- The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China by Michael Szonyi
Michael Szonyi's The Art of Being Governed is an engaging and thought-provoking study of how ordinary Chinese families devised strategies in order to manage obligations and pressure imposed by state institutions in the Ming period. It also explores how the legacies of such strategies outlived the Ming state and manifested themselves in the subsequent centuries. The "dramatis familiae" of the book are twenty-seven Ming military households living or assigned to garrisons in southeast coastal China (pp. xiii–xv). Under the household registration system established in the early Ming, each of the registered military households bore the hereditary obligation of providing a soldier for military service and in return was granted tax exemptions. An early Ming source indicates that one in five households were military households (p. 28), although the proportion varied considerably according to the region. While the Ming military forms the main subject of this book, Szonyi's concerns are distinctively social and local. Its main sources are materials such as family genealogies that Szonyi collected, primarily in coastal Fujian province, by "finding people, often elderly, who are interested in talking about and sharing their history" (p. 18). In Szonyi's own words, this book is "a social history of a Ming military institution in a local context, based on sources gathered and explored through fieldwork" (p. 19). Illuminated in those sources is the pervasive presence of military institutions in everyday life under the Ming, and this study's analytical scope reaches far beyond China's southeast coast.
As explained in the introduction, the title of this book is a nod both to Michel Foucault's notion of the art of governing and to James Scott's [End Page 232] influential book, The Art of Not Being Governed. The title succinctly encapsulates Szonyi's central arguments that Ming subjects developed "patterns of negotiation" (p. 231) with the state and that their political behavior—which he calls "everyday politics" (p. 7)—was by no means shaped by the binary choice between compliance and resistance but rather by "decisions about when to be governed, about how best to be governed, about how to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of being governed" (p. 8). While Scott saw the loss of literacy among Southeast Asian hill peoples as a deliberate strategy to distance themselves from state control, Szonyi's actors in this study embraced and employed "state language" (p. 220) in their maneuvering of different regulatory systems. Often expressed through text, their calculations, negotiations, and decisions constituted a "pattern of political interaction" that, according to Szonyi, "was not unique to soldiers but was distributed more broadly across Ming society, and was not unique to the Ming but can be identified in other times in Chinese history, and perhaps beyond" (p. 6).
The Art of Being Governed is divided into four parts, each exploring everyday political strategies of Ming military households in a different space and temporality. Part one, titled "In the Village," focuses on the native villages of conscripted Ming soldiers and opens with the story of the Zheng family of Zhangpu in coastal Fujian, which was registered as a military household in 1374. Drawing on their family genealogy, Szonyi traces how they negotiated within the family and allocated their resources, such as inheritance and ritual privileges, in order to reduce uncertainty, while ensuring that they fulfilled their military service obligation to the Ming state. In the case of the Ye family of Fuqing near Fuzhou, we meet a military household that received threats from local tax collectors in the mid-Ming due to their tax-exempt status and was able to fend off the threats only after they reestablished contact with the long-lost relative serving as a soldier in the north and were able to produce a document showing that the family's obligation to provide military service was being met. Afterwards, the Ye warmly welcomed the...