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Speaking of Profit: Bao Shichen and Reform in Nineteenth-Century China.

Speaking of Profit: Bao Shichen and Reform in Nineteenth-Century China. By William T. Rowe. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018. Pp. 230. $39.95.)

After a failed diplomatic mission to China in 1793, British negotiator George Macartney compared the ruling Qing dynasty to an aging warship, kept afloat only by the efforts of "able and vigilant officers". Under the command of "an insufficient man", however, the empire would "drift... as a wreck" before being "dashed to pieces on the shore". Macartney's influential judgment set the tone for subsequent characterizations of Chinese political leadership from the late eighteenth century until the First Opium War (1839-1842) as hidebound, closeminded, and complacent. William T. Rowe challenges that simplistic depiction in this intellectual biography of the Chinese scholar-official Bao Shichen (1775-1855), a prominent voice for political reform in the years after 1800. Rowe's work joins an emerging multilingual historiographic trend, ably summarized in the introduction (1-12), that emphasizes the significance of reform efforts undertaken during the reigns of early nineteenth-century emperors. Rather than dismissing this era as one of rule by "insufficient" leaders, this line of argument recasts the decades before the Opium War as a period of thoughtful engagement with the growing problems of the Qing imperium.

Through a detailed exploration of Bao's sometimes idiosyncratic policy recommendations, Rowe highlights several critical issues in early nineteenth-century Chinese political economy. These include debates over the ability of the food supply to keep pace with population growth (Chapter 3), the increasingly dysfunctional grain tribute system (Chapter 4), the management of the state salt monopoly (Chapter 5), and the role of currency (Chapter 6). Underlying Bao's particular solutions to these practical issues, Rowe argues, is a precocious attempt to articulate and reconceptualize the "constitutional principles" (69-73) that undergirded the late imperial Chinese state. A willingness to rethink such principles connects Bao's oft-overlooked intellectual project with those of the better-studied reformist officials of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Written in an engaging style by an author who embraces the first-person voice, Speaking of Profit would fit well with advanced courses on modern Chinese history. Rowe provides ample material for classroom discussion in his trenchant descriptions of Bao, whom he describes as "cripplingly naive" (105), a "self-taught technocrat" (127), optimistically believing that "solutions might still be found that would benefit all interests simultaneously" (149), and holding an "awkward combination of plain-folk populism and elite paternalism" (181). These insights, the product of Rowe's long career devoted to the study of Qing politics and society, provide a foundation for a complex and nuanced conversation about the nature of Qing--and perhaps even post-Qing--reform movements, in general.

Although they do not detract from the overall value of the work, inaccuracies in the glossary of Chinese characters, such as the entry for Li Hongzhang (199), and romanization errors in the footnotes (footnote 17 on p. 6, for example) appear with distracting frequency.

Ohio University

Joshua Hill

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Author:Hill, Joshua
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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