Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China by Thomas S. Mullaney

Mullaney, T. (2011). Coming to terms with the nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Nation-building activities in the wake of China’s political transition heralded the nation’s coming-of-age as a modern state in the early twentieth century. A multi-ethnic empire prior to the end of the Qing Dynasty, China had long been ruled by a Manchu minority elite. Yet from its post-1912 transition emerged a modern nation-state unified under one national identity subsuming a multiplicity of indigenous ethnicities. By the mid-twentieth century, however, an official effort to understand the ethnic diversity contained within China’s borders was not only an important political project; it served also as an early embrace of the social scientific approach to marrying polity and ethnicity. China’s transformation from multi-ethnic empire to modern nation-state is now a subject of inquiry among China scholars.

Mullaney’s timely assessment of ethnic classification mechanisms in China addresses this question and in so doing, lends critical insight to the identity politics discourse. Shedding light on newly declassified census data and mid-century field reports, Mullaney makes an extensive examination of the process by which minority ethnicities in China came to be classified and recognized by the state. At the heart of this work is the problem of how modern China reconciled the ethnic diversity contained within its borders and the need to foster a unified national identity.

Mullaney undertakes a broad survey of ethnic crisis during each major historical period of the twentieth century from the end of the Qing Dynasty through the post-Mao era in China. When the 1953 Election Law reserved one seat in the National People’s Congress for a representative of each minority, there arose an immediate need to identify communities and individuals who might fit such a classification. The state’s initial solution was a population census conducted between 1953 and 1954. A question asking individuals to identify their ethnicity, however, employed an open-ended format allowing respondents to write in a unique response. Resulting data indicated as many as four hundred minority groups. In order to achieve a more manageable system of minority identification, the state moved to institute the 1954 Ethnic Classification Project.

The Ethnic Classification Project (minzu shibie, ECP) began as an official directive to investigate diversity within the Chinese population. Project administrators scrutinized historical, linguistic, and anthropological evidence to develop an extensive classification system; yet the fifty-six minzu model which resulted from their efforts also served a political purpose. The ECP was intended not only to provide the state with a clearer sense of its ethnic makeup but also to serve as the basis on which “territorially stable polities” might be delineated.

In Coming to Terms with the Nation, Mullaney makes the argument that the system for ethnic classification eventually adopted by the state was not a product of Chinese Communist Party politics; rather, it was a system promulgated by a group of Chinese social scientists working with a taxonomic system of British colonial origin. One of Mullaney’s most important contributions is his observation that, contrary to what was previously thought, the ECP bore greater similarity to the ethnotaxonomic system utilized by Britain than by the Soviet Union.  Mullaney hones in specifically on the classification process undertaken in Yunnan in 1954, one of the most diverse regions of China where eventually state agents identified twenty-five unique ethnicities. Individuals assigned to conduct the survey, many of whom had studied at foreign universities, referenced the ethnological works of British colonial officer Henry Rodolph Davies (1865-1950). Writing in 1909, Davies reported on his fact-finding trip from India to Yunnan in what was one of the first attempts to identify ethnolinguistic groups in this part of the world. These writings strongly informed the ethnotaxonomic frameworks eventually adopted by ECP research teams.

Interestingly, Mullaney discusses the conflict between social scientists and members of the Chinese Communist Party who called for terminology based on the Stalinist conception of nationality. Rather than adopt Stalinist ethnic categories, however, Chinese scholars in the 1950s developed a system based on ‘ethnic potential’. This approach to taxonomy considered, in addition to a community’s ethnological characteristics, the likelihood that the state would be successful in convincing the community to embrace its official minzu. The adoption of this system, Mullaney argues, is an example of a case in ECP social scientists prevailed upon Communist Party decision-makers to reject the Stalinist approach which had initially been proposed for the Project. Eventually, the collaboration of state fiduciaries and academia resulted in a hybrid categorization system which drew on both social science and state socialist values. Mullaney also notes the significance of the commutation of terminology from the Nationalist “Zhonghua minzu” to the later “multi-minzu China” which was adopted by the Communist state.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Mullaney’s argument is made in the fifth chapter. There, he contends that by the late 1950s, China after the completion of the ECP came to see itself as an ethnographic mosaic. Minority representation surpassed previous eras in Chinese history. This acceptance of diversity within China constituted a major departure from nationalist policy under Chiang Kai-shek who promoted the idea of a singular unified Chinese people. Sun Yat-sen too had earlier espoused a more narrow understanding of China’s ethnographic landscape with his “five people” doctrine which, Mullaney points out, had a northern-centric bias. In post-Mao China, the fifty-six minzu system, a product of the original 1950s research project, remains the predominant conception of ethnicity.

