[Review] 翁有为《近代中国之变轴:军阀话语建构、省制变革与国家》(Weng Youwei: The Axis of Change in Modern China: The Construction of the Discourse on Warlordism, the Reform of the Provincial System, and the State)

Weng Youwei 翁有为, Jindai Zhongguo zhi bianzhou: Junfa huayu jiangou, shengzhi biange yu guojia 近代中国之变轴:军阀话语建构、省制变革与国家 (The Axis of Change in Modern China: The Construction of the Discourse on Warlordism, the Reform of the Provincial System, and the State). Beijing: Renmin chubanshe 人民出版社, 2021. ISBN 978-7-01-022952-2; 2, 19, 338 pages, 86.00 RMB.

Reviewed by Clemens Büttner (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)

Weng Youwei’s The Axis of Change in Modern China is a perplexing book with an elusive message, although the book is not without merit. Its self-declared goal is to uncover the “inherent logic of historical development” (历史发展的自身逻辑, 〈代前言〉, p. 1) that supposedly informed China’s modern history from the second half of the 19th century to the (from the author’s perspective) inevitable victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949. Weng pursues this goal by analyzing “three central issues” (三大轴心问题) that he feels decisively shaped the course of China’s social transformation in the late Qing and early Republican eras: The “construction of the modern warlord discourse” (近代军阀话语之建构), the “reform of the provincial institutional [system] and the evolution of society” (省区制度之变革与社会之演进), and the “transformation of the contemporary state” (现代国家之转型). However, the reason why these three issues are especially suitable for uncovering said logic is not sufficiently made clear, and Weng’s overall argument only works if the reader shares the author’s – virtually axiomatic and never explicitly expressed – assumption that the rise and victory of the CCP were scientifically inevitable.

Instead of expounding the reasoning behind focusing on these issues, the book’s introductory “Substitute for a Preface” (代前言) is dedicated to arguing that historical development can somehow only then be discerned if the historian identifies and examines the “backbone” (骨干) and the “soul” (灵魂) of history, its “subject” (主体) and its “noumenon” (本体), and their relationships with each other. For the author, the “backbone” of history is institutions (制度).[1] Weng asserts that history ought to be understood as a process of institutional change and quotes Douglass C. North’s seminal definition (in a Chinese translation): “Institutions are the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction. In consequence they structure incentives in human exchange, whether political, social, or economic. Institutional change shapes the way societies evolve through time and hence is the key to understanding historical change” (〈代前言〉, p. 4).[2]

In China, this process accelerated significantly in the 19th century when the late Qing Empire came into contact with modern western state institutions. Yet, taking a Marxist-Maoist historiographical stance (and thus undercutting his prior statement that institutional change is the engine of historical change), the author emphasizes that social contradictions propelled the institutional changes in China’s political and societal spheres. For Weng, these contradictions find their clearest expression in ideas (思想), which he identifies as the “soul” of history: Ideas are the result of systematically thinking about political, economic, social, cultural, and other phenomena that may point the way through the “fog of history” (历史迷雾, 〈代前言〉, p. 7).

Weng then essentializes this correlation between institutions and ideas by relating them to his notions of the “subject” and the (Kantian) “noumenon” of history: For Weng, humans (人) are the subject of history, since “without humans there would be nothing that could be called history” (没有人就没有所谓的历史, 〈代前言〉, p. 8). History actualizes itself in the interactions between historical figures and social forces and historical development is driven by human thinking about the “noumenon” of history: society (社会).

In other words: “Society” as an ideational-political concept is but an object of intellectual perception (or human thinking) in a sense that transcends its basic meaning as a “human community and their activities” (人类社会及与其活动, 〈代前言〉, p. 14). Society thus becomes manifest in a twofold fashion: Retrospectively in historiography and prospectively in ideas of how the state and its inhabitants should understand themselves and interact with each other (and other societies). Correspondingly, asserts Weng, it is the duty of the historian to uncover these dual and interrelated correlations – between institutions and ideas and between humans and society – if the above-mentioned “inherent logic” of human historical development is to be discerned.

