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One
Family Continuity and Cultural Hegemony: The Gentry of Ningbo, 1368-1911

Timothy Brook

One evening in the fall of 1617, Wan Bangfu (1544-1628) and Zhou Yingzhi (jinshi 1580) were drinking with their friends at the Moon Society, a poet's club by the edge of Moon (or West) Lake in the southwest quarter of the city of Ningbo. The two men were celebrating the births of grandchildren. Zhou's daughter-in-law had given birth to a girl, Wan's to a boy, Wan Sinian (1617-93), who would become a leading scholar of the late seventeenth century. Well into their cups, Wan and Zhou decided that the newborns should be betrothed to each other to cement their own tie. The marriage took place as planned, nineteen years later.

Wan and Zhou were among the most highly placed members of the local gentry of Yin county, the prefectural seat of Ningbo, at the turn of the seventeenth century. The Wans had first risen to prominence through military achievements during the founding of the Ming dynasty in the 1360s, for which they had been awarded a hereditary guard commandership in Ningbo. The family was known even then for its literary cultivation: the daughter of the first commander had earned a local reputation for her studies and filial piety. Wan Bangfu's grandfather had been the first to transfer the family from military to civil eminence by becoming an outstanding Neo-Confucian scholar in the tradition of the eminent philosopher Wang Yangming (1472-1528). Wan Bangfu had similarly excelled in both military and literary skills, overseeing the defense of the Fujian coast while in office and composing poetry and penning calligraphy while out of office. He had married his son to one of the Xihu ("West Lake") Wens, a most respectable family from the fashionable Moon Lake residential district, and the new couple had produced Sinian.

In terms of family background, though, Zhou Yingzhi was the most eminent man in Ningbo in 1617. The Fushi Zhous were the leading gentry family


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of the county. They had recently acquired a new spacious residence by Moon Lake. As the senior member of his generation, Yingzhi was qualified to preside over elite society in all its forms, including the twenty-nine-member Moon Society where he and Wan celebrated grandfatherhood and tied the knot between their lines.

The betrothal of the infants was recalled many years later by their son, Wan Yan (1637-1705). Wan Yan was born the year after his grandfather, Bangfu, finally passed the provincial juren examinations. Like his grandfather and father, Wan Yan married well (a Shaoyaozhi Qian). Like them, too, he was active in literary societies with his friends, "the younger members of the great families of the county"—the Qijie Lis (to whom he was related by marriage), the Nanhu Shens, the Wanzhu Gaos, the Feng'ao Shuis, and others. At the center of much of this literary activity in Yin county was Huang Zongxi (1610-95), the outstanding intellectual of his generation. Huang had been a fellow-student with Wan Yan's father and during Wan Yan's own time was teaching in retirement in his native Yuyao county on the western border of Yin. "Our party" (wu dang ), as Wan Yan called his friends, expressed their common moral and intellectual commitment and their regret for the fall of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by gathering around Huang. Later Wan Yan took Huang's concerns about Ming history to the capital by helping to compile the official dynastic history of the fallen Ming house on the basis of Huang's research notes. Wan Yan's in-law, Li Yesi, used the same expression, "our party," for the Ningbo gentry coterie that gathered around Huang. In Li's view the Wans in particular were preeminent in "our party." He called them "the model of the gentry lineage."[1]

This brief glimpse of the seventeenth-century social world inhabited by the upper levels of the Yin-county gentry touches on some ways by which this elite group established its hegemony in the late imperial period. Confucian social theory placed the gentry—those who distinguished themselves by entering the service of the throne via the examination system—at the top of a conventionalized four-tiered hierarchy above peasants, artisans, and merchants. The imperial political system, however, denied them a legitimate voice in the decision-making processes in their native places by empowering them politically only after they had passed the higher state examinations and left for a bureaucratic career elsewhere. This nonenfranchisement allowed the gentry to occupy the pinnacle of the social order at home only extrapolitically. To ensure their hegemony in that context, the gentry developed distinctive economic, social, and cultural strategies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[2] In this essay I do not challenge the institutional definition of the gentry in terms of state titles, but I do supplement it by arguing that sociocultural factors were not only part of the gentry's definition but also necessary to its constitution. I will focus on two strategies that, aside from the main forms of gentry economic dominance—that is, landlordism


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and the control of local surplus through marketing and usury—are essential for understanding the maintenance and character of local gentry control: family continuity and cultural hegemony.

