Turbulent Empire

The Magistrate's Tael: Rationalizing Fiscal Reform in Eighteenth-Century Ch'ing China

by Madeleine Zelin
University of California Press, 385 pp., $35.00

The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China

by Philip C. C. Huang
Stanford University Press, 369 pp., $38.50

From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China Harvard University Press

by Benjamin A. Elman
Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, distributed by, 368 pp., $20.00

Among the great and enduring questions in the study of Chinese history are these: In an agricultural country of such extraordinary size how was the land farmed and what were the patterns of ownership and tenancy? How was the rural revenue extracted from the farms and apportioned to the different sectors of the imperial bureaucracy? What was the ideology that served as the country’s social bond, and what was the relation to the state of the scholars who created that ideology? The scale of these questions and the span of China’s history make definitive answers elusive; but the recent appearance of three remarkably fine books by Madeleine Zelin, Philip Huang, and Benjamin Elman certainly takes us a major step forward in our attempts to find explanations.

The fact that all three books concentrate on eighteenth-century China—Zelin’s entirely so, Huang’s to a significant extent, and Elman’s in great measure—testifies to an important change that has taken place in the recent historiography of China. In studies of late imperial China, at least those written in America, there have been several broad shifts in emphasis over the last forty years. The first important field of research was that of nineteenth-century Chinese reactions to the pressures of Western trade, warfare, and technology. By the later 1960s, though there were still important studies of nineteenth-century history, the attention of many scholars moved to the specifics of the 1911 revolution, which brought down the Ch’ing dynasty, and to the era of warlordism and emerging Communist organizations that followed.

By the later 1970s a significant number of able young scholars were turning backward. They were beginning to explore the history of the later Ming dynasty, the reasons for that dynasty’s collapse in 1644, and the reactions of the intelligentsia to life under the successor Ch’ing dynasty in the second half of the seventeenth century. Now in the mid-Eighties we have suddenly reached a new stage, one in which we are beginning to get a sense of eighteenth-century China as a whole.

Each of the three new studies under review makes a clearly stated point which is of considerable polemical importance for understanding the shape of Chinese history and which is designed to stop us from giving undue weight to the place of Western imperialism in China’s recent history. Madeleine Zelin suggests that the failure in the late eighteenth century to maintain the impetus of earlier financial reforms proves that the economic disasters of the nineteenth century—seen by other historians as crucial precursors of revolution in the twentieth century—were in fact mere sequels to a pattern fixed a century earlier.

Philip Huang, after a careful examination of northern Chinese land tenure in the eighteenth century, concludes that patterns making rural labor a semiproletariat, the development of managerial farms, and the dangerous overreliance on certain specialized cash crops such as cotton long antedated the impact of the world market on China. Hence these cannot be seen just as recent phenomena triggering revolutionary tensions.

Benjamin Elman finds that the eighteenth-century…

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