Hence, the “Substitute for a Preface” introduces Weng’s general, yet quite inconsistent, understanding of history. He conflictingly identifies, at various points, institutional change, social contradictions, and human thinking about society as the main driving force of historical development. Weng also fails to furnish the reader with an overview of the book’s outline or an explanation as to why his identified “central issues” (the discourse on warlordism, the reform of the provincial institutional system, and the transformation of the state) are supposedly suited to making this point.

The lack of any insight into how Weng chose these “central issues” to demonstrate the “inherent logic” of history (and, thus, the rise of the CCP) makes reading this monograph a laborious enterprise. Even though each of the book’s three parts is prepended by a short introductory note, the reader still must regularly guess what point the author is trying to make.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the construction of the modern discourse on warlordism that, according to Weng Youwei, was the connecting “bridge” (桥梁, p. 1) between the other two “central issues”: The late Qing reforms of the provincial system that set the stage for the emergence of warlordism that caused the disintegration of the central state and the way reunification of that state became the main theme of Chinese politics before 1949. By examining the development and contents of said discourse, the author aims to uncover the “…knowledge of, reflections on, and behavior towards the central power of the state (国家中心力量), the state’s institutions of authority, law and order (国家权威法纪制度), the developmental path of the Chinese state and society, etc.” (p. 2) that became apparent at the time. Without mentioning him, Weng bases the methodological approach in this part of the book on Michel Foucault (namely, his discourse analysis and archaeology of knowledge).

After asserting that the “warlord question” (军阀问题) was one of the seminal political and social questions of the May Fourth period, Weng proceeds to systematically examine the Chinese discourse on warlordism. The author shows that this discourse underwent four different, albeit overlapping stages: During the first stage (cf. pt. 1, chap. 1), Chinese intellectual circles of the period developed a general understanding of the warlord phenomenon by identifying the disruptive effects of the warlords’ actions on state and society (interference in political affairs, abuse of (military) power, disruption of law and order, fragmentation of state territory, infighting between warlords, military mutinies, banditry). During the second stage (cf. pt. 1, chap. 2), attention turned towards identifying the various causes (成因) of warlordism (egotism and greed of warlords, insufficient political knowledge and consciousness of the people to support the Republican polity, premature abortion of the revolutionary enterprise to rid China of its autocratic past, failure of China’s revolutionary forces to work together, domestic economic fragmentation, international imperialism). The third stage of the discourse on warlordism (cf. pt. 1, chap. 3) was dedicated to identifying the “specific characteristics” (特性) of the warlords (their disregard of the law, their desire for personal armies and territories, their contradictory impulses to either cooperate or fight each other, their subservient attitude towards foreign powers and their ruthless behavior towards the masses). During the fourth stage (cf. pt. 1, chaps. 4–5), various political groups and actors began to propose solutions (解决) for the “warlord problem.”

In these two chapters, Weng’s teleological view of China’s revolutionary history becomes apparent, as he argues that only members of the CCP (namely, Chen Duxiu 陈独秀, Li Dazhao 李大钊, Cai Hesen 蔡和森, et al.) possessed the necessary acumen and insights to truly recognize the harmful effects of warlordism on China’s economic and socio-political development and to work out a multi-layered plan to dispose of the warlords (namely, by forcing foreign imperialist powers out of the country, mobilizing the urban and the rural population for the fight against warlords and imperialists, and organizing a united democratic-revolutionary movement to complete the unfinished enterprise of the 1911 Revolution). In order to achieve and justify this goal, the CCP developed a theoretical framework that exposed the existence of a connection between the reactionary forces of warlordism and (semi-)feudalism ((半)封建): Warlords (backed by foreign imperialists) and rural landowners who aimed to continue to exploit the Chinese people. This theoretical realization, Weng asserts, paved “the way to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中华民族复兴, p. 113) in 1949.

