The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions.
Evelyn S. Rawski's newest work on China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), describes the political and social life of the Manchus, an ethnically non-Han people from Northeast Asia who swept south of the Great Wall in 1644 and brought an end to the Ming dynasty. Her approach is revisionist because the history of the Qing dynasty has traditionally been studied from the point of view of the conquered Han Chinese majority, and not the ruling Manchu minority. Only in the past decade or so have scholars begun to assess the unique contributions of the Manchu conquerors to the prosperity and longevity of the Qing dynasty, instead of privileging the contributions of the subjugated Han population.
The reason for the traditional focus on the conquered as opposed to the conquerors has been the dominance of what Qing historian Pamela Crossley has called the "Sinicization model" of Chinese history (2). As described by Rawski, this model consists of the idea that conquest dynasties were capable of defeating Chinese ruling houses by "sheer brute force, but they all succumbed to the more sophisticated Chinese system and ended up being absorbed by Chinese culture" (3). Rawski rejects this thesis, providing a wealth of data to show that the Manchus were not mere imitators, but were, in fact, skillful innovators whose contributions strengthened the Qing state and promoted the success of their regime. Moreover, she argues that the Manchus maintained a sense of ethnic separateness throughout their rule, using positive and negative incentives to discourage Manchu-Han assimilation. Both of these arguments are supported by the impressive and seemingly incontrovertible scholarship that makes up the bulk of the book.
The book is organized into three parts, the first of which describes the daily life of the Qing dynasts. This section draws heavily from information in the Qing imperial archives, which provides exhaustive detail on the food, clothing, housing, and activities of the Manchu rulers and their family members. The second part is devoted to the social organization of the Qing court, covering such topics as the imperial lineage and conquest elite, imperial siblings, imperial women, and palace servants. The third part focuses on religion and ritual, showing how the Qing integrated Han Chinese and Manchu traditions to create a new and cosmopolitan approach to public and private court rituals. Each of the three sections is cogently argued and extensively supported with a range of documentary and material evidence.
Considering the enormity of Rawski's project, her book will not be the last word on the subject, but will form the basis for continued discussion. One of the issues that merits further debate is the nature of Qing "multiculturalism," which Rawski portrays as a cosmopolitan approach to empire that succeeded in unifying a variety of ethnicities and religions under a single political umbrella while respecting the uniqueness of each. Although this portrayal is not inaccurate, the idealist tone of Rawski's rhetoric sometimes seems to reflect the political correctness of twenty-first-century American academia more than it does the political ambitions of the Qing regime. Cultural inclusion was certainly one of the objectives of Qing ethnic policy, but political control of the dynasty's subjugated peoples was another. Although Rawski discusses both sets of goals in her book, she seems to emphasize the former, resulting in a generally positive view of the dynasty's multicultural aspirations and accomplishments. Considering that Qing universalism was achieved largely by military force and political manipulation, a more cynical reading of Qing ethnic policy may be in order.
While provoking further questions, Rawski's masterful work on the Qing imperium inspired in this reviewer a feeling that can best be described as awe. The breadth and depth of her research, her extraordinary sensitivity to detail, and the historiographical complexity of her topic and sources are daunting to contemplate. Nonetheless, despite the ambitiousness of her subject, Rawski has managed to produce a work that is both packed with historical detail and engaging to read. It is a must-read work for serious scholars of Chinese history, particularly for those interested in the Qing or other conquest dynasties. More broadly, it will be of comparative value to scholars interested in a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to, the art of rulership, material culture, religion, ritual, imperial and bureaucratic institutions, military organization, family, and social structure.
College de France, Paris