Yin County and Its Gentry

Yin county was the seat of Ningbo prefecture. The city, usually known by the name Ningbo, served as both county and prefectural capital. Located at the northeastern corner of Zhejiang province, Ningbo was outside the central Jiangnan core, but it was the region's main commercial city. As a maritime trading center it had been nationally prominent since the Song dynasty. The Yong River that linked it to the sea could carry ocean-going vessels upstream as far as the commercial fiats east of the city wall, and a series of inland waterways leading west to Hangzhou made Ningbo the de facto southern terminus of the Grand Canal, the backbone of China's internal trading network extending all the way to Beijing. When the Song dynasty fell to the Jurchens and the capital was moved to Hangzhou in the twelfth century, Ningbo absorbed many northern elite families that chose to relocate to the region. Entering national politics by its proximity to the Southern Song capital, Ningbo gained a prominence it did not relinquish even after the political center shifted back to North China in the Yuan dynasty in 1279.

Yin enjoyed a flourishing agricultural economy based on a highly developed countywide irrigation system. The watercourses of the western half of the hinterland plain had been developed in the Song and Yuan; however, the hydraulic system of the eastern half achieved its maximum extent only by the latter half of the sixteenth century. Active commercial exchange between the hinterland and the coast combined with agriculture to make Yin a prosperous place in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Both internal grain circulation—wheat moving south, rice moving north—and foreign trade with Japan enriched the city. Designated a treaty port in 1842 and situated only 260 kilometers by boat from the emerging metropolis of Shanghai, Ningbo benefited from international commerce, although the rise of steam-shipping after the mid-nineteenth century led eventually to a modest eclipse in the city's prominence.[3]

The men of Yin county in the Ming dynasty could look back to the Southern Song for an impressive tradition of degree winning and office holding, and they proved themselves adept at continuing that tradition. Their success led to the rapid formation of a large titled gentry.[4] In the Ming, the highest metropolitan degree of jinshi was conferred on 293 individuals, a rate of slightly better than three per triennial examination session. The high tide of degree success in Yin came during the twenty-one jinshi examinations held at the capital between 1466 and 1526: Yin natives won this degree at the remarkable rate of five per session. Combined with those who gained only


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the provincial juren or the gongsheng degree, the number of people holding examination titles that qualified them for office in the Ming exceeded a thousand. With the exception of the two metropolitan counties where the provincial capital, Hangzhou, was situated, no county in Zhejiang could match this impressive record in the Ming.

The success with which Yin natives acquired degrees in the Ming suggests not only that they must have been well prepared to succeed in the examinations but also, more significant for our purposes, that examination titles were highly valued and aggressively sought by the county's leading families. It is usually assumed that men pursued degrees in the struggle to rise to power in Beijing. I would argue, however, that few proceeded through the exam system with this aspiration. Knowing the odds were formidably against them, they got degrees for another purpose. Titles from the examination system were an entrée into government service, but they were also a key resource in the local context, for they uniquely set apart those with claims to legitimate status. These titles can be viewed as proxies for other power—most notably that derived from wealth—because success in the examinations generally eluded those without considerable financial resources. Full elite status depended on acquiring a state title, not simply wealth; and the status these titles conferred—like wealth—was significant primarily in local, rather than national, arenas of power.

Yin's record in the Qing dynasty is far less impressive: only 131 jinshi for a period of roughly equal duration. Fully one-third date to the half-century after 1851, when degrees were made more available in provinces that had suffered during the Taiping Rebellion. Yin's pre-1851 rate of acquisition—little better than one per session—is therefore uninspiring. Given the well-known commercial and intellectual vitality of the region in the nineteenth century, this deterioration in the ability of Yin men to win degrees might be explained by their pursuit of other goals, such as accumulating landed or mercantile wealth. In other words, the decline in the number of higher degrees by members of Yin elite families possibly reflects a limited erosion of certain gentry-typical strategies within an elite that was being drawn more and more along other avenues of wealth and power, particularly commerce.

