- After the Prosperous Age: State and Elites in Early Nineteenth-Century Suzhou by Seunghyun Han
Seunghyun Han's After the Prosperous Age addresses the relationship between the state and local elites in late Qing China. It both revises our understanding of when power began to shift from the hands of the central authorities to those of the local gentry and suggests a series of methods for gauging the nature of this shift. As such, After the Prosperous Age is an important contribution to long-standing historiographical debates within China studies over the nature of state/society relations, the emergence (or not) of a "public sphere," and the significance of these issues for understanding Chinese political institutions and political culture.
Han's work argues for a reconceptualization of what might be called the "standard narrative" of state/local elite relations during the final century of Qing rule. That account emphasizes the centrality of the 1850-1864 Taiping Rebellion, which Qing authorities suppressed only after delegating significant authority to elite actors at the local level. This authority, once lost, would never be recovered by the Qing ruling house; empowered local elites, ultimately, would play a pivotal role in the dynasty's overthrow in 1911-1912. Han, by contrast, views the throne's empowerment of local elites after 1850 as an intensification of already existing trends rather than the creation of new ones. Power, he argues, had already begun to shift from the throne to the localities during the slow-burning early nineteenth century crisis of state finances, long before the birth of Hong Xiuquan and other Taiping leaders. Thus, in order to understand the full significance of the growth of local elite power during the late Qing, Han suggests that our attention needs to be refocused on the oft-ignored early nineteenth century reigns of the Jiaqing and Daoguang emperors.
This revised chronology is substantiated by several methods for measuring the relative power of the central authorities and local elites during the period between 1796 and 1850. Han divides his work into two main sections, one focused on the growth of the economic and administrative power of local elites and the other on the expression of this power in the cultural sphere. The first section utilizes Qing archival documents, standard sources for Qing history such as the Qing shilu [Qing Veritable Records], local gazetteers, and holdings from various rare book rooms to trace the growing reliance on local elites for the financing and the management of water conservancy projects and famine relief efforts from the late eighteenth century onward. Imperial recognition and encouragement of these roles in the early nineteenth century is contrasted with the repeated insistence of previous rulers, particularly the Qianlong emperor [End Page 60] (r. 1735-1796), that the central government and its appointees take the lead in such endeavors. Han amply documents this shift through close readings of Qing procedures for rewarding local contributions, analyses of imperial rescripts from the Qianlong and Jiaqing emperors, and other sources. Several specific examples of elite-led early nineteenth century projects in the Suzhou, Jiangsu region are discussed in detail.
The second section assesses the enhanced cultural power of local elites that resulted from their greater fiscal and managerial role in such projects. This is clearly a much more difficult phenomenon to measure. To tackle this problem, Han develops several innovative (and convincing) approaches for measuring the cultural capital of local elites in the early nineteenth century. These include tracing rising levels of elite editorial control over local gazetteers and the increasing ability of elites to narrate local history. These, too, are both illustrated by examples drawn from Suzhou. The most interesting of Han's measures, however, is his analysis of the enshrinement of "eminent officials" and "local worthies" for the edification (and glorification) of local elites in chapters 4 and 5. Han's research uncovers a striking contrast in views between eighteenth-century monarchs and...