[Review] 常建华《清前期国家治理与民生政策》(Chang Jianhua: Policies on Governance and People’s Livelihood in the Early Qing Period)

Chang Jianhua 常建华, Qing qianqi guojia zhili yu minsheng zhengce 清前期国家治理与民生政策 (Policies on Governance and People’s Livelihood in the Early Qing Period), Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 中华书局, 2021. ISBN 9787101153910, 535 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Royston Lin (Albert-Ludwig University of Freiburg)

Chang Jianhua’s Policies on Governance and People’s Livelihood in the Early Qing Period represents a growing interest and trend among Chinese scholars in revisiting Qing (1644–1911) history in recent years. It includes eighteen essays, all of which were previously published in various Chinese academic journals between 2008 and 2020, by the author on topics ranging from the political consolidation of the Qing to the dynasty’s economic policies. The compilation is one of eleven volumes from the fourth edition of the ‘Collected Papers of Nankai Historians’ (南开史学家论丛).

Chang is a familiar figure in China in the field of Ming (1368–1644) and Qing history. He is currently a faculty member of Nankai University (南开大学) in Tianjin and helms that university’s Research Institute for Social History of China (中国社会史研究中心). A well-known scholar of social history in late imperial China, he is also a prolific author with 14 monographs and well over 350 academic essays and theses under his belt.

The eighteen essays in the book are divided into six sections. Each section typically follows a chronological order, that is, the successive eras of the four emperors who reigned during what Chang terms the ‘early Qing period’. While acknowledging the foundational contributions of the Shunzhi 顺治 Emperor (r. 1638–1661) as the first Manchu emperor to rule over China proper,[1] much of the spotlight is given to the three most prominent Qing emperors – Kangxi 康熙 (r. 1661–1722), Yongzheng 雍正 (r. 1722–1735), and Qianlong 乾隆 (r. 1735–1796). However, this definition of ‘early Qing’ differs from periodisations proposed by other scholars. Some scholars prefer to designate ‘early Qing’ as the period before the reign of the Kangxi Emperor.[2] Another, more familiar, periodisation is to mark the end of ‘early Qing’ in the year 1683.[3] This was the year in which the Qing defeated the last Ming loyalists in Taiwan, which subsequently heralded an age of pax Sinica – a period later referred to by scholars as the high Qing era.

Here is an overview of the sections and essays in the volume:

       I.          政治认同:统治与道统的接续

Political Identity: Continuity in Rule and Confucian Orthodoxy

1.      明太祖对清前期政治的影响

Influence of Taizu of the Ming Dynasty on Early Qing Politics

2.      清朝宫廷元旦节庆制度初探

Preliminary Study on the Order of New Year Celebrations in the Qing Court

3.      清代的科举考试与移风易俗 ­——以《乾隆中晚期科举考试史料》为中心

Imperial Examinations and the Reform of Social Norms in the Qing Period – Focusing on ‘Historical Records of Imperial Examinations in Mid- and Late-Qianlong Period’

     II.          化外为内:土司政策的继承与变革

Transforming the ‘Outer’ into the ‘Inner’: Inheriting and Reforming the Policies on Tusi (Local Chieftaincies)

4.      清顺治康熙时期对南方土司的处置

Management of the Southern Tusi during the Reigns of Shunzhi and Kangxi

5.      清雍正朝改土归流起因新说

New Thesis on the Beginnings of the Gaitu Guiliu (‘Replacing Tusi with Regular Administration’) Strategy during the Reign of Yongzheng

   III.          深入基层:保甲的普及过程

Penetrating the Grassroots: Process of the Spread of Baojia System

6.      清顺康时期保甲制的推行

Implementation of the Baojia System during the Reigns of Shunzhi and Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty

7.      雍正朝保甲制度的推行——以谕旨和奏折为中心的考察

Implementation of the Baojia System during the Reign of Yongzheng – An Investigation Focusing on Imperial Edicts and Memorials

8.      清乾嘉时期湖北保甲职役新探——以刑科题本为基本资料

New Study on the Baojia Corvée Labour in Hubei during the Reigns of Qianlong and Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty – Using Memorials from the Criminal Division as Primary Materials