A diversification of strategies between gentry and mercantile goals may have been true in Yin to some extent even in the Ming. Mary Rankin has noted that commercialization and demographic growth in Zhejiang through the Qing propelled gentry and merchants toward an "incomplete fusion."[5] The scale of Yin gentry participation in this incomplete fusion in the Ming and Qing is hinted at in a few biographies of "filial and charitable men" (xiaoyi ) in the 1733 Ningbo prefectural gazetteer.[6] Sun E, a provincial juren of 1489, was the son of a merchant who had gone off to Shaanxi province but failed to return because he had not made enough money to justify his absence. Sun's mother took charge of his education, and he gained his juren


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degree at the relatively young age of twenty. Thereafter he traveled north to find his father and bring him home; his own success canceled his father's failure. Sun's achievement was not the isolated luck of an individual, for a cousin had won his juren in the previous session of 1486. For unstated reasons, the Suns varied their strategies for success, at one time pursuing educational goals and at another following mercantile careers. Another local family, the Xihu Chens, shows the same pattern. Chen Shu (jinshi 1529) rose to the post of vice-intendant of education for Henan province; his great-grandson, orphaned and in straitened circumstances at the age of fifteen, gave up his studies to support his mother and later his own family by running a store. He was able to give his son an education, though his early death in turn forced the son to give up his studies and go into "textiles and grain."[7] Although neither of these families held a commanding position within the greater gentry, the county's preeminent historian of the Qing, Quan Zuwang (1705-55), regarded the Xihu Chens, and possibly the Suns as well, as belonging among Yin's "eminent lineages" in the Ming.[8]

The 1877 county gazetteer offers a few similarly brief references from the Qing: a 1765 gongsheng who "worked as a merchant when young in order to support his parents and younger brothers, and later in life turned to a career of scholarship"; an early nineteenth-century holder of the shengyuan degree whose elder brother was a merchant; another shengyuan , a wholesale dealer in firewood, was prevented from going on to a higher degree when his elder brother's death obliged him to stay in business to support the family; an 1832 juren whose great-grandfather had run a drugstore in Beijing.[9] To some degree, trade was permissible within gentry families that could not support themselves through more conventional gentry-style sources of income.

A significant portion of the Yin gentry nonetheless resisted this willingness to regard the commercial acquisition of wealth with equanimity, even as late as the end of the eighteenth century. Qin Jing, for example, started out as a promising student but decided to go into business to reverse his family's financial decline. (Growing rich through a bureaucratic career could only be a long-term strategy.) His father admonished him with the advice that he should "seek to be a gentleman, however poor, not a merchant, however rich." Persuaded by this appeal to gentry exclusiveness, Qin went back to his studies, winning his juren degree in 1798.[10] So long as the fusion between gentry prestige and merchant wealth remained incomplete, gentry ideals of a conservative mold were far from moribund prior to the nineteenth century. Indeed, we should probably read the lackluster performance of Yin natives in the exams compared with candidates from the more peripheral parts of Ningbo prefecture as evidence that the Yin gentry were neither expanding nor receiving large infusions from those outside their ranks,[11] such as mercantile families. The social context of elite life may have been changing as Ningbo was drawn further into coastal and international trade, but the upper


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echelons of the Yin elite continued to exercise their dominance in characteristically gentry fashion.