Though the fifty-six minzu model remains unchanged, it does not remain unchallenged. Just as in the 1950s, individuals self-identifying as one ethnicity often find themselves assigned to a different category by the official classification system. Furthermore, previously unrecognized groups have made bids for recognition by the state in recent years, only to be classified as zuqun (ethnic groups) rather than minzu (nationalities). In addition to challenges to the fifty-six minzu system, also problematic is the schism between ethnic self-identification and official ethnographic categorization as assigned by agents of the state. In wider view, Mullaney brings up the question of how the Chinese state reconciles ethnic diversity with the more nationalistic vision of a strongly unified Chinese people. Though the classification process of the 1950s began as an apolitical project, the result was a fusion between socialist party values and social scientific strategies based on Western conceptions of ethnotaxonomy.

Mullaney has without a doubt succeeded in weaving an informative and intriguing argument in Coming to Terms with the Nation. That the Ethnic Classification Project’s collaborative nature infused the state socialist agenda (in regard to minorities) with an academic perspective drawing on Western ethnotaxonomic texts is indeed a persuasive claim. As an instance in which the Chinese Communist Party yielded to scholars and as an early example of how social science was successfully incorporated into the nation-building process, Coming to Terms with the Nation is essential reading for both historians and social scientists.

Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar & Michael Schoenhals

MacFarquhar, R. & Schoenhals, M. (2008). Mao's Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

Mao’s Last Revolution, an extensive and well-executed look at the internal dynamics of the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, is the product of the collaborative efforts of China historian Roderick MacFarquhar and political scientist Michael Schoenhals. In Mao’s Last Revolution, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals take the perspective that Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution as a means to maintain power and manage the complex milieu of personal party politics. The authors dive deep into the internal machinations of the Chinese Communist Party; arguing that in wider view, Mao Zedong’s manipulation of personal relationships constituted his final attempt to secure the revolutionary political system and ensure his place in history.

MacFarquhar and Schoenhals discuss internal fragmentation among Mao’s political elite in Zhongnanhai, demonstrating how the formation of internal alliances and the cultivation of growing resentments created within the revolutionary organization a complex political situation. Factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party, as MacFarquhar and Schoenhals show, evoked a pervasive sense of insecurity among the senior leadership. One of the key contributions of the work is MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’ demonstration of the degree to which Mao was himself aware of the complexities of internal party politics, and the strategic efforts he undertook in response.

In answer to the question of why Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution – a movement which seemingly sought to destroy what he had spent much of his career building – MacFarquhar and Schoenhals argue that Mao’s motivations were multifold. The authors discuss how Mao’s concerns that the party might succumb to the influences of a Soviet revisionist element may have in part led him to instigate the Cultural Revolution. His encouragement of the radicalization of the youth and approval of the violent tactics they adopted served both as an outlet for new political ideology as well as a tool with which to purge the party. Perhaps the most significant motivation for Mao’s promotion of the Cultural Revolution, however, was his fear of rising internal tension among Communist Party officials and what this might mean for his claim to power.

The Cultural Revolution served as a means through which Mao limited the influence of key political figures who posed a threat to his authority. As MacFarquhar and Schoenhals demonstrate, Mao enshrouded his revolutionary movement in a screen of ambiguity which proved confusing to even the most senior party officials. In the absence of instructions from Mao or clear vision of what their leader sought to achieve, a number of key party leaders took missteps eventually leading to their own downfall. As the population of young radicals gained influence, former political elites were considerably weakened and in some cases, removed from office altogether in disgrace. One of the most high profile cases of the downfall of a senior official was that of Liu Shaoqi. The authors argue that, catalyzed by his fear that Liu Shaoqi had designs to usurp power and to replace Mao as chairman, Mao ensured that he was vilified and ultimately purged from the party.   

