s coastal development has been on the rise at home and abroad, especially in Japan. [End Page 227]
Robert Hartwell’s seminal 1982 article, “Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750–1550” posited a vast chasm between the Northern Song (960–1127) and its successor in the south. His argument presented the elite devolving from its primary focus on political office to a narrow concern with local activities and networks, a trend that continued into the Yuan and early Ming (1368–1644). As the imperial imprint shrunk, the upper classes became increasingly autonomous and self-perpetuating, while the state’s involvement with local society declined. And the examination degree, rather than providing the path for official advancement, became merely a marker of social status. 3 Hartwell focused on marriage networks and community activism in particular to identify the “localist strategies” of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He also pointed to certain institutions as markers of this trend toward decentralized governance during Southern Song times, including the Grand [fiscal] commissariat (zonglingsuo 總領所) (p. 14). Unfortunately, Hartwell’s strengths as an economic historian often proved his greatest weakness when venturing into social and political history.
A succession of Hartwell students at the University of Pennsylvania would attempt to apply his thesis to individual locales starting from the late 1970s, including Hugh Clark, Paul Smith, and Linda Walton-Vargo, but his most industrious acolyte is Robert Hymes, author of two books on Fuzhou 撫州, Jiangxi, books loyal to the overall outlines of Hartwell’s work. 4 Hymes also coedited a symposium volume on the “Song–Yuan transition,” while Smith coedited a volume on the “Song–Yuan–Ming transition.” 5 I have long referred to the group as the “Penn School,” though it has expanded to include Columbia University, where Hymes has taught for the past three decades and has produced students with similar interests.
Later, Peter Bol at Harvard University, the adviser of Sukhee Lee, the [End Page 228] author of the book under review, succumbed to the sway of Hartwell, whose argument about elite evolution dovetails nicely with Bol’s own work in intellectual history. In “This...