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China’s relations with the Asian world between 1500 and 1900 were shaped by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. A common denominator in these international relationships was a loose framework of ideological principles and administrative procedures later dubbed by scholars the “tributary system.” This “system,” first posited in the early 1940s, has remained the single most influential concept for interpreting the interactions of Ming and Qing China with Asian countries. However, in recent decades it has been critiqued from various perspectives, narrowed in the scope of its application, and modified by a greater focus on the actual course of specific cases rather than ideological principles. That is, historians have increasingly come to understand China’s relations with the Asian world as influenced by pragmatic considerations and changing local dynamics, so that each relationship and the factors shaping it are best understood on their own terms. One approach to the study of Ming and Qing relations with the Asian world is to consider it within the framework of three regional groupings. China’s interactions with its neighbors in Northeast Asia were shaped by its largely stable relations with Korea and the Ryukyu Kingdom, and its radically fluctuating relations with Japan, sometimes marked by conflict and sometimes by the deliberate avoidance of political contact. Early Ming political relations with maritime Southeast Asia atrophied as the role of European and private Chinese merchant intermediaries increased. Those with continental Southeast Asia (particularly Burma, Siam, and Vietnam), more enduring, were influenced by intense regional rivalries that occasionally impinged on the borderlands of China’s southern provinces. In these two regions, the Ming–Qing transition, although particularly resented in Korea where it involved two invasions, did not radically alter existing patterns of international relations. By contrast, the vast territorial expansion of the Qing Empire did greatly change China’s foreign relations to the north and west, where it encountered states that had not had relations with the Ming. In these regions the Qing government drew principles and practices from its foreign relations in the south and east, but modified them to fit new conditions. After 1800, and more intensively after 1850, European and later Japanese imperial power began to penetrate Central, South, Southeast, and ultimately East Asia, in each region undermining existing Qing relationships with Asian neighbors. By 1900, virtually all former Qing tributaries were under the direct or indirect control of the British, Russian, French, or Japanese empires.

Article

Although frontier studies enjoy a long and robust history in China, a disproportionate amount of attention has focused on North China and its relations with Central and Northeast Asia, while only a handful of historians have paid much attention to the history of South and Southwest China. Those that do invariably offer a narrative that presents Southwest China (the current provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and the southwestern portion of Sichuan) as unequivocal parts of greater China since at least the end of the 3rd century bce. They accomplish this by selectively including only the events that reinforce inflated notions of Han superiority, while at the same time expunging from the historical records events and episodes that challenge the internal cohesion of this metanarrative and disparage the Han. Throughout China’s long history, they argue, Han from the Central Plain (zhongyuan) region of North China have continuously migrated south in search of land and opportunity, and over time Han cultural practices, centralized and hierarchical political institutions, a sophisticated written language, and a socially differentiated society that generates surplus revenue, have transformed nearly all of the “barbarian” non-Han into civilized Han. What the Chinese metanarrative fails to offer, however, is perspective, for it not only deprives the southwest of its own history, such as a thoughtful examination of the vibrant kingdoms that existed in the southwest, like the Cuan (338–747), Muege (c. 300–1283), Nanzhao (738–937), and Dali (937–1253) kingdoms, to name just a few, but also it refuses to offer a critical examination of how the Chinese empire colonized this territory.

Article

Up until the final four decades of the Qing Dynasty, fiscal extraction in imperial China was primarily a matter of taxing agricultural production, generally in the form of an annual property tax assessed on the basis of landholding, and collected in either grain or cash. All major dynasties prior to the Qing wielded this fiscal instrument somewhat flexibly, with large-scale reforms, usually leading to significantly higher taxes, occurring around mid-dynasty, but the Qing broke this trend: the absolute volume of agricultural taxes remained locked in place for the great majority of its 278-year life span, despite a near tripling of both the population and the economy. This eventually rendered the Qing fiscal state an extreme outlier in both horizontal and vertical comparisons: relative to the economy it governed, not only was it much smaller than its major early modern competitors, ranging from Japan to Western European states to other central Asian empires, but it was also probably the smallest post-Qin dynastic state by far. Preexisting scholarship has largely failed to identify, let alone explain, this sudden and dramatic shift in fiscal policy towards the end of China’s imperial history. There are a number of possible explanations for it, some of which have appeared in the extant literature, but the most promising one—which has not appeared—seems to be that the extraordinary circumstances of the Ming–Qing transition served as the catalyst for a decisive conservative turn in Chinese fiscal thought, pushing the Qing state into a fundamentally different political and institutional equilibrium than its predecessors.

