Was Late Imperial China Early Modern?

Zou Jiajun posted on the Sinologists Facebook group asking how the term “Early Modern” got to be used in China studies. This is a an interesting question, since we sometimes use the term Early Modern, sometimes Late Imperial. We also can’t agree on what time period this is. Late Imperial used to be Ming and Qing, but now maybe it goes back the the Song?

Since I am teaching an Early Modern China class in the fall I thought I would think about it a bit, based partially on some limited research and partly on Stuff I Remember From Grad School. Yes, I am old enough to talk about historiography just by remembering things.

First, I don’t really understand the evolution of the idea of Early Modern in studies of Europe that well. This promises to explain it,

Scott, Hamish. “Introduction.” The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History, 1350-1750, July 1, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199597253.013.29.

but I don’t have access.

One thing that I was reminded of right away when I started looking into it was that “Early Modern” was sometimes used to just refer to the 19th century in China, as here.

Fairbank, John K., Alexander Eckstein, and L. S. Yang. “Economic Change in Early Modern China: An Analytic Framework.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 9, no. 1 (1960): 1–26.

I’m not as anti-Fairbank as some people seem to be, but man some of his stuff, and Modernization theory in general, have held up even less well than you might think. Lots of talk of “Gestation”. Very mechanically listing the things you need to be modern, usually economic or political things, and pointing out that China lacked them or that the Chinese version fore some reason did not count. Free cities! Foreign Trade! It almost sounds like you are playing Civilization (or some other video game) and you can’t build Archers till you have discovered Animal Husbandry.

Still, that basic idea behind this -that “Traditional China” was not an undifferentiated mass, cut off from history in a slough of Oriental Despotism, unchanged from the Yellow Emperor to Lu Xun- was forward-looking at one point. The old stagnant China view was, I suspect, in part the influence of Western Orientalist ideas about the inferiority of non-European cultures and also the May Fourth rejection of Feudal China, a rejection that I suspect became more simplistic as it went from Chinese May Fourthers to their western students.

I do remember hearing that at the conference that resulted in Mary Clabaugh Wright,  China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913.  (Yale, 1971). Chuzo Ichiko was so ridiculed for his paper “The Role of the Gentry: An Hypothesis” that he went up to his hotel room and would not come back down until Akira Iriye was sent up to convince him to re-join the conference. Not sure how true that story is, but certainly the idea that the gentry (or the local elite, as we now call them) were an important part of making the 1911 Revolution (now a standard position) would have seemed absurd to some at one point.

A good summary of the transition comes from the flyleaf of my copy of Madeleine Zelin’s The Magistrate’s Tael (California, 1984)

OUR UNDERSTANDING of China’s early modern history has long been dominated by the image of a backward empire, wracked by corruption and economic stagnation, thrust into the modern world when Western gunboats arrived in the 1840s. Madeline Zelin shatters this image by uncovering the dramatic process of state-building during the early years of China’s last imperial regime. Changes in economic and political environment brought about a shift from the decentralized agrarianism of traditional imperial administration to a centralized bureaucratic of taxes and public works during the early years of the Ch’ing dynasty. Relying heavily on archival materials, Zelin describes the implementation of these radical reforms and their effect on governmental administration in different regions of the empire. By providing an account of the indigenous evolution of the Chinese state, The Magistrate’s Tael makes it possible to judge the impact of the West on modern China’s development and to assess China’s inherent potential for and resistance to modern political and economic growth.

I like how it circles back to China’s response to the West at the end.

I think that Europeanists had, by the 60’s if not earlier, become unhappy with lumping everything before 1800 into “Pre-Modern” or medieval or whatever. The same thing happened in studies of Asia. K. Chadhuri’s  Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean came out while I was in grad school. In Southeast Asian Studies they apparently started using the term to get beyond Colonial / pre-colonial. Andaya, Leonard Y., and Barbara Watson Andaya. “Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Period; Twenty-Five Years On.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 26, no. 1 (1995): 92–98.

I think that to understand how the term came to be used in China it needs to put into the context of how scholars of other places in Asia were using it. Knight Biggerstaff looked at how scholars of Japan’s use of the term might apply to China. Biggerstaff, Knight. “Modernization-and Early Modern China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 25, no. 4 (1966): 607–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/2051494.

Still the same checklist approach, but In Japan they seem to have gone a lot farther in terms of working with the early modern concept then China people had. This may have been in part because Japan had the Meiji restoration (and thus had to find the “gestation” of “takeoff” somewhere) and also because Japanese scholars in particular knew a lot more about what went on in “traditional history”. I remember being told that the Japanese scholars at one of the early conferences were rather bemused that their American counterparts thought nothing happened in the Muromachi period.

I think the growing depth of knowledge explains how it became Ming/Qing that were Late Imperial China. As people like Fairbank and Zelin started digging into the Qing (and work became less political and more economic and eventually cultural) the Ming fits with the Qing. Thus the journal Ch’ing-shih wen-t’i became Late Imperial China. The whole field of Ming-Qing transition studies, culminating in Wakeman’s Great Enterprise emerged. (my first historiographical essay as a grad student was on the Ming-Qing transition). Now we may push Early Modern or Late Imperial back to the Song, but that would have been impossible earlier given how little we knew and how they were working back from 1840 to figure out what this Early Modern/Late Imperial China was.




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