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China's Last Empire: The Great Qing.

China's Last Empire: The Great Qing, by William T. Rowe. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. v, 360 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

Author of Crimson Rain: Seven Centuries of Violence in a Chinese County (Stanford University Press, 2007) and several books on the socio-economic history of China from the fourteenth century to the twentieth centuries, William Rowe is most qualified to write the last of the six historical surveys of Chinese empires, a project under the meticulous editorship of Timothy Brook. Drawing upon voluminous Chinese primary sources and a generation of dynamic historiography and cultural studies in European, Chinese, and Japanese languages, Rowe weaves an erudite, socio-economic interpretation of the Qing empire from its rise in about 1600 to its collapse in 1911. China's Last Empire: The Great Qing is written for the non-specialists, but specialists will appreciate equally Rowe's conceptual clarity as he walks the reader through the "multinational Eurasian empire" that tripled the population and expanded its territories to twice that of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that it supplanted.

At the outset, Rowe sets the premise that Qing history is best examined in its entirety, rather than using the Opium War to divide it into two halves--the period before 1840 lumped with the Ming as late imperial China and the period after 1840 as part of modern China. Rowe's other premise is that the Qing did not function as an indigenous Chinese dynasty, and so we read his narrative of the Qing empire not as the life-cycle of a Chinese dynasty, but as "a moving target" of an Inner Asian empire, where new internal and external forces re-configured the geography and politics inherited by modern and contemporary China. Conceptualizing the Qing in its spatial entirety and duration of four hundred years, Rowe delivers this history in ten thematic chapters in a general chronological order.

The first two chapters, Conquest and Governance, trace the rise of the Manchu state from tribal minorities to a confederacy and then, to an empire through conquest and consolidation. This was done through organizing the military into a multi-ethnic banner system, ensuring a strong economy based on agriculture and the ginseng trade, purchasing cannon and muskets from Portuguese traders, adopting a Manchu script and selective sinicization, and constructing a governance system with administrative innovations ruling over a diverse and multi-ethnic population. In telling the fascinating story of an ethnic Chinese seeking reclassification as an ethnic Manchu, Rowe contends that ethnic and national identities were not race-based, but were fluid and were reassigned as the empire evolved. In contrast to the simplified portrayal of the Qing being victimized by western, imperialism, we observe the Qing as an Inner Asian and Eurasian empire victimizing other peoples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors annexed Xinjiang (Uighurs), Tibet (Tibetans), Zungharia (Mongols), and the southwest territories with large Muslim populations. Conquering Ming China and incorporating these peripheral regions forced various ethnicities to co-exist in a governance system of balances and checks that ensured political stability. In this multi-ethnic empire, the Qing emperors represented themselves as sons of heaven to the Chinese, khans to the Mongols, and wheel-turning kings to the Tibetans (p. 17).

In the next three chapters, High Qing, Society, and Commerce, Rowe debunks the myth that the Qing empire had a solely agrarian economy and had to learn all about commerce from the west. In fact, the Ming territories had already undergone two economic and commercial revolutions, one in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries and other in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Supported by an extensive transport system linked to the Grand Canal, the economic network and infrastructure enjoyed solid growth and the population experienced a high standard of living. Rowe's perceptive analysis of Qing culture, society, and commerce proves that the traditional focus on a weak, stagnant Qing economy has obscured the fact that agriculture, the ginseng trade, ownership rights, and mercantile forces reflected healthy growth for two or three centuries before the nineteenth-century demise. A small, efficient bureaucracy relied on unpaid gentry assistance, water conservancy communities, kinship organizations, merchant guilds and other self-regulating groups to reinforce the empire's ideology and commitment to social stability and benevolent government. Rowe shows that the emperors worked hard and were mostly not negligent, and contrary to popular belief, Confucian Qing did not look down on merchants.

The last five chapters, Crises, Rebellion, Restoration, Imperialism and Revolution cover the last century of the Qing empire, a period that constitutes half of modern China. New realities such as the western nations' aggressive hunt for markets, ethnic tensions, an underemployed elite, and exploding population weakened the empire as it endured crises and rebellions. Restoration and reform could not save the Qing empire, which effectively ended in the 1911 revolution that is associated with the Chinese ethnic majority. As Rowe guides us through these convulsions, he draws our attention to the unique alliance of local gentry and central bureaucracy that evolved from supporting the Qing to reconfiguring a new gentry/intelligentsia elite, whose activism took on anti-Manchu sentiments deeply accentuated with "cultural memories of Qing cruelties" of the past, including the violent imposition of the queue as hairstyle for men. Rowe argues that placing stress on ethnic conflict and the alien factor of the Qing rulers as a component of modern Chinese nationalism masks the multi-ethnic and evolving nature of the Qing empire.

Rowe has indeed widened our perspective on modern China with many fascinating insights, among which is the challenge of ethnic separatism. After the 1911 revolution, Tibet and Mongolia soon broke away; later, Muslim separatism rocked Yunnan, and in the 1930s Manchus wished that the Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo, would turn out to be their own separatist state. Rowe traces the roots of these sentiments to the territorial gains of the Qing empire from the Ming conquest to the eighteenth century; and so it follows that the current separatist problems in Xinjiang, Tibet, and in the southwest were bequeathed by an expansionist Qing empire.

Jennifer W. Jay

University of Alberta
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Author:Jay, Jennifer W.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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