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August 13, 2007


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Alan baumler

Dear Dr. DeLong, thanks for stopping by. I don't suppose you will respond to this comment, (nor is there any reason you should) but I stand by what I said. The comments -are- a trove of typical misunderstandings about Chinese history and the essay itself, while far better than an essay on modern economic thought written by me, is IMHO, not very good. I know you have read Pommeranz and Huang, you mention them on the site often enough, but as one of your comments pointed out, the essay reads like it was written in 1970. I did not write a line-by-line fisking, as that seemed boring, but there is lots and lots in here that just does not work. To take your four reasons for China's 19th century crisis.

1. The "Manchu yoke" thing does not work much better than the Norman yoke does in England. Lots of people were loyal to the Qing court despite their Manchuness. Liang Qichao supported them down to 1909. I agree that China could not have followed the same path of nationalist development as Japan, but then no place could. Chinese elites spent a lot of time thinking about loyalty, and it was quite possible to both enjoy the Peach Blossom Fan and be loyal to the Qing, just as it was possible to be loyal to George II and burble about the King across the water. This section seems to be a hangover from early 20th century anti-Manchuism from the likes of Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen rather than anything based on the New Manchu History of the last 20 years.

[Wow. I am bowled over.

The question is: Why was the Qing court around 1900 different from Meiji Restoration Japan or the Thailand of Mongkut and Chulalongkorn in its inability to rally energetic modernizers like Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen to its banner?

Baumler says: “The ‘Manchu yoke’ thing does not work…. This section seems to be a hangover from early 20th century anti-Manchuism from the likes of Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen rather than anything based on the New Manchu History of the last 20 years…”

But Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen said that the reason they did not rally was that the Qing court was corrupt, obscurantist, and alien–that for the sake of China the “Manchu yoke” needed to be overthrown. And Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen are not historians whose interpretations are to be disputed, but historical actors whose thoughts are to be understood. And in those thoughts the “Manchu yoke” had a substantial place.

Now it would be one thing if he said that Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen said that they were motivated by the desire to rid China of the Manchu yoke but that they were lying, or that they were wrong because they did not understand their own motivations. But he doesn't say that, do you? All he says is that their thoughts were not in accord with “the New Manchu History of the last 20 years.”

This is a descent into self parody? Pathetic, sad, and not a little funny.]

2. The local and national elites were such a varied group that I hate to generalize about them in this broad way (and most of them were not in government service) but "Confucians" were not the monolithic group of obscuritanists you present them as. I suppose this is the most obvious zombie error in this section. Everyone from my undergrads to Brad Delong to Terry Pratchett is convinced that the Chinese, maybe for biological reasons, or as the prime intellectual commitment of "Confucians" always "discouraged any liking for change." Yes, local officials were aware of the problems mining could bring, and the top levels of the Chinese elite were no more in favor of radical social change than were the House of Lords, but most of this seems to be a hangover from British 19th century critiques of China's rejection of the worship of the Goddess of Progress than anything that fits with what we know about Chinese elites.
3. Peasant rebellions were indeed bad, and probably a sign of worse things going on. Mao and the communists portrayed the Taipings as proto-bourgeois revolutionaries, and in fact there has been some criticism of recent Chinese textbooks as they downplay peasant revolts as the motor of Chinese history. I don't think it works. To say that the Taiping defeat meant that "China's political revolution was postponed for half a century" is to assume that the result of Taiping victory would have been ...Meiji? 1911? I think Mogadishu would be more likely.
4. Yes, the Chinese state in 1860 was militarily and politically weaker than the British one, the French one, and perhaps even the Russian one. It was not, however, utterly powerless, and there has been a lot work on the nature of the Chinese state and its successes, such as they were. I'm not sure why this point is here. There was quite a lot of state-led reform in the Qing, and some of it was successful. This section seems to be a hangover from the 19th century claim that China had no state (and thus was available for colonization.) It is simply not correct to say that "European and American mercenaries, concessionaires, merchants and manufacturers went where they wanted, did what they wanted, and enforced whatever laws they thought were good."

I suppose the main problem with the essay is that I can't really figure out what to make of it, as it slides right by most of the major concerns of historians of China. Not that you need to concern yourself with what historians think (or one historian in this case). Were the Manchus slavering horse-riding killers or assimilated Chinese? Not a helpful question, they were neither. Was China in 1880 a modern developmental state or a stateless area? Not a helpful question. I started thinking about what I would say if a student turned this into me. I assume I would give it an "F", since I don't ask these sorts of broad questions and this would be coming from one of those students who answers their questions rather than mine. (I like those students, so I would feel bad about it.) If I did ask this type of question I would have given them a boat-load of reading to do first, and would probably wonder why they had done so little of it.

cross-post from Frog In a Well


A quick note on a minor error:
Dar es Salaam isn't a good destination for Zheng He. The treasure fleet probably did not go so far AND Dar did not exist in the 15th century...

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