Article

Lena Scheen

Over the past millennium, Shanghai transformed from a relatively insignificant market town and county capital into a major global metropolis. A combination of technical advances in agriculture, waterway management, and the natural changes in the course of some rivers and the silting of others led, in 1292, to the founding of the county capital Shanghai. The town went through alternate periods of growth and stagnation, but by the mid-19th century, it was an international trading hub with a population of a quarter of a million people. One of the turning points in its history came in 1842, the year that the Treaty of Nanking was signed by the Qing Empire and the United Kingdom and the Treaty Port of Shanghai opened up. Over the following century, Shanghai was divided into three main sections, each operating under its own laws and regulations: the International Settlement, the French Concession, and the Chinese city. In the 1930s, the fate of the city fell into the hands of yet another foreign power: Japan. After Japan’s surrender on 15 August 1945, Chinese nationalists and communists continued their struggle for control of the city for another four years until the People’s Liberation Army “liberated” Shanghai on 25 May 1949.

Article

The ruling elite of imperial China was composed of diverse groups, including imperial clansmen and in-laws, eunuchs and other palace attendants, as well as incumbents of a vast civil and military bureaucracy who had hailed, in some historical periods, from different social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. The distribution of power among these groups shifted constantly in tandem with the vagaries of political situations. Of these groups, the most prominent and best documented were the shi, who derived their status from a confluence of economic, social, political, and cultural resources. What it meant to be a shi and who qualified as a shi varied greatly over time. The first shi were men of talent who were recruited into government on account of their administrative, military, and diplomatic abilities, regardless of their family or regional origin. The rise of these shi was itself a corollary of China’s transition into the imperial era, which was marked by a persistent endeavor by warring states to build an effective bureaucratic administration staffed by capable men. Within a few centuries, however, the shi had become a semi-hereditary elite, comprising a relatively small number of families that monopolized high offices in government, resided in the capital, and married almost exclusively among themselves. This superelite dissipated in the 10th and 11th centuries, in the midst of a series of economic, social, and political changes that profoundly transformed the character of the shi as well as their relationship to the imperial state and local society. In the subsequent millennium, learning took precedent over pedigree and officeholding in defining shi status. Hence, the shi became a more inclusive epithet and was adopted by all men who had the education that qualified them for government service, thus blurring the distinction between government officials and a more diffuse stratum of local leaders. These transformations took place in the context of longue-durée economic and social changes from Song times onwards, including the growth of private wealth, the spread of printing, the expansion of the educated population, and the development of various local social institutions.

Article

An expeditionary force soldier. A jungle war survivor. A patriot who traded opportunities in the United States for a tedious journey home to the newly founded People’s Republic of China. A “counterrevolutionary.” A forced laborer who spent the last third of his life translating English and Russian literature.—A poet. Careful study of Mu Dan’s (1918–1977) poetry enables us to explore a string of moments in modern China’s transformation. Twenty-two poems by Mu Dan have been selected as a history of China from the climax of the New Culture Movement (1919) through the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1976). Fusing linguistic audacity, philosophical acumen, and historical vision, they weave a thread of themes illuminating the tortured path of a nation and an individual. Further, they span a spectrum of sentiments ranging from those of ordinary people to those of extraordinary intellectuals. To reveal the turning points in modern China’s history, the twenty-two poems have been contextualized along two axes. A vertical axis, the thread of themes, consists of eleven motifs developed and revisited by Mu Dan from 1940 through 1976; they are: Youth, War, Disillusion, Maturity, Sacrifice, Exposure, Enlightenment, Conversion, Awakening, Anguish, and Reflection. A horizontal axis, the spectrum of sentiments, exhibits Mu Dan’s contradictory attitudes toward modern China’s transformation by identifying him with his countrymen or distancing him from them as a free spirit and cultural critic. This conceptual framework assists in examining the interaction between history and literature. It demonstrates how modern China’s history informs, provokes, and shapes a poet whose life span coincides with it and, at the same time, how poetry can be and is being read as history itself. This reading allows more than new access to the historical events that mold a poet and his poetry. Reading poetry as history uncovers lost sentiments, struggles, observations, and critiques that advance our understanding of modern China.

Article

From the first establishment of a museum in 1905 to the early-21st-century drive to build local museums, Chinese elites and officials have recognized the role of exhibitions in shaping the modern nation. Across this long 20th century, China’s exhibitionary culture has reflected three themes: the deployment of antiquity and tradition to inculcate national consciousness, the creation of revolutionary narratives to model political participation, and the presentation of modernity to inspire a vision of national “wealth and power.” During the Republican period (1912–1949), the Nationalists protected the imperial collection and established revolutionary memorial halls, and elites built local museums while businessmen championed native goods in national product fairs. The Communist Party, which came to power in 1949, created a Museum of the Chinese Revolution while also developing a cultural bureaucracy to preserve cultural relics. During the Mao years (1949–1976), exhibitions were part of everyday life, from rural exhibits about agricultural production to propaganda displays that justified class struggle. Since China’s period of “reform and opening-up” in 1978, exhibitions have played a central role in cultural diplomacy while also serving national aims of domestic tourism and “patriotic education.” The enterprise of the Chinese museum has always had a dual aim: to make the modern nation and to serve the pedagogical state.

