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.