   IV.          民生与秩序:开矿政策的演变

People’s Livelihood and Order: Evolution of Mining Policies

9.      康熙朝开矿问题新探

New Study on Mining during the Reign of Kangxi

10.   雍正朝开矿问题新探

New Study on Mining during the Reign of Yongzheng

11.   乾隆初年开放矿禁问题新探

New Study on the Lifting of the Mining Ban during the Early Years during the Reign of Qianlong

     V.          粮食安全:社仓实践及漕盐维护

Food Security: Establishment of Community Granaries and Safeguarding Canal-Transported Salt

12.   清顺治朝的长芦盐政

Salt Policies in Changlu during the Reign of Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty

13.   清顺康时期对运河及漕运的治理

Management of the Grand Canal and Canal Transport during the Reigns of Shunzhi and Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty

14.   清雍正时期试行社仓新考

New Investigation on the Trial Implementation of Community Granaries during the Reign of Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty

15.   乾隆朝整饬社仓研究

Research on the Improvement of Community Granaries during the Reign of Qianlong

   VI.          康雍交替:雍正帝继位研究

Replacing Kangxi with Yongzheng: Research on the Succession of Yongzheng Emperor

16.   雍正帝打击太监魏珠原因新探——魏珠其人其事考

New Investigation on the Reasons for Yongzheng Emperor’s Crackdown of the Eunuch Wei Zhu – An Investigation on Wei Zhu’s Character and Deeds

17.   从西方文献看雍正帝继位的合法性

Examination of the Legitimacy of Yongzheng Emperor’s Succession through Western Sources

18.   康熙帝不可能死于喝人参鸡汤新证

New Evidence Refuting Claims of Kangxi Emperor’s Death due to Consumption of Ginseng Chicken Soup

Generally, the sections and essays can be grouped into three thematic parts. The first three sections constitute part one and underscore the political and governance strategies in the first century of Manchu rule. In Section 1, three essays describe how the new Manchu dynasty inherited the political (Essay 1), cultural (Essay 2), and educational (Essay 3) legacies from their Ming Han-Chinese predecessors to consolidate its rule and gain legitimacy in the eyes of the general populace. Next, the two essays in Section 2 shed light on attempts of the early Qing regime to govern the peripheries: from the initial relationship between the central court and the native tusi 土司 (local chieftains) (Essay 4) to the later strategy of gaitu guiliu 改土归流 to incorporate these peripheral chieftaincies into the main administration (Essay 5).

Section 3 consists of three essays and focuses on how the first Qing emperors implemented and promoted the baojia 保甲 system – a community-based administrative structure that can be traced back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). Chang begins by examining the baojia system in the early years of the Qing Dynasty during the reigns of the Shunzhi and Kangxi Emperors (Essay 6). In the regnal years of the Yongzheng Emperor, the system expanded rapidly and became instrumental in maintaining political and social order at the grassroots level (Essay 7). Chang’s case study of Hubei in Essay 8 also gives an example of the regional differences in the implementation of the baojia system in the empire.

The next two sections form a second thematic part, highlighting early Qing economic policies and their effects on the livelihood of the Chinese population. The three essays in Section 4 trace the development of mining policies under the reigns of the Kangxi (Essay 9), Yongzheng (Essay 10), and Qianlong Emperors (Essay 11), respectively. Comprising four essays, Section 5 looks at the management of people’s livelihood in the Qing empire by examining different socioeconomic schemes rolled out by the government. These included policies on the salt industry (Essay 12), the Grand Canal (Essay 13), and the community granary (shecang 社仓) scheme during the reigns of the Yongzheng (Essay 14) and Qianlong Emperors (Essay 15). The essays in the two parts present straightforward arguments on how the early Qing regime governed and managed the empire.