Family Continuity

Family identity is always a resource of dominance when social structure is relatively stable: The longer a family inhabits the elite, the stronger its elite identity. This principle has particular cogency for the late imperial Chinese gentry because gentry status strictly speaking cannot be inherited.[12] The full implementation of an examination-based bureaucracy in the Song dynasty led to forming a new elite largely composed of men recruited on criteria other than birth. The examination system provided a pathway to elite status that neither crossed the territory of prior privilege nor was hedged with legal barriers to talent in favor of birth. The Chinese political system, at least officially, did not condone the begetting of status by status.[13]

It should follow from this shift in the Song away from hereditary elites that the ability of elite families to continue to reproduce that eminence declined radically. The view that elite status could not be preserved in the manner of the old pre-Song elites became conventional wisdom within the gentry. As one late-Ming writer observed, "The son of a gentleman it not necessarily able to become a gentleman."[14] The myth of rapid upward and downward mobility became enshrined in popular sayings: "a gentleman's grace becomes extinct in five generations," or "a patriline has to migrate after five generations."[15] Previous studies of mobility in China, more concerned with national than local elites, have tended to accept this view of low-level continuity.[16] However, continuity and mobility, though parallel, are not the same; nor is the relationship between them exactly inverse. Low mobility certainly implies high continuity because the absence of newcomers will leave elite membership unchanged; but high mobility does not necessarily imply low continuity, for there can be considerable continuity of elite families at the same time that a substantial number of new people are entering the elite, particularly when the elite is growing in size, as it was throughout the Ming-Qing period. An exclusive focus on mobility may thus lead to conclusions about the flexibility or openness of a social structure without revealing much about long-term solidarity or stability.

Whether gentry families could withstand the vicissitudes of the post-Song system of political appointment and maintain their status over successive generations is critical for evaluating the centrality of gentry status to local-elite life. If we can detect a marked degree of continuity over time, then it becomes necessary to recognize that degree acquisition is affected by certain probabilities. Rather than an isolated foray into the realm of national political power, it appears as a general strategy for maintaining elite status over generations. Some recent studies have begun to suggest that many families


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within the local elite continued in that status over considerably longer stretches than the five-generation rise-and-fall pattern would suggest.[17] In her study of Tongcheng county, Anhui, Hilary Beattie noted that there existed "an elite group of families some of whose members were prominent in the life of the county throughout most of the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties." Jerry Dennerline found that the elite households in Suzhou's Jiading county in the mid-seventeenth century "were from lines which emerged in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth." Taking an even longer perspective, Robert Hymes in his study of the Song dynasty local elite of Fuzhou prefecture, Jiangxi, remarked that "specific Song or Yuan descent groups can be traced without difficulty into the Qing." They "continue as identifiable social entities important enough to be noted in examination lists and biographies, deep into the Qing dynasty."[18] William Rowe's article in this volume reaches similar conclusions.

The Lineage in Elite Life

By shifting our unit of analysis for the elite from the family to the lineage, we begin to see that, with its ability to concentrate effort and resources within certain lines or branches, the lineage could anticipate some measure of examination success over generations. As Linda Walton observed in her study of Yin county's Lou lineage in the Song, recognizing long-term elite strategies through lineage allows us to see the late imperial elite "as a large group of lineages who prepared candidates for the examinations and provided office-holders for the state, but who achieved, protected, and enhanced their status locally through a variety of social and economic means."[19]

Studies of elite mobility conducted in the 1960s doubted the wisdom of tracing elite continuity in terms of lineage. The principal objection was that the privileges of an examination-degree holder extended only to his immediate kin and did not transfer laterally to other lineage members; one or two branches might enjoy good fortune while the status or wealth of the lineage as a whole declined.[20] Although some horizontal transfer did occur, rarely did all members benefit from the success of one branch. The local elite mainly formed lineages, not to transfer resources horizontally to living agnates, but to limit collateral kinsmen's claims so that wealth and power might be husbanded for future generations.[21] This burden of sorting out such claims was perceived as an issue within the Ningbo elite, for the county gazetteer of 1788 deplores the practice among the poor of making false kinship claims on wealthy men of the same surname in the hope of extracting support from them.[22] The goal of mobilizing lineage-wide assets was, therefore, not to enable all members of a lineage to become gentry, but to invest in vertical strategies to acquire or preserve gentry status (and the wealth that made such status feasible) for some members of later generations. From what I


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have seen in Yin sources, success did not scatter widely over a lineage but tended to concentrate within certain families or branches.