Despite the authors’ frank discussion of how Mao was personally responsible – either by design or by inaction – for the downfall of many party faithful, they also weigh in on the culpability of other senior officials including Zhou Enlai. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals comment also on the role played by Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, who served as his confidant and pivotal political ally. At the peak of rising tensions within the party, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals argue, Jiang Qing led a targeted attack against Mao’s political opponents in Beijing.

MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’ analysis draws heavily on memoirs and the writings of ordinary citizens from the revolutionary period. The value of many of these writings is in their ability to provide, through anecdotes, a view of the situation in China from the private writings of both the political elite and individual civilians.

One of the great strengths of Mao’s Last Revolution is the relatively well-balanced perspective its authors take in their approach both to Mao Zedong and to a number of other senior politicians who made instrumental decisions leading to the Cultural Revolution. Though they provide a very frank discussion of Mao’s encouragement of the tremendous violence of the Cultural Revolution as well as his efforts to discredit and embarrass former colleagues, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals avoid demonizing Mao altogether. By commenting also on violent acts undertaken by other leaders such as Deng Xiaoping’s quashing of Muslim protests in Yunnan in 1975, the authors show that the brutality of the revolution was in part the product of its time. Their discussion of the Red Guards in particular demonstrates the frenzied nature of events which snowballed into the chaos from which few political elites were entirely exempt.

Though several reviewers have noted that the volume was rather limited in scope, I find that this fact is not to the work’s detriment. Clearly the Cultural Revolution, a devastating episode in modern Chinese history which had major consequences for the fate of the Chinese Communist Party, has been subject to considerable prior scholarship, including previous works by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals themselves. Though I have not personally read MacFarquhar’s three-volume series The Origins of the Cultural Revolution (1974, 1983, 1997), I expect that these works would lend a wealth of additional commentary on various other aspects of this rich topic. Thus, despite its narrow focus on the internal workings of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao’s Last Revolution, in my perspective, largely achieved its objective.



Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 by Philip Kuhn

Kuhn, P. (1992). Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

In Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768, Philip Kuhn investigates the title event through an exhaustive study of primary sources from the Ch’ing archives. Throughout the work, Kuhn focuses mostly on the emperor’s motivations for taking up the torch in the prosecution of the supposed ‘soul-stealers’. At the heart of his work is the contention that the emperor acted upon a shared belief in shamanistic magic to impose a personal agenda on those who were not abiding by Manchu hair policy; a process which was much tempered by local bureaucratic organizations. Simultaneously recounting a fascinating incident and commenting on larger historical themes from the time, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 maintains its place as a well-executed and relevant work in the discourse of the present day.

The sorcery scare of 1768 began in Chekiang province where villagers reported having queues of hair and parts of their clothing clipped by supposed ‘soul-stealers’ intent upon enslaving or killing them through supernatural means. After all, Kuhn notes, clipped queues were said to possess a certain “biodynamic” force of the soul. Other incidents involved the scrawling of names on bridge pilings where the blows of construction workers might destroy the soul of the cursed person. Mass hysteria ensued, as individuals at all levels of society were captivated by the fear that soul-stealers would speak incantations over them, thereby gaining dominion over their spirit.

Kuhn grounds this series of events in a brief survey of the social conditions of Ch’ing China at the time. Declining social mobility occurred in tandem with overpopulation; a phenomenon which led migrant workers and itinerant monks to became an increasingly common presence on roads between urban communities. Kuhn implies that Chinese society under the Ch’ing Emperor may not have been as prosperous as previously thought, suggesting that overpopulation had created an “impacted society” of the fearful and powerless. Transient individuals at the lowest echelons of society were forced to adopt a more aggressive approach to survival, seeking work or alms in other corners of the realm.

Kuhn argues thus that as a feared group, these individuals were frequently accused of clipping clothing and queues and asking the names of children they passed in the streets. As rumors spread, communities mobilized against these suspected soul-stealers, with lynch mobs often forming to bring swift justice to suspicious individuals. Local officials also became involved in addressing the growing problem. Upon arrest, Kuhn notes, suspected soul-stealers were interrogated and often confessed to sorcery while being subjected to torture. Kuhn’s description of the gruesome – and occasionally fatal – torture is suggestive of just how deeply the belief in black magic was embedded in Chinese society.

