Reading Perdue’s China Marches West I was struck by how much historians are constrained by our sources and how we strain against them. The book itself (which is very good) is about the expansion of the Qing empire into Central Asia. This is a hot topic at present, and this book is pretty much the center of the trend towards taking China’s relationship with the non-Chinese Asia more seriously.
One of the things that Perdue spends a lot of time on, obviously, are the Qing military campaigns that ended in the conquest of Central Asia, specifically the campaigns against the Zunghars (1690-1697) The thing I found most interesting was Perdue’s emphasis on logistics and grain supply. He spends a lot of time talking about ways that the Qing tried to encourage private merchants to bring grain to the frontier. Supplies for remote regions were a long-standing problem in Chinese statecraft. From military colonies, where the soldiers were supposed to rise their own grain, to Ming experiments with encouraging private merchants to bring grain to the frontier in exchange for the right to participate in the salt monopoly to Qing distribution of cash (rather than grain) there was a long history of attempts to support big armies as cheaply as possible.
One of the things I like about this section is that Perdue can go into incredible detail about price levels, debates over grain policy, and local market conditions. Besides fulfilling my dreams of being a Qing dynasty grain-policy wonk, I like reading about topics of governance that might have turned up on the civil service exams. As historians we often bring very different interests to our sources than their creators do, which is fine, but in this case, and in a few others I can think of we are really peering into a debate which is to some extent still the same one that was defined by Qing officials and to some extent it is still debated in the same way.
On the other hand, Perdue also brings a very different set of concerns to his material. He is pretty obviously interested in the extent to which the Qing were able to harness market forces to do their work for them, and thus the extent they were a really modern government. He is not a sprouts of capitalism reductionist, but he is clearly interested in questions that would not have occurred to the people he is studying. This is true of other people who study grain as well, (Wong and Will come to mind.) If you want to analyze the Qing economy or Qing economic policy making, the best data is in grain, but the data was generated by a bureaucracy that was concerned with issues like “nurturing the people” rather than encouraging economic growth. Perdue says that “As the commercial economy expanded on the frontier, the Qing sought to tap the new flow of resources for the benefit of local stability. Shifting away from their primary dependence on the land tax, officials looked for new sources of support from trade.”(p.369) The goal, promoting local stability, is one that Qing officials would embrace, the method of embracing the market is a modern idea. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)
Perdue is a very good historian, and he does not let his interest in the magic of markets run away with him. (An important point when writing on the interweb, where the opposite is usually true.) He is writing about a time and place where markets were limited and did not work “right.” Gansu suffered from “bumper crop famines” where good harvests one year would lead to famines the next as farmers lacked the capital, and probably the market savvy, to store their cheap grain. The state eventually stepped in to establish a state granary system to prevent this problem, and eventually the province was commercialized enough that these famines disappeared. I would think that lots of good old-fashioned Qing officials would not be surprised that commercialization could lead to famine. Lots of modern economists would not be surprised that pushing on to a commercial economy would eliminate the problem. Perdue is a historian, however, and he is interested in the place in the middle.