In the second part of his book, Weng turns to the issue of the reform of the provincial institutional system and the evolution of society in the late Qing and early Republican eras. According to Weng, provinces play a key role in establishing and maintaining a close relationship between the political center of a country and its local subdivisions. In the late Qing era, provincial autonomy grew considerably. The early Republican central governments were unable to halt or reverse this trend, as they lacked the authority to rein in the powers of the provincial military governors.[3] Only the CCP, Weng stresses, was able to point the way towards national reunification and independence, thus working towards the well-being of the people and the progress of society.

To show the (assumed) inability of the Republican governments to re-establish national unity and the authority of the central government – and the CCP’s inevitable success in actualizing these goals – Weng examines center-province relations of the Republican era in a chronological fashion (cf. pt. 2, chaps. 1–4). From the 1910s to 1930s, various Republican governments tried to grapple with the difficult legacy of the late Qing provincial reforms (separatism (分离主义) and localism (地方主义)) by attempting to modernize the provincial system and strengthen the central government, but since their respective bases of power rested on regional political-military cliques and alliances, they were essentially doomed to fail (pp. 124–127, 129–135, 158–171). By contrast, Weng emphasizes that in the 1930s, the CCP was able to establish an administrative party committee system (in various revolutionary base areas (革命根据地)) that effectively subordinated the provinces to the authority of the party’s central agencies (pp. 135–140, 174–200). The CCP’s purported aim was to truly work towards the goal of national independence and unity as well as social stability, but Weng fails to address the fact that the foremost raison d’être of these areas was to ensure the survival of the CCP against the backdrop of anti-Communist campaigns of the Guomindang (GMD) and war against Japan. It was not to set a systemic counterexample to the efforts of the GMD to restructure center-provinces relations. Only after 1949 could the system of revolutionary base areas turn into “evidence” of the CCP’s purported organizational foresight and ideological radiance.

In the third – and most opaque – part of his book, Weng turns to the “central issue” of the transformation of the contemporary state. In order to show that the notion of a centralized state (国家) had a tremendous guiding effect on the thinking and actions of intellectuals and politicians in the late Qing and Republican eras, the author first focuses on the anti-autocratic (反专制) thought of Liang Qichao 梁启超 (pt. 3, chap. 1). Second, he turns to the goal of national unification as the ideo-political “leitmotif” (主题) of the disputes between warlords during the Beiyang era (1912–1928; pt. 3, chap. 2). Third, he deals with the matter of how taxation and famine relief measures affected the rural population in the time before the war against Japan (pt. 3, chap. 3). Finally, Weng examines how Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石 dealt with the problem of corruption in the Nanjing National Government (pt. 3, chap. 4). While the reasons for focusing on Liang Qichao’s anti-autocratic thought and the intellectual leitmotif of the Beiyang era can be deduced from their respective chapters (see below), Weng’s rationale behind selecting taxation/famine relief and corruption, respectively, is considerably less clear.

According to the author, Liang Qichao’s anti-autocratic thought was an important source of inspiration for the anti-feudalistic ideas of the May Fourth era (p. 247). Liang was instrumental in popularizing the notion that the contemporary Chinese state ought to be a unified nation-state that derived its legitimacy from the people (and not some ruler who subjugated the people), and he thus had a huge impact on the intellectual climate in which the CCP emerged (p. 208). This idea (which, however, was by no means developed by Liang Qichao alone) continued to hold sway during the Beiyang era since virtually all warlords affirmed their belief in the goal of national unification. Weng shows that the warlords – who (rhetorically) perpetuated the idea that China could only rise again as a unified state – delegitimized their own form of rule and stirred nationalistic sentiments that ultimately proved to be their undoing (p. 259).

