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  • The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China by Michael Szonyi
  • R. Bin Wong
The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China. By Michael Szonyi (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017) 303 pp. $35.00

It is unusual for a work about Ming Dynasty (1368–1643) history to be anchored deeply in sources and yet able to move nimbly through multiple stories of ordinary people. Even more surprising is a carefully argued research monograph about the early modern era that has little connection to events or people in Europe but manages to make a compelling argument for why historians who do not work on China should be drawn to reading it. Szonyi's subject is specific—efforts to achieve material success and minimize vulnerability to the military-service obligation assigned to one ancestor within a household that later any of his male descendants could fulfill.

The Art of Being Governed is composed of three parts discussing villages, guards, and military colonies, respectively. Each part has two chapters, the six chapters being followed by a seventh chapter in a final part about the legacy of this Ming system for subsequent everyday politics. Szonyi shows people coping with conscription by attempting to insulate [End Page 525] family members from state impositions by specifying or concentrating them as narrowly as possible, to increase their predictability, and to assure that all descendants of a patriarch shared these inherited obligations. Extended families recognized that desertion and default by any given soldier placed them at risk for fulfilling the required military service. Hence, the strategy of compensating the household that undertook the conscription burden had to be qualified by the perceived risk of that household's recruit(s) fleeing their obligation.

Part II addresses two topics. The first is the well-known yet murky subject of piracy, which Szonyi presents from the vantage point of a military that was both responsible for controlling piracy and often engaged in the very activities that it was expected to prevent. The second theme is the varied ways in which officers and soldiers could either integrate into the larger local society or, to the contrary, reproduce their separateness over generations, to the extent that they even retained their own distinctive "soldier's dialect." Part III further explores people's efforts to maximize their opportunities and limit the burdens of service. Part III has one chapter about post-Ming legacies of the military household-registration system, discussing the ways in which Ming tax regulations influenced subsequent Qing dynasty practices despite the dissolution of the Ming household-registration system.

China specialists will find that this book examines the Ming military system of conscription not in the usual terms of its autocratic tendencies or its lumbering and ineffective bureaucracy but instead as a framework within which individuals made choices to maximize benefits and minimize risks. One challenge is to determine how to generalize from the situations of people who may have been more closely controlled in this respect than was the civilian population at large. For historians more generally, this book highlights strategic behavior among at least some ordinary people living in an institutional environment foreign to other early modern contexts. Alhough Szonyi does not employ the concept of negotiating explicitly until late in the book, the study largely shows how people were able to take advantage of differences between systems or situations to achieve gain—what economists today call, as Szonyi points out, regulatory arbitrage. Key to this ability is the use of contracts in ways that spill out from the strictly legal frameworks familiar in European history to include more informal means of adjudicating disagreements. Szonyi's Chinese did not exercise "voice," from the troika of Hirschman's possibilities "exit, voice, and loyalty"; they appear to have negotiated their lives under an authority that was met more directly in Western societies by voice.1 Such an understanding should help historians to place Chinese experiences into early modern history more broadly. [End Page 526]

R. Bin Wong
University of California, Los Angeles


1. Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Cambridge, Mass., 1970).


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