The obstacles to sustaining gentry status over successive generations were multiple: the division of family property through partible inheritance, the mortality of heirs, and the unpredictability of the examination system all militated against continuity. Through such institutions as shrines, schools, and corporate funding for education and other forms of advancement, lineages attacked the problem of mobilizing sufficient assets to invest in vertical strategies. The lineage was thus formed by its elite members around the principal descent lines to broaden the pool of resources and educated junior agnates that could be drawn upon in the difficult, recurrent effort to renew gentry status through the examination system.[23] For this reason the lineage is historically and analytically inseparable from the question of the Chinese gentry's continuity.[24]

Many historians of the region have observed that the lineage dominated the social, economic, and educational opportunites of the individual in northeastern Zhejiang toward the end of the imperial era.[25] A glance through Ming-Qing sources for Yin immediately confirms the importance of lineage. Certain "families" (jia ) or "lineages" (zu )—the terms are largely interchangeable when referring to agnatic groupings among the elite—are featured repeatedly in accounts of gentry life. For instance, a popular mid-sixteenth-century jingle runs:

The Tus rank tops this side of the Yong,
One of the four great families of which Yin people boast;
Just like the four great gentry lineages of the Song—
Lou, Feng, Shi, and Zheng—who were likewise praised the most.[26]

The "four great families" were the Jiangbei Tus, the Jingchuan Yangs, the Chahu Zhangs, and the Xihu Lus. By pairing them with the four Yin families that were most successful in fielding bureaucrats in the Southern Song, the verse reminds us that participation in national politics, however much removed from the local scene, remained the key factor in establishing the highest elite status.

The only attempt to assess the continuity of elite status within gentry lineages in the late imperial period is Pan Guangdan's study of Jiaxing prefecture, located northwest of Ningbo across Hangzhou Bay. Pan places among the elite those lineages of which at least five members are named in the prefectural gazetteer of 1878. This admittedly mechanical principle of selection yields ninety-one greater gentry lineages, plus an additional group of sixty lineages of lesser status. Dating their periods of prominence from the generation of the first named member to that of the last, Pan finds that the ninety-one greater gentry lineages remained prominent for an average of slightly more than two centuries. Continuity among a secondary group of


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sixty lesser lineages was roughly one century. Given the gazetteer's incomplete and somewhat arbitrary reporting of names, this reconstruction in fact underestimates the actual degree of elite continuity. Pan thus concludes that the gentry lineages of Jiaxing were aristogenic in character, capable of reproducing themselves over time (in the manner of a hereditary aristocracy) and not completely hostage to the vagaries of status acquisition at each generation.[27]

My reconstruction of the elite gentry lineages of Yin county confirms Pan's general conclusion.[28] Reaching much further down into the elite of a single county rather than an entire prefecture, I have identified forty-eight lineages that had at least four members holding higher degrees, at least two of which are jinshi (table 1.1).[29] These criteria arbitrarily exclude lineages that, though less successful in terms of degree acquisition, may have won local prominence by other means; it also ignores lineages whose members have proven difficult to identify. The resulting sample, nonetheless, includes to my satisfaction the families of nearly all the most prominent individual gentry of Yin county through the Ming and Qing dynasties.

TABLE 1.1 .
The Greater Gentry Lineages of Yin County, 1371-1904

   

Degrees

   

Surname

Choronym

js

jr/gs

Dates of first and last degrees

Span of years

Fan

Chengxi (West Suburb)

13

48

1484-1874

391

Qian

Shaoyaozhi

9

6

1436-1658

223

Zhou

Fushi

8

11

1571-1776

206

Tu

Jiangbei (North Suburb)

8

7

1371-1865

495

Lu

Xihu (West Lake)

8

1

1433-1673

241

Yang

Jingchuan

7

6

1451-1639

189

Dong

Xicheng (West City)

