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  • Civilizing the Chinese, Competing with the West: Study Societies in Late Qing China by Hon-Fai Chen
  • Joseph Tse-Hei Lee
Civilizing the Chinese, Competing with the West: Study Societies in Late Qing China, by Hon-Fai Chen. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2017. 316 pp. US$45.00. ISBN: 9789629966348.

This exciting book originates from a doctoral dissertation presented by Hon-Fai Chen to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2007. This work is a shining example of interdisciplinary scholarship that brings together sociological research, cultural studies, and historical analysis in the study of modern China.

Composed of ten lucid chapters, Chen's book presents a fresh and insightful sociological account of the institutional mechanisms that empowered activist intellectuals who organized numerous study societies (學會 xuehui) to launch programs of political, social, and cultural modernity during the late Qing era (1895–1911). Furthermore, Chen places the phenomenon of study societies in different temporal and spatial contexts, contrasting the efforts of activist scholars and radical students to construct the sociopolitical foundations of an imagined Chinese state in rural hinterlands and treaty ports.

Contrary to earlier interpretations that either subsume the importance of study society under the framework of reform and revolution or define it as a prototypical type of civil society, Chen demonstrates convincingly that attention to the evolving worldviews and social practices of these organizations throws light on the indigenization of global discourses like "civilization," "society," and "nation." Chen argues that the late Qing study societies played a pivotal role in China's transition from an absolutist empire into an expansionary nation-state. The ideological and sociological profiles of these groups determined the processes, patterns, and outcomes of civic activism in different spatial contexts. Their institutional setup also shaped how activist intellectuals interacted with the existing local powerholders and how they assessed the potential gains and losses from using revolutionary violence to achieve institutional change.

Chen divides his ten chapters thematically. The introduction gives a theoretical framework for analyzing the rise of study societies from both historical and sociological perspectives. By problematizing the terms "civilization," "society," and "nation" in the Chinese historiography, Chen conceptualizes the late Qing study societies as cultural mediators in transmitting, appropriating, and indigenizing the globally circulated concepts of modernization, revolutionary modernity, and nation-building. [End Page 221]

Chapters 1 and 2 examine the formation of hybrid worldviews among late Qing scholars. The emphasis was placed on prominent figures such as Kang Youwei (康有為) and Liang Qichao (梁啟超), who were determined to invent a modernized Confucian worldview and make it compatible with a Darwinian world of modern nations. The following two chapters assess the impacts of antiforeignism on the formation of study society movements from 1895 to 1900s. The Southern Study Society (南學會 Nan Xuehui) in Hunan's Changsha, in particular, was the most proactive one at the local level. It was known to have the markings of a functioning legislative, launching a series of modern reform programs and competing with the traditional gentry and foreign missionaries for influence.

Chapters 5 and 6 analyze the spatial variations of study society movement. As the center of political gravity moved from the hinterlands of Hunan to Shanghai, the agential figures were returning students from Japan, not Confucian scholars serving in the imperial court and provincial government. It is worth mentioning that Chen's differentiation of "scholars" and "students" was problematic. After the abolition of the civil service examination in 1905, many disillusioned Confucian scholars embraced modern learning and military training as new pathways toward success. There was a great deal of membership overlap between scholars and students in the study society movement. As these study societies became more radicalized and embraced revolutionary change, they saw Japan as a model and promoted the idea of military citizenship to unify different Chinese groupings. By and large, the study societies represented a combination of scholars' and grassroots efforts to construct the sociopolitical foundations of an imagined Chinese nation.

Devolving behind the theories of global modernity, state formation, and social transformation in Chapters 7 and 8, Chen draws on Norbert Elias's theory of the civilizing process, especially his insights on court society, civility, and sociability to investigate the separation of social...


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