Finally, Chang revisits the transition between the reigns of the Kangxi and Yongzheng Emperors in the three essays of Section 6. This last section can be taken as the third thematic part of the volume, bringing discussions about the Kangxi Emperor’s death and Yongzheng Emperor’s succession to the forefront. At first glance, the essays in this section appear to be ill-fitted in the volume’s selection of essays and seem disconnected from its two anchor themes, namely, governance and people’s livelihood. Yet, on closer reading, Section 6, with its three essays, allows the reader to better appreciate the Manchus’ craft of governance in the ‘early Qing period’: the first reconsiders the contentious legitimacy of the Yongzheng Emperor’s succession to the throne through the case of the ousting of Eunuch Wei Zhu (Essay 16); the second proposes Jesuit correspondence as a useful source in understanding the conflicts between the royal cliques surrounding the succession dispute (Essay 17); and the third challenges the curious claim of the Kangxi Emperor’s demise due to excessive consumption of ginseng (Essay 18). They remind the reader that the imperial court was not immune to internal strife, external (in the case of the Jesuits, even foreign) influences, and controversies. In other words, the Manchus not only had to administer and rule over a vast empire, but they also had to carefully handle and deal with affairs within the imperial court to ensure the stability of their dynastic rule. Section 6, therefore, nicely wraps up the volume by offering a glimpse into the Qing management of court politics.

With the exception of Essay 2, there are only cursory mentions of the role of culture in the government agenda during the early Qing period. This essay zooms in on an important cultural event – New Year celebrations. A notable point in the discussion on New Year celebrations at the imperial court is the regime’s key policy of multiculturalism. The incorporation of Mongolia’s homage to the Qing emperors during the New Year celebrations (Yuandan chaohe 元旦朝贺) was singled out as a case to demonstrate how the Qing regime adopted cultural policies to strengthen Manchu-Mongol relations. This calls to mind Evelyn Rawski’s point that the Manchus’ success in empire-building and cementing their power ‘lay in its ability to use its cultural links with the non-Han peoples of Inner Asia and to differentiate the administration of the non-Han regions from the administration of the former Ming provinces’.[4] A critical examination of this policy and other Qing cultural strategies would have provided greater insights into Manchu governance of China and the Qing quest to legitimise its rule, ensure the empire’s political unity, and bolster its influence over its peripheries. The addition of this cultural layer would surely have benefitted the volume and contributed to a deeper understanding of Qing administration.

While most of the topics presented in the book cover familiar ground, the author contributes to the existing research by offering different perspectives and raising thought-provoking arguments. For instance, using the example of the implementation of the baojia 保甲 system (Section 3), he cautions against broad periodisation and advocates the study of history in shorter phases to allow more precise dissection of archival documents and meaningful historical analysis. Chang deserves to be applauded for his extensive use and reading of historical sources, many of which were previously neglected. Perhaps a shortcoming of this otherwise incredible wealth of information from key Qing sources in the collected essays is that explanations and analyses of protracted quotations are mostly brief. This can be a potential obstacle for readers who are new to or unfamiliar with the topics discussed.

The sources used by the author are primarily imperial records and government documents. In other words, the essays in the volume still adopt a traditional top-down approach to history writing. This may well be Chang’s intention: to better understand the politics of governance and policies pertaining to the people’s livelihood from the perspective of the Manchu rulers. Nevertheless, it may help paint a fuller picture of the topics at hand if ordinary people were given a voice in the narratives. There could have been a closer examination and analysis of the population’s responses – whether positive or negative – towards Qing politics and policies. Such a bottom-up research approach using grassroots materials could lend a more nuanced view and help evaluate the effectiveness of these same strategies. For instance, the two main historical sources Chang employs in Essay 15 are Qing Gaozong shilu 清高宗实录 (Veritable Records of Gaozong [Qianlong] of the Qing Dynasty) and a compiled selection of sources by Ha Enzhong 哈恩忠 titled Qianlong chao zhengchi shecang dang’an 乾隆朝整饬设仓档案 (Archives for the Improvement of Community Granaries during the Reign of Qianlong), both of which represent different perspectives of the Qing regime. In the absence of grassroots sources, public opinions and sentiments towards the community granary scheme are unknown. The successes (and failures) of the granary scheme, therefore, remain solely as claims by the governmentand cannot be verified.