Article

Sabine Dabringhaus

China’s minority policy after 1949 combined the Qing legacy with a socialist affirmative strategy. The concept of a multiethnic Chinese state derived from Qing ideology and policy in the 18th century, when the Qianlong emperor realized his vision of universal rulership by expanding the Qing empire deep into Central Asia. During the nation-building period of the first half of the 20th century, the imperial geobody was reconstituted as a Sinocentric and multiethnic nation-state. Ideological rivals the Guomindang and the Communist Party both pursued hegemonic strategies of national unity by constructing a new myth of national belonging firmly rooted in history. But China’s weak international position and the internal crisis of the Republican state prevented the implementation of any territorial concept of national unity. In the People’s Republic of China, ethnic diversity was restructured according to a majority-minority dichotomy. Historical multiculturalism was reduced to fifty-six rigid minzu “containers” defined by strictly applied criteria of language, religion, and customs. The minorities were integrated into the unitary Chinese nation and granted only regional autonomy. Although the autonomous regions produced expectations of belonging among their titular nationalities, the official minority policy was strongly assimilationist in the 1960s and 1970s, generating centrifugal forces of ethnic resistance. Since the 1990s, a popular nationalism stoked by the central government has been expanding into a broader sense of Chineseness in a globalizing world.

Article

When the origins and development of the Chinese Communist Movement before it seized the state power in 1949 are examined, while conventionally the movement is periodized according to its respective main task of struggle, it can also be divided into four distinct phases in reference to the dominant ethos and style in each phase. To avoid the movement-centric pitfalls, it can be shown how the structural circumstances and organizational ecologies in each phase conditioned the fashioning of its dominant ethos. In its earliest phase, a failing parliamentary politics with relatively strong civil society and weak state institutions thus shaped its ethos as a social movement led by intellectuals, with sprawling networks but loose coordination. After being purged and outlawed by the Kuomintang, the movement began to bifurcate into two segments, one dedicating to urban clandestine activities and the other capitalizing on the state devolution in the countryside. The KMT’s incremental state building efforts narrowed the space of the movement, until it came almost to the brink of organizational extinction, even though its intellectual fellow travelers had helped score much success in ideological and cultural domains. The forced retreat of the Long March inaugurated a third phase of exploration and openness, when the movement regained its legal activities and attracted broadening support from a variety of social sectors. Yet, the scrambling of resources as a result of the structure of triadic conflicts with Japan and the KMT ended that phase of exploration and openness. A new phase of internal tightening and external softening cemented its hegemony yet also consolidated and institutionalized a leader-centric organizational culture that partly mirrored its competitor and partly borrowed from the Soviet template. Tracing its transformation from a social movement to an institution with its own organizational myths, rituals and rules, the teleological narrative gives way to an emphasis on the contingent interactions between its organizational environment and its internal evolution. Such a viewpoint also underscores the politics of interpretation in the formation of its organizational power and authority.

Article

Despite important continuities in imperial practices and bureaucratic structures, the spatial organization of Chinese government and society evolved in significant ways over the course of the two millenniums of the imperial period (221 bce–1911 ce). Different dynasties were structured in very different ways, some controlling only the agricultural zone of “China Proper,” or portions thereof, and some establishing distinct administrations to exert authority over the jungles, mountains, deserts, and steppe lands on the peripheral exterior. Successive regimes turned to a range of strategies to maintain order in the interior, collect tax revenue, and supply both the enormous population inhabiting the capital and the armies defending the frontiers. In addition, by the beginning of the 2nd millennium ce, there was a noticeable trend toward greater economic and cultural integration across China’s vast territory. A range of factors explain this trend, including the intensification of marketing networks following a medieval commercial revolution, a “localist turn” that spurred a decentralization of the imperial elite, and changes in how policymakers envisioned the nature of their state.

Article

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, most of whom live today within the People’s Republic of China. Virtually all Uyghurs are Muslims, and most are oasis farmers, small-time traders, or craftsmen. They constitute the majority population of the Tarim Basin, a region that eventually fell under Chinese rule after the Qing conquest of 1759. Although Turkic speakers predominated in the Tarim Basin for several centuries, the modern Uyghur identity was only named and formalized in the 20th century. During that period, a succession of Chinese states gradually transformed Uyghur lands from a loosely held dependency under the Qing to a closely monitored, assimilationist, settler colony in the 21st century, ruled by a Han Chinese–dominated bureaucracy. Uyghurs inherit traditions rooted in Turko-Persianate Central Asia, elaborated in the 20th century by strong influences from Soviet Central Asia and continually adapted to a political context of shifting outsider regimes punctuated by briefly successful independence movements.