In the following two chapters (pt. 3, chaps. 3–4), Weng abruptly shifts focus and begins to concentrate on the supposed shortcomings of the GMD government in the 1920s and 1930s, presumably to show that the GMD – unlike the CCP – lacked the understanding and qualification to achieve the goals of national reunification and independence and social stability. First, by focusing on questions of taxation and famine relief Weng intends to “discuss the relationship between the [central] government and the peasantry, [to discuss] the close relationship between the living situation of the peasantry and political ups and downs” (p. 270). In times of political hardships, the author claims, taxation of the peasantry always increases, as does the number and severity of natural catastrophes (due to the inability or reluctance of the central government to take precautionary measures). During the Nanjing decade, Weng maintains, such developments precipitated a steep decline of China’s rural economy, and the GMD proved unable to halt and reverse this downward spiral. At this stage, the CCP stepped in and inspired China’s rural population to revolt (pp. 288–295).

Ultimately, Weng attributes the failure of the GMD to a lack of political convictions: Chiang Kai-shek and his regime supposedly failed because they betrayed the original aspiration of the national revolution (i.e., national unity and independence) to strengthen their own (egotistical) claim to political power. This had a corrupting effect on all levels of the national government. Weng shows that Chiang Kai-shek was aware of the ubiquitous corruption in the state apparatus and tried to handle this situation with educational and disciplinary means. However, unlike the CCP in its revolutionary base areas, Chiang was always willing to accept corruption if it buttressed his grip on power (pp. 309–317).

It is at this point that Weng’s book abruptly ends. No summary of the main ideas or formal conclusion is provided. A “Postscript” (后记) is appended after the book’s list of references, but Weng only reiterates that he wanted to provide an “institutional history” (制度史) of modern China that takes social movements into account (p. 335–336). Weng has, in fact, written an intellectual history of various discourses (on warlordism, political systems, and statehood) in the late Qing and Republican eras. The overviews of these discourses provide decent introductions to their respective subjects, but Weng does not bring the separate threads of his book compellingly together. This is regrettable because the secondary message of this work – that the concepts of national unity and independence were the main reference point of all political thinking of the time – is indeed worthy of systematic consideration.

Ultimately, though, The Axis of Change in Modern China is brought down, not by its lack of argumentative clarity and rigor, but by its main goal: To show the “inherent logic of historical development.” What Weng failed to address here, I would argue, is that such logic can only become apparent in retrospect in historiography and only if one possesses a deterministic understanding of history. From a non-deterministic historiographical perspective, history presents itself as the product of continuous efforts to grapple with (and anticipate) a series of contingencies. Curiously enough, at the beginning of his study Weng himself (unintentionally?) concedes to the validity of this latter interpretation of history: “If there had not been a phase of warlord politics (军阀政治) in the early Republican era, then politically, the Republic probably would have taken a different path, and China’s political development would have followed a different developmental model” (p. 1). If Weng Youwei himself does not fully believe in the validity of his book’s argument, why should his readers?


[1]    Throughout the text, however, Weng does not clearly differentiate between the concepts of “institution” and “system” when applying the term “制度”, thus blurring the conceptual clarity of his overall argument.

[2]    Weng quotes from the Chinese translation: 道格拉斯 • C • 诺思:《制度、制度变迁与经济绩效》,刘守英译,上海:兰联书店,1994,p. 1. The English quote is taken from the original edition: Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 3.

[3]    Throughout the book, Weng almost completely disregards non-Chinese scholarship. For instance, he therefore overemphasizes the role of mid-19th century administrative-organizational developments to the rise of Chinese warlordism while undervaluing the influence of other crucial socio-political and intellectual factors (cf. e.g. Edward A. McCord, The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism. Berkeley et al.: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 6–8).



Cite this blog post
buettner (2023, April 1). [Review] 翁有为《近代中国之变轴:军阀话语建构、省制变革与国家》(Weng Youwei: The Axis of Change in Modern China: The Construction of the Discourse on Warlordism, the Reform of the Provincial System, and the State). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ohaa

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