In addition, Chinese sources dominate Chang’s research in the volume; hardly any non-Chinese source is consulted in his studies. This is  a fly in the ointment in these collected essays. Ironically, Chang himself raises a compelling point concerning the use of foreign sources in research on Chinese history in China in Essay 17: Even though academic circles abroad have long considered non-Chinese primary sources (such as Jesuit reports) an integral part of the corpus of research materials for Chinese history, such materials are still ‘unconventional’ (fei chuantong 非传统) in the eyes of some scholars within China due to language barriers (pp. 512–513). While Chang specifically cites the example of European languages, the barriers also extend to languages traditionally within the boundaries of the Chinese imperial realm, including Mongolian, Tibetan, and even Manchu. Lacking the necessary linguistic competencies to engage with historical sources is obviously not only an issue for Chinese historians but a universal challenge for scholars worldwide.

The linguistic impediment aside, historians could also be culpable for intentionally ignoring sources in non-Han languages when it comes to historical research. In the case of Qing history, many scholars have for a long time neglected and overlooked Manchu sources, erroneously ‘assuming that all documents of the [Qing] empire were either in Chinese or had been translated from Manchu into Chinese (or vice versa)’.[5] To illustrate the folly of this methodological flaw, Beatrice Bartlett’s research on the Grand Council (Junji chu 军机处, Qing inner cabinet) shows that much of the governmental correspondence was conducted exclusively in Manchu, effectively excluding the non-Manchu-speaking Han-Chinese court officials in the making of some decisions.[6] Without the knowledge of languages (in this case, Manchu), historians will miss significant pieces to the historical puzzle. As more Chinese and Western scholars have gained proficiency in various languages over time, this has become a diminishing problem. The value and significance of foreign – and by extension, non-Han – sources for the study of Chinese history cannot be overstated; the use of these sources is crucial and imperative in edging China more into the currents of global history, one that respects both Chinese and Western, Han and non-Han, sources. This, in turn, will accent the intertwined histories of China and the world beyond.

This volume represents but a fraction of Chang’s contributions over the past two decades in the field of Qing history. It provides a practical resource for scholars to easily access some of Chang’s published essays on Qing policies and strategies in governance. More than just a selection of essays, the volume may well serve as a springboard for fresh perspectives on old questions, encouraging scholars to revisit (seemingly) well-trodden paths in historical research. While the book may benefit researchers familiar with the field of study, it is not the introductory volume that non-expert readers are looking for to be initiated into early Qing history.


[1] His predecessor, Hong Taiji (or Huang Taiji) 皇太极 (r. 1636–1643), is regarded as the founding emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

[2] Anne Gerritsen, ‘From Late Ming to High Qing, 1550–1792’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, ed. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 19; Diana Lary, Chinese Migrations: The Movement of People, Goods, and Ideas over Four Millennia (Lanham, et al.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012), p. 75.

[3] Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘Imperialer Kosmopolitismus. Das Qing-Reich im 18. Jahrhundert’, in Historische Zeitschrift 316 (1) (2023), p. 33; Susan Mann, Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1997), p. 20.

[4] Evelyn S. Rawski, ‘Presidential Address: Reenvisioning the Qing: The Significance of the Qing Period in Chinese History’, in The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1996), p. 831.

[5] Michal Biran, ‘Periods of Non-Han Rule’, in A Companion to Chinese History, ed. Michael Szonyi (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2017), p. 134.

[6] See Beatrice Bartlett, Monarchs and Ministers: The Grand Council in Mid-Ch’ing China, 1723–1820 (Berkeley, Univeristy of California Press, 1991); Beatrice Bartlett, ‘Books of Revelations: The Importance of the Manchu Language Archival Books for Research on Ch’ing History’, in Late Imperial China 6 (2) (1985), pp. 25–36.



Cite this blog post
Royston Lin (2023, September 1). [Review] 常建华《清前期国家治理与民生政策》(Chang Jianhua: Policies on Governance and People’s Livelihood in the Early Qing Period). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ohai

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