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  • State-Sponsored Inequality: The Banner System and Social Stratification in Northeast China by Shuang Chen
  • Kate Merkel-Hess
State-Sponsored Inequality: The Banner System and Social Stratification in Northeast China. By Shuang Chen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017. xviii plus 342 pp. $65.00).

In 1824, the government of the Qing Dynasty established a rural settlement named Shuangcheng on its northeastern frontier. As the ancestral homeland of the ruling Manchus, the northeastern region of Manchuria (present-day Liaodong, Jilin, and Heilongjiang Provinces) had been off limits to settlement since the founding of the dynasty in 1644. The government, under pressure from a growing population, eventually opened the area to widespread settlement in the 1860s. First, though, it tried an experiment in social engineering: recruiting over 5,000 Manchu soldiers and their families to move to the unsettled northeastern frontier and make a go of it in 120 government-created villages.

The Shuangcheng experiment is the subject of Shuang Chen's richly textured book, which tracks the settlement from its founding in 1824 into the early years of the Republic of China, established in 1912. Her subject is primarily the way that state policies created social hierarchies that conferred long-term financial and social benefits to those at the top. Along the way, she also sheds light on the making of community, Qing policy making in the late nineteenth century and the structures and realities of the Manchu banner system in which all the settlers were enrolled. (All ethnic Manchus were enrolled in the Eight Banners, serving as soldiers when the state needed. They received lifetime government stipends in return.)

Chen skillfully tells the story of Shuangcheng's settlement while also wringing broader historical meaning from a single, uniquely-formed cluster of villages. Shuangcheng began as the brainchild of elite officials. The government was in a financial pinch and eager to find ways to lessen the burden of the bannermen, particularly those who resided in the capital of Beijing. The officials thought they could convince some metropolitan bannermen to exchange their government stipends for frontier land, ridding the government of a financial burden and settling the resource-rich northeast all at once.

The new society in Shuangcheng was one of clearly delineated social hierarchies–a ready-made case study for the effects of "state-sponsored inequality" and the persistence of such inequality across decades and even changes in government (4). In addition to the metropolitan bannermen—who, as it turned out, were loath to relinquish the city life—the government also recruited [End Page 1407] bannermen who had been garrisoned in rural areas and were more accustomed to the hardships of land clearance and farming. The government delineated treatment for each group—metropolitan bannermen were allocated twice as much land as rural bannerman and then most metropolitan bannermen hired rural bannermen as tenant farmers, not deigning to work the land themselves. On the bottom of Shuangcheng's new social hierarchy were ethnically Han civilian commoners, who occupied "tenant villages" on Shuangcheng's outskirts and who, despite the government's ideological desire to keep them out of Shuangcheng and Manchuria more broadly, were needed as laborers.

The state—and the metropolitan bannermen—worked hard to maintain these social hierarchies. Through meticulous research that draws on household and land registers, legal cases, and central government policy, Chen gives an intimate picture of how the metropolitan bannermen used their privileged status to expand landholdings, wealth, and social influence.

For instance, in the affecting and effective Chapter 6, Chen follows one family in Shuangcheng, the descendants of a migrant from Beijing named Huliantai, who arrived in Shuangcheng with his wife and three sons in 1826. Through the descent line's ups and downs—at certain points several of the descendent households were some of the largest landholders in Shuangcheng, while other lines died out—Chen demonstrates that metropolitan banner families strategically used their privileges to increase landholdings, but they also worked as a family collective to pool resources and protect the resource that mattered most to long-term family success: sons. The role of family was particularly critical in Shuangcheng, where, because of the villages' top-down creation, society was loosely organized...


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