Local Elites in Ming-Qing China

Tze-ki Hon

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Local Elites in Ming-Qing China

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  • East Asian Studies
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Also known as late imperial China, the Ming-Qing period (1368–1911) has received increasing attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a result of debates over China’s modernization. At issue in the debates is whether China was able to modernize without foreign interventions. For a long time after World War II, China was viewed as politically and socially stagnant. Shaped by the Weberian notion of bureaucracy and the Marxist concept of “the Asiatic mode of production,” scholars argued that the Chinese could not revitalize their political and social systems until external stimuli (such as imperialism) arrived. In stark contrast to this earlier view, the Ming-Qing period is now seen as a turning point when fundamental transformations took place owing to a robust economy, a vibrant society, and strong local leadership. Research shows that before widespread contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century, China had already created a mobile and diverse society. One thing that separates the new view from the old is the definition of local elites. From the 1950s to the 1970s local elites were considered a homogeneous group of scholar-officials who worked for the imperial government after passing the civil service examinations. Commonly known as gentry or literati, scholar-officials were said to have exercised their power as government officials and local leaders. In both capacities their power came directly from the imperial state. In contrast, since the mid-1980s local elites have been understood more broadly as a diverse group of degree holders who might or might not work for the imperial government. This expansion of the meaning of local elites has led to research on various forms of local organization, such as market towns, charity, lineages, and religions. In addition, the expansion of the meaning of local elites calls attention to regional differences, because the structure of local power in the Pearl River delta was significantly different from those in the lower Yangzi River delta and the North China plain. As a result, the power of local elites is traced to a variety of sources, including commerce, landownership, local militia, philanthropy, and rituals. The expanded scope of study of local elites has led to a new perspective on the late Qing (1895–1911). Rather than being the end of the imperial period, the late Qing is now seen as the beginning of a new era when political power was shared between the central government and local leaders. Some scholars contend that this trend of decentralization continued after 1911, when warlords and regional leaders became dominant players in national politics. As such, the late Qing and the early republican periods (1911–1927) are the high point of local power before the rise of the party-state.

Article.  8123 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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