6

27

1454-1867

414

Zhang

Chahu

6

13

1487-1646

160

Fu

Wuxiangqi

6

1

1472-1898

427

Bao

Wufeng

5

7

1371-1822

452

Shad

Zhuzhou

5

6

1484-1844

361

Zhang

Gaoqiao

5

1

1439-1620s

182+

Chen

Jiangshan

5

1

1445-1543

99

Xie

Liuding

4

6

1409-1852

444

Shui

Feng'ao

4

4

1586-1883

298

Shi

Guteng

4

4

1511-1713

203

Dai

Taoyuan

4

3

1420-1535

116

Li

Qijie

4

2

1523-1661

139

Shen

Nanhu (South Lake)

4

0

1568-1631

64

Zhao

Junziying

3

5

1571-1825

255

Huang

Guangjiqiao

3

4

1514-1706

193

(Table continued on next page)


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TABLE 1.1
(Continued )

   

Degrees

   

Surname

Choronym

js

jr/gs

Dates of first and last degrees

Span of years

Tong

Cuwuqiao

3

4

1805-1876

72

Quan

 

3

3

1522-1736

215

Chen

Longgu

3

2

1529-1771

263

Gao

Wanzhu

3

2

1574-1693

120

Wang

Yujiacun

3

1

1508-1711

204

Feng

Xihu (West Lake)

3

1

1436-1625

190

Huang

Wutaisi

3

1

1514-1696

183

Du

Guanjiang

3

1

1464-1600

137

Guan

 

3

1

1565-1670

106

Xue

 

3

1

1532-1619

88

Jin

 

3

1

1445-1517

73

Guo

Yinshan

2

11

1708-1873

166

Chai

Xiaowenfang

2

10

1517-1747

231

Wang

Zhuzhou

2

9

1807-1889

83

Huang

Qinghexiang

2

6

1579-1821

243

Lu

Huaishuzhen

2

5

1469-1852

384

Wan

Dingyuan

2

5

1520-1729

210

Yuan

Chengxi (West Suburb)

2

3

1487-1842

356

Wen

Xihu (West Lake)

2

3

1505-1736

232

Rong

Qingjiezhen

2

3

1649-1804

156

Wu

Lianghu

2

3

1453-1580

128

Mao

Chengxi (West Suburb)

2

3

1457-1528

72

Fan

Nanhu

2

2

1484-1874

391

Chen

Taoyuan

2

2

1505-1865

361

Xie

 

2

2

1406-1624

218

Huang

Jiajingxiang

2

2

1420-1506

87

Jiang

Heyi

2

2

1691-1771

81

SOURCES : Ningbo fuzhi , 17a; Yinxian zhi (1877), 23; Yinxian tongzhi , 1.

NOTE : Degree terms are abbreviated: js = jinshi ; jr =juren ; gs =gongsheng .

Eight families of outstanding distinction head this list of forty-eight greater gentry. They are led by the Chengxi Fans, holders of a remarkable total of sixty-one jinshi, juren , and gongsheng degrees. The family was known for its private library, Tianyige, which it bought in the sixteenth century from the Xihu Fengs, an eminent Song family then entering its decline; the library still exists as the repository of an exceptional collection of late imperial texts. Next to the Fans in number of jinshi are the Shaoyaozhi Qians, who became leading figures in the Ming loyalist fight against the Manchus; the Fushi Zhous, who through educational and patronage activities became


37

associated with the finest in Ming gentry culture; the Jiangbei Tus, whose most noted member was the prolific and controversial essayist Tu Long (1542-1605); and the Xihu Lus, two of whom earned reputations for high-mindedness when they were flogged at court in 1522 for challenging the newly enthroned Jiajing emperor in the Great Rites Controversy. The Xicheng Dongs, known in the seventeenth century as an "eminent lineage," won only six jinshi but managed to garner an enormous number of lesser degrees over a period of more than four centuries, a span second only to the Tus. Among the eight, those with the briefest spans (less than two centuries) between their first and last degrees were the Chahu Zhangs, self-conscious spokesmen for Confucian orthodoxy in the late Ming; and the Jingchuan Yangs, who garnered six jinshi over three decades at the end of the fifteenth century, propelled four members into ministerial and vice-ministerial positions, and owned the finest residence in the city of Ningbo.[30]

