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  • Speaking of Profit: Bao Shichen and Reform in Nineteenth-Century China by William T. Rowe
  • Margherita Zanasi (bio)
William T. Rowe. Speaking of Profit: Bao Shichen and Reform in Nineteenth-Century China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018. x, 220pp. Hardcover $39.95, isbn 978-0-674-98380-9.

William T. Rowe's new book is an important addition to recent works focusing on early nineteenth-century China, an area that, in Rowe's own words, "attracted much less scholarly attention" than the "prosperous high-Qing age" (p. 1). Rowe joins the authors of those works in presenting this period as an important time of transition, not because it marked the beginning of an inexorable decline of the Qing dynasty but because it marked a new set of political and economic preoccupations that inspired competent officials and emperors—rather than apathetic and irresolute ones—to launch a new style of reforms.1 As Rowe argues, the early nineteenth century should instead be seen as "the transition era into modern Chinese history" (p. 9).

In this book, Rowe's main goal is to "explore the complexity of China's early nineteenth-century crisis, and the anxieties it generated, through a detailed examination of the role of a single well-placed observer, Bao Shichen," "a recognized 'expert,' consulted in a broad but defined range of policy areas" (pp. 12–13). This objective informs the organization of this book. In Chapter 1, "Orientations," Rowe introduces the life of Bao Shichen as well as the intellectual environment and scholarly networks in which he moved. He then discusses in detail Bao's political and economic ideas (Chapter 2, "Governance"; Chapter 3, "Farming") and his participation in important reform projects (Chapter 4, "Grain"; Chapter 5, "Salt") and in the debate on the silver crisis that was at the foundation of the Daoguang Depression (Chapter 6, "Money"). Rowe concludes his book with a final assessment of the significance of Bao's vision for reforming the political economy of the empire, arguing that it signaled the emergence of new trends that were to fully develop in the Self-Strengthening period (Chapter 7, "Speaking of Profit"). This organization contributes to vividly bringing to life Bao Shichen as a person, his lively intellectual journeys, his commitment to solving China's current crisis, and the reformist spirit that pervaded his time.

The first chapter places Bao in the social and intellectual environment of the lower Yangzi region where he established life-long friendships with a group of intelligent and capable scholars and officials. Bao shared with these scholars not only their particular concerns with the three main issues they believed to be at the foundation of the crisis of the early 1800s—population growth, the inefficiency of the imperial administration, and rural decline—but also their methodological approach. In general, these scholars rejected Neo-Confucian morality as well as kaozheng erudite philological approaches, favoring, instead, statecraft (jingshi) and practical learning (shixue) methodologies in the study of [End Page 228] political and economic problems of the empire. As a result, their works focused more pragmatically and flexibly on what Bao described as political and economic "advantage, benefit, profit, or simply 'what works'"—rather than on morality or Confucian legitimacy (p. 28). Their concerns for the prosperity of the empire led them to recognize that both ben and mo economic activities were forms of wealth (benmo xifu) and to respect the role played by private interests (li) in the economy (pp. 18–21). As Rowe points out, however, the shared intellectual background of these scholars did not imply that they reached similar conclusions. Although long-time friends, Bao and Hong Liangji (1746–1809), for example, sharply disagreed on the problem of population growth (p. 41 and Chapter 3).

Like other early nineteenth-century reformers, Bao Shichen believed that the serious crisis the empire faced in this period was in large part the result of the maladministration of the Qianlong period, aggravated by the corrupt practices and excess of Heshen (pp. 51–53). He believed, therefore, that a careful reorganization of the administration was a crucial prerequisite for all further reforms. Two main ideas informed his vision of how to restore...


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