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  • The Politics of Rights and the 1911 Revolution in China by Xiaowei Zheng
  • Peter J. Carroll
Xiaowei Zheng. The Politics of Rights and the 1911 Revolution in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018. 358 pp. $90.00 (cloth), $29.95 (paper).

That the Railroad Rights Recovery movement helped trigger the 1911 Revolution and that the New Policies (1901–1911) are ripe for reconsideration as a period of formidable Qing state resurgence are verities of modern Chinese historiography. Nonetheless, scholarly analysis of these areas has often been macroscopic, not always connecting the high-flown rhetoric of constitutionalism, revolution, and statism with the nitty-gritty of local political and economic advantage. Xiaowei Zheng’s superb book advances significantly our understanding of both these subjects, effectively linking universal political aspirations to parochial interests and ambitions through a focused examination of factional maneuvering, discursive battles, and bloodshed over state and popular rights in late Qing Sichuan. In particular, she elucidates how the Railroad Rights Recovery movement—or, rather, concerns regarding the administration and ultimate ownership of railroads and the dispensation of their economic benefits—catalyzed the articulation of contending perspectives regarding popular and state rights and powers. She demonstrates the centrality of socioeconomic interest and rights to notions of national and provincial citizenship and of state vs. popular power and legitimacy. As such, Zheng’s study contributes to several important areas of historiography and is in conversation with keystones of scholarship such as Ralph Huenemann on the Railroad Rights Recovery movement, Li Hsiao-t’i on popular enlightenment societies, Chang Hao on intellectual transformation, and Min Tu-ki and Peter Zarrow on state administration and ideology.1 It also complements province-centered studies of the 1911 Revolution by Mary Rankin and Joseph Esherick by providing a granular look at the advent and immediate fate of the revolution in Sichuan.2 Yet Zheng’s ultimate subject is far grander: in sum, she provides a clear and compelling narrative of the advent of modern politics in China.

The first chapter characterizes nineteenth-century Qing Sichuan provincial administration and notions of political legitimacy as the status quo ante, in contrast to the wholesale transformation effected by the rise of popular self-determination and sovereignty, political rights, and anti-Qing activism, which are detailed in the subsequent seven chapters. Throughout the study, Sichuan’s perceived isolation—the product of its distance from Beijing and the North China civilizational heartland, its economic and social backwardness in comparison with the littoral zone, and its southwestern, border location—is invoked by historical actors to underscore the remarkably radical and inclusive nature of the popular railway protection movement and the consequent contestation and rejection of Qing imperial power. Few would have imagined it, but the first dramatic and consequential provincewide revolution involving modern nationalism, rights, and citizenship broke out in marginal, tradition-bound Sichuan, not in Zhejiang, Guangdong, or Hubei.

Zheng traces reformist currents that promoted the power and rule of the monarch vs. those of the people, along with the emergence of constitutionalism, in the 1890s and 1900s. She then focuses on the appropriation and development of these ideas in Sichuan, highlighting the actions of figures such as Pu Dianjun (蒲殿俊 1875–1934), the leading constitutionalist and chair of the Provincial Assembly whose influence on Sichuan was later compared to that of Lenin and Trotsky on Soviet Russia. Despite being dispatched by [End Page E-10] the state to study law in Japan, Pu, like many cultivated to direct state-led reform, became a champion of popular power, initially in conjunction with the Qing and finally against it. His transformation was partly driven by his support of the Sichuan Railway Protection Association. Escalating conflicts regarding foreign loans and the potential nationalization of commercially owned lines moved Pu first to accuse the state of violating both the commercial code and constitutional principles, then to adjure it and endorse revolution. Acting Governor-General Zhao Erfeng (趙爾豐 1845–1911) initially cooperated with railroad rights activists but earned their enmity by enacting the Qing Court’s increasingly stringent demands for control over railroads and by deploying troops against people protesting railroad policy (which had led to the detention of Pu, whose release...


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