Consistent with the selection criteria based on degrees, lineages with more degrees show longer spans of prominence. The average for the eight super-elite lineages is just over three centuries; only the Yangs and Zhangs collected degrees over a period of less than two centuries. At the next level down in Table 1.1, the average degree span is more than two and a half centuries; among lineages that acquired less than four jinshi degrees, the average is 190 years. These spans seriously underestimate the duration of a lineage's real prominence, for the first and last degrees do not necessarily indicate the lineage's entry into or exit from the elite. There would have been a preparatory period of several generations of lesser degrees leading up to the first higher degree; and at the other end, higher degrees had a sort of half-life that allowed their potency as status indicators to continue even beyond the holder's lifetime.

From Table 1.1 we see that the gentry elite of Yin county did not rise and fall with each title's acquisition and each title holder's death. Membership was relatively stable; the lineages that fielded the highest degree holders formed a small and well-defined group. As long as the imperial order remained in place, local prominence corresponded closely with membership in certain lineages. This should come as no surprise, for elite dominance by its very nature is sustained over time. The success with which the Yin gentry sustained their presence over generations must in turn be recognized as a key element in gentry hegemony and a powerful resource for the old aristogenic gentry families who peopled the county elite.

Gentry Culture

The survival of a limited number of families within the elite over several centuries required more than carefully managing lineage resources; it depended equally on managing the symbolic capital that accrued to gentry status. I


38

argue here that culture was one of the means most consistently (even though unconsciously) used to achieve a longevity of power.

In the analysis that follows, culture is regarded as a set of practices whose main effect is to project for all members of a society a sense of sharing common values that are good—in other words, a sense that the existing arrangements of class power and dominance are appropriate. Raymond Williams has characterized culture in this vein as "the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes." Culture is hegemonic because it saturates "the whole process of living—not only of political and economic activity, nor only of manifest social activity, but of the whole substance of lived identities and relationships."[31] The elite can pilot that hegemony by identifying and controlling key social activities that reinforce its status in the eyes of subalterns and make its authority appear inarguable.

We can sense how well this definition applies to the world of late imperial China and the practices of its gentry in the short story "Divorce" that Lu Xun, a native of the neighboring prefecture of Shaoxing, wrote in 1925. Aigu is fighting her husband's attempts to abandon her, and their conflict is brought to Seventh Master for resolution. Seventh Master is introduced as a man from the city who "exchanges cards with the magistrate."[32] At the beginning of the scene in which he presides over the divorce negotiations, Seventh Master deftly establishes his authority by examining and commenting upon a Han dynasty relic, an anus-stopper from a corpse. This parody of the taste for antiquities among the gentry only underscores the unassailability of the symbolic capital concentrated in the status display. Aigu launches into her complaint against her husband but is swiftly intimidated into silence by a second high-cultural gesture: Seventh Master has his servant fetch a (to Aigu) mysterious flat bottle the size of a tortoise shell and takes snuff from it. Without denying her claim, this lower-level gentryman is able to wield cultural symbols in meaningless display to cancel the conflict. Power in this context means the ability to be seen as powerful, a visibility that cultural affectation could establish with great force.

It should not be surprising to find Lu Xun illustrating the continuing potency of gentry culture as late as the 1920s, for gentry culture of the late imperial period was still alive in the Republic. Indeed, its characteristics proved singularly impervious to alteration. Despite incorporating mercantile elements into the elite through the Qing, gentry culture continued to determine the skills and idioms that elite men were expected to master. Wealth alone could not create status: it had to be mediated by cultural forms that rendered wealth acceptable. In part the gentry were able to dominate the gentry-merchant alliance that emerged in the Qing by supplying and controlling those forms. No member of the late imperial elite, either aspiring or arrived, could overlook the gentry's self-made styles and strategies. Not for lack of other terminology did the opponents of the early twentieth-century


39

declining rural elites label them "wicked gentry " (lieshen ), for they still clung to the fading aura of gentryhood for their paltry