As the scare worsened, rumors spread to other provinces. Though officials in Chekiang, Shantung, and Kiangsu decided to dismiss the rumors as irrelevant, the news of sorcery eventually came to the attention of the Ch’ien-lung Emperor. It was, therefore, the emperor himself who was chiefly responsible for escalating the scare, calling on bureaucratic officials to investigate further.

In the process of this investigation, Kuhn contends, the emperor came to believe that these incidents of soul-stealing were evidence of a larger plot. Kuhn details the emperor’s “vermillion comments,” or writings in vermillion ink in which he pressed officials to identify a “chief criminal” and called for more aggressive prosecution. The emperor was especially troubled, Kuhn notes, by the testimonies of men who, believing their queues to have been clipped, removed the remainder of their hair in efforts to curtail soul-stealers’ dominion over them. At first the emperor had these men questioned, but soon all involved realized that claims to innocence were authentic.

As the imperial investigation advanced, however, many confessions, previously obtained under torture, were recanted. The absence of evidence and the inconsistency of testimonies, coupled with the failure of investigators to ever identify a ringleader eventually led officials to call off prosecution efforts altogether. When all was said and done, the 1768 scare lasted a total of five months.

While the event is interesting in its own right, Kuhn’s thoughtful analysis of the soul-stealers investigation sheds light also on several themes of greater historiographical importance. For one, Kuhn utilizes the soul-stealer scare to complicate the power dynamic between the emperor and his officials. He suggests that since these incidents of sorcery occurred just shortly after a series of failed military campaigns, officials may have sought engagement with the prosecution of soul-stealers as a way of diffusing into the domestic sphere a growing military frustration.

Through Kuhn’s analysis we also see an interesting commentary emerge around the role of transients in Chinese society. Xenophobia and general suspicion of migrants led to their ill-treatment; a phenomenon that was not uncommon across China. The emperor’s fervor for ethnic homogeneity also played a role in cultivating this fear of ethnic assimilation. Manchu culture was the culture of the imperial court, and the sorcery scare served to pit the suspicious majority against a minority of unknown outsiders. Hair in the form of a queue was especially important to the emperor’s thinking on the supremacy of Manchu culture; after all, hair was seen as symbolic of many things and Ch’ing law required all males to wear the queue. Hair policy and its implications were, therefore, of deep personal importance to the emperor.

Additionally, the soul-stealer incident points at the prevalence of folk religion with its many superstitious and supernatural elements. A belief in shamanistic magic and sorcery was in fact a common thread which transcended class and geography. Kuhn suggests that it was a sincere fear of sorcery that united the village peasantry and imperial officials under a shared symbolic tradition.

Kuhn ends the book by weighing the Chinese bureaucracy and suggesting that, despite its inefficiencies, the bureaucracy actually served society well in the case of the soul-stealer scare. As Kuhn points out, the bureaucratic machine was able to put a swift end to extremist activities and to deliver some level of justice, particularly to those being tortured for confessions by lynch mobs and other local vigilantes. In a way, Kuhn suggests, the bureaucracy acted as an intermediary or moderator between fearful villagers and a fearful emperor. Though the emperor sought, particularly in the early stages of the scare, to escalate the witch hunt, the bureaucracy was able to deflect these demands somewhat without falling out of favor with the monarchy.

When Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 was first published in 1990, it was received enthusiastically, though some questioned Kuhn’s decision to focus on an event of relatively limited scope. Despite the limitations of his topic, however, Kuhn was successful in framing the incident within the context of the larger historical issues of the time. 





The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity by Guy S. Alitto

Alitto, G. (1986). The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Guy S. Alitto’s work The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity was first published in 1979, before being reprinted in its expanded version in 1986. The work is in essence a biography of Chinese conservative intellectual Liang Shu-ming; a life which Alitto proves can provide us with unique insight into the intellectual history of twentieth-century China. Analyzing an extensive list of primary sources, Alitto examines China’s dilemma of modernity in the context of Liang’s promotion of a modern Confucian China. Importantly, Alitto examines Liang’s lifelong struggle with the contradiction between his conception of the Confucian “Chinese spirit” (an ideal to which humanity should aspire) and his pragmatic acknowledgement of the necessary tools which a Chinese state would need to survive in the modern world.

Prior to the publication of The Last Confucian, there had been a variety of biographic works written on China’s more famous twentieth century liberals. Alitto’s work, however, represents one of the first important works on a conservative Chinese intellectual pursuing the question of China’s modernization. The Last Confucian thus gives voice to the conservative thought which played a crucial role in the intellectual discussion of China’s future.

The last of a line of Confucian scholars, Liang Shu-ming was raised in a family which by the turn of the century was working to safeguard traditional values while involved with state reform on the bureaucratic level. Liang’s father, Liang Chi, was in fact engaged with the local bureaucracy through the progressive constitutionalist reform movement. Alitto makes the point that the relationship between Liang and his father was in many ways to set the tone for Liang’s own quest for cultural identity later implicated in his later intellectual work.

In addition to familial influences, we learn through Alitto’s treatment of Liang’s early years that Liang was concerned from a young age with the nature of human existence, a preoccupation which contributed to the development of his “sage-identity”. As Alitto suggests, it is Liang’s existential interests which may in part account for his eventual turn to Confucianism alongside his opposition to what Liang viewed as the immorality of the modern era.

While engaged as a revolutionary during the early republican years of China, Liang Shu-ming turned to Mahayana Buddhism. Eventually obtaining a position at Peking University where he taught courses on Buddhism, Liang retired from revolutionary activities to immerse himself in the academic environment. Liang’s Buddhist period, Alitto shows through an analysis of Liang’s essays, gradually gave way to his eventual embrace of Confucianism after years of existential questioning. Another lifelong mission for Liang was to define Chinese culture and what he termed the “original Chinese spirit”. It was this definition (relatively unchanging throughout Liang’s life), Alitto contends, that formed the basis both for his comparison of Chinese culture with that of Western and Indian-Buddhist traditions and for his envisioning of the Chinese state in the modern world.

It was also while at Peking University that Liang first encountered radical proponents of ‘westernization’. Intellectual modernizers in China during the 1920s were of the belief that the means to modernization was through westernization. In Liang’s view, however, modernizers of this ilk engaged in the self-indulgent, materialist lifestyle of the age.

An opponent of this ‘East versus West’ construct of modernity, Liang promoted the humanistic values espoused by Confucianism. Alitto’s treatment of Liang’s Eastern and Western Cultures and Their Philosophies (1923) assists us in understanding how Liang saw Chinese culture in relation to Indian-Buddhist and Western civilizations. The Indian-Buddhist spiritual tradition was an especially personal comparison for Liang, whose own foray into Buddhism made him particularly sensitive to the movement of Chinese intellectuals toward Buddhist teachings that was an ongoing trend in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

Alitto then traces Liang’s intellectual development through his involvement as a social reformer in the rural reconstruction movement of the 1930s in Shantung. Significantly, Liang developed – through a rather organic process – new strategies for social reform which bore some similarity to the ideals espoused by the Yenan Communists. Liang argued for localistic leadership, collective moral foundations, and mutual responsibility. On a structural level, he emphasized that the interests of the masses ought to be more closely integrated with the bureaucratic machinations of the state.

As Alitto’s analysis shows, Liang opposed both the anti-imperialist May Fourth dissidents and rejected the ideals promoted by Sun Yat-sen. Yet Liang believed that technology and other fruits of modernization did have a place in China. Throughout his career, Liang argued in favor of an ideal fusion of Confucian tradition and modern Western advancements. Alitto cites Liang’s own words in conveying the tremendous weight of responsibility the reformer believed had been placed on his shoulders. Indeed, Alitto explains that Liang saw himself as a sort of cultural preservationist tasked with creating a place for the tao in modern China. This task he took very seriously throughout his life, as he believed Confucian values alone could save not only China from the degeneracy of modern times, but humanity both Eastern and Western.

An important theme of Alitto’s work is his treatment of the clash between Liang’s orthodox Confucian ideals and Mao’s Marxist prescriptions for a modern China. Alitto’s perceptive explication of this juncture helps readers to develop a sense of how one vision for a uniquely Chinese society could be promoted by two radically disparate thinkers. While Mao embraced the class struggles of Marxism, Liang saw the agrarian communalist ideal as classless. Even still, the core beliefs of both men converged on the possibility of a new and modern China built upon the ‘Chineseness’ of its history. Yet, Alitto notes, both Liang and Mao opposed vehemently the propositions of Westernized liberals and members of both the KMT and Communist Party. Like Mao, Liang believed that China must return to its agrarian roots; beginning with the return of urban bourgeois intellectuals to rural life.

Interestingly, Alitto questions whether ultimately Liang may have influenced Mao, whether consciously or unconsciously. After all, the two held several important conversations in 1938 upon Liang’s trip to Yenan. Alitto is careful not to speculate, but his detailed comparison of these two and their ideals yields considerable insight.

In the later years of Liang’s life, the advent of war found Liang and his Democratic League caught in the middle between the Communists and KMT. Never shying away from his critique of government policies, Liang frequently drew censure. Among his detractors, Mao publically denounced Liang in 1953 for his opposition to the hardships born by the rural population during the Communists’ development campaign. 

Through the lens of Liang Shu-ming’s life, Alitto comments on the larger “East versus West” theme that underlies the work as whole. The incongruence of Liang’s own intellectual practice provides a useful foil to point at the complicated nature of the question of Chinese modernities. Liang was among the foremost champions of preserving China’s “spiritual” tradition – a way of life inherently linked to communalist living and a more traditional structural ordering of society. In many ways, Alitto argues, Liang saw himself not as a nationalist, but as a “messianic” culturalist whose view of China’s transition into a modern society did not accompany any specific governmental prescriptions.

With The Last Confucian Alitto has provided us with an engaging medium through which we may better understand the dilemma of modernity in early twentieth century China. Not only does Alitto’s portrait of Liang Shu-ming give insight into the man himself, but it also serves as a starting point for discussions of the role conservative intellectuals played, alongside their liberal counterparts, in determining China’s future. 

Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China. Militarization and Social Structure by Philip A. Kuhn


Kuhn, P. (1980). Rebellion and its enemies in late imperial China: Militarization and social structure, 1796-1864. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Philip Kuhn, a highly-regarded sinologist and former Fairbank student, is regarded as a pioneer of social history within the China historiography. When Kuhn’s work Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure 1796-1864 was first published in 1970, it quickly drew an audience among those interested in China studies. At the time, the closest extant analog to this work was to be found among the works of Kuhn’s Chinese counterparts. Kuhn’s contributions in Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China, however, were seen to have significantly advanced the field of study.

In Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China, Kuhn examines the effects of localism on the Ch’ing Empire up until its dissolution. The crux of his argument is that rural elites organized militia groups as a means of asserting their power, safeguarding local interests, and securing a place for the rural elite class in the wider social order of the Chinese state. As a result, Kuhn argues, the process of localistic militarization was in many ways responsible for the loss of imperial control of the rural administrative units of Ch’ing China. While even in Kuhn’s time the idea that localism had fatally weakened the Ch’ing state was hardly a novel one, Kuhn’s thoughtful explication of this theme within the military context was received with high praise. In modern times, Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China continues to be an important piece of scholarship.

The work opens with Kuhn’s challenge to the boundaries of modern Chinese history. Making a rather dramatic argument that ‘modern’ history began only after the Taiping Rebellion in 1864, Kuhn shows how militarization evolved to meet the defensive demands of the modern state. The first chapter contains a discussion of Chinese militarization through history, laying the historiographical framework for Kuhn’s later arguments. In addition to a rather complicated case study analysis, Kuhn explores the foundations of both local defense as well as military engagements on the frontier within an analytical grouping framework. Herein, he divides the variety of politico-military organizations of the Ch’ing period among three categories: “simplex,” “multiplex,” and “extended multiplex”. The use of this trichotomy allows Kuhn to discuss military organization in a uniquely rural context. The hierarchies of the rural military structure, Kuhn notes, are also mirrored within smaller rural elements such as bandit gangs and rebellious religious sects.  

In his second chapter, Kuhn discusses the creation and subsequent evolution of Chinese military policy between 1796 and 1850. Central to his discussion is the idea that the White Lotus rebellion of 1796 set a precedent for localistic defense which soon became a preferred solution for quashing similar rebellions and unrest more generally. Kuhn demonstrates in great detail how the imperial body realized that local assistance was absolutely essential to the suppression of rebellions. Critically, he notes that the institution of the militia went from being a feared potential threat to a useful asset by the Chia-ch’ing era. Also by this time, control of militias had been given to the gentry, a class which had previously been excluded from membership in the military machinations of the Chinese state. The involvement of gentry leadership in militias, Kuhn points out, heralded an increase in power among localist groups.

At the heart of Kuhn’s discussion of the “scholar-gentry” is the idea that the class system was quite inseparable from the academic system in place in China at the time. The fact that the educated classes or quasi-gentry were able to access the bureaucracy and other levels of regional government, Kuhn argues, facilitated the integration of varying levels of military structure into one organization via institutional channels for communication. As a result, state military structures had an advantage over more informal groups (e.g., bandit gangs).

The third chapter dissects militia organizations, beginning with a thorough classification of militia subsidiary types, weighing also the various scales of local militia operations. Kuhn argues that militias were founded upon a set of principles corresponding to the local community from which they were raised. He also contends that militia organizations were, on the local level, related to the imperial bureaucracy.

Containing perhaps the most interesting argument of Kuhn’s work, the fourth chapter discusses the creation of local defense forces in the years leading up to the Taiping Rebellion when militia organizations formed the crux of imperial defense. During the Taiping Rebellion, Kuhn argues, the t’uan-lien system became a critical part of state defense strategy. Stemming from individual communities and villages, the t’uan-lien system defined the hierarchy of local defense units controlled by rural elites. Indeed, as Kuhn proceeds to demonstrate, the development of the t’uan-lien system was widely encouraged by the state, which sought to advance its defense organization by extending its reach into rural communities. Kuhn contends that it was in fact the broadening of the t’uan-lien system in power and influence that allowed the gentry to gain control of local government organizations; a phenomenon which largely signaled the coming of Ch’ing decline.

In the fifth chapter, Kuhn argues that local militia groups during this time saw the emergence of parallel hierarchies of both heterodox and orthodox form. Under Kuhn’s conception of “orthodox” military organizations, in the absence of government military units, rural elites organized a defensive force. The primary goal of a local militia, he notes, was to preserve local interests. Consequently, therefore, the furtherance of state interests became a secondary goal. Defensive forces, however, were not altogether free from state oversight.

To this effect, Kuhn distinguishes between “natural” and state-sponsored local militia formation. Natural military organizations, Kuhn argues, sprung from local leadership and occured below the administrative level of state power. State-imposed military structures, by contrast, Kuhn sees as a product of state efforts to fuse local defense with local bureaucracy. By way of example, Kuhn shows that this level of military organization is especially present in localistic groups such as the secret society lodge.

The final chapter of Kuhn’s work addresses the impact of the Taiping Rebellion on the relationship of local and national power in the empire. Importantly, Kuhn contends that Taiping rebels sought to control imperial cities and walls symbolizing the very power of the state which they would need in order to make legitimate their claim to power. At the same time, however, as Kuhn argues, the Taipings’ quest for legitimacy via control of urban geography and infrastructure alienated them from pockets of localistic power in the countryside. As such, it was these very groups which came to the aid of the state by becoming the core of its military organization.  

 One of the most interesting questions raised in Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China is the question of what ultimately became of rural elites on a local level once the examination system was terminated during the republican period. With the end of the examination system, Kuhn argues, rural elites gained access to a new view of the imperial system. Kuhn himself acknowledges that this and other questions contained within the work are difficult. With his success at tackling such an ambitious range of questioning, however, it is clear why this work has become one of such importance in the field of Chinese social history.

Though his claims are not airtight, Kuhn’s careful analysis, particularly his comments on the Taiping Rebellion, allows him to create a cohesive and insightful argument. Without a doubt, Kuhn’s achievements in Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China are what make the work, in many ways, a timeless piece of scholarship.