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Cultural Centrality and Political Change in Chinese History: Northeast Henan in the Fall of the Ming.

Cultural Centrality and Political Change in Chinese History: Northeast Henan in the Fall of the Ming, by Roger V. Des Forges. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003. xxi, 422 pp. $75.00 US (cloth).

In the spring of 1644, the rebel forces of Li Zicheng, the self-styled "New Prince of Shun," surrounded the Ming capital in present-day Beijing and threatened to attack unless the emperor of China agreed to negotiate. With his troops having either been diverted to the northeast border to resist the advancing Qing armies or self-destructed in front of Li's forces, the Chongzhen emperor (r. 1628-44) was clearly not in a strong position to make demands. The Ming ruler, however, did manage to take one last stand. One evening, he and a servant climbed up Coal Hill, just north of the palace, and hanged themselves. With this last kick of defiance, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in effect came to an end.

On one level, this admirable book by Roger Des Forges, a historian at the State University of New York at Buffalo, can be read as an extended background study of the uprising of Li Zicheng and the fall of the Ming. Even though Li did not originally come from Henan province, the book's geographic focus, he did take advantage of the deteriorating economic conditions in the region to recruit followers and to gain momentum as he continued to plot against the state. By laying out in great detail the administrative and social structures of northeast Henan (with chapters focusing on "The State," "The Elite," "The Masses," etc.) and the military activities of Li Zicheng in Henan, Des Forges offers in this book a comprehensive view of not only how a local region in Ming China functioned [for comparison see John W. Dardess, A Ming Society: T'ai-ho County, Kiangsi, Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1996)], but also how the eventual corrosion of such structures resulted in--and was in turn the result of--collective actions aimed at political change.

On a broader level, this book is not simply about political revolutions; rather, it is about how a particular set of discourses shaped and was in turn shaped by--political change. As Des Forges explains, the people of Henan have long viewed themselves as occupying the central province (zhong zhou) located at the heart of the central plain (zhongyuan). During the Ming, not only did the elite of northeast Henan--home of some of the most symbolically significant sites in Chinese history--continue to consider their region as the preeminent cultural centre of China, they also frequently invoked experiences from earlier dynasties "to situate themselves in time and to exert their influence in space" (p. 313). This effort to create ties with the past was apparently not confined to members of the elite; even rebels in the region would seek to associate themselves with the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)--long recognized as one of the most powerful ruling houses in the history of China--to legitimate their call for political change. But this so-called Han discourse, in which members of all social strata participated, according to Des Forges, did not remain unchallenged. As the uprising of Li Zicheng spread, it also became clear that it would be his advantage to associate himself with the Li ruling house of the Tang period (618-907). This shift in the discourse from the Han to the Tang, Des Forges suggests, is indicative of the dialectical relationship between cultural discourse and political change, not only toward the end of the Ming but indeed throughout the imperial period in Chinese history.

On the whole, this book has made a compelling case for viewing "Chinese history through the eyes of the Chinese themselves" (p. xvii). Although the term "Chinese" should be understood as contested, it remains the case that in China in the later imperial period, educated men generally shared the belief that the past was "a cultural storehouse of experiences and models they could invoke not only to defend the status quo but also to initiate effective change" (p. 316). And while it might not be possible for present-day historians, working in any field, to break away from the shadows of Euro-American historiography, it remains a worthy goal, as Des Forges suggests, to understand the internal dynamics of individual discourses as well as the relationship between cultural beliefs and assumptions, on the one hand, and political actions and transformations, on the other.

But while this book is deeply learned and generally persuasive, there are areas that demand clarification. First, even though the term "cultural centrality" is used in the title and throughout the text, it remains unclear to me whether Des Forges means to use the term strictly to refer to the "belief" by the people of Henan that the province has long been a cultural centre or more broadly as an analytical concept to refer to the "conditions" of being the cultural centre [as in the case when he speaks of China's or Henan's "quest for cultural centrality" (p. xv)]. To frame my question differently, is "cultural centrality" a meaningful concept outside the imagination of the agents studied in this book? Second, although Des Forges is brilliant in focusing our attention to the importance of the pastas a "cultural storehouse," his argument that the constant references made by the people of Henan to the Han dynasty amounted to a distinctive quest for cultural centrality remains unconvincing in part because the relationship between the two is never fully demonstrated and in part because educated men in other regions no doubt also frequently drew links to the past. Third, even though Des Forges maintains specifically that men and women, the elite and the masses, all participated in the Han discourse and thus the quest for cultural centrality, it would be worthwhile to distinguish between officials and other members of the elite who consciously took part in this discourse and others (such as most women) who did so at best indirectly.

In sum, while this book is not written for the general reader, historians [non-specialists might find Des Forges's theorization of world history (p. 321) especially intriguing] would no doubt find much to learn and to reflect in this labour of love.

Leo K. Shin

University of British Columbia
COPYRIGHT 2004 Canadian Journal of History
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Author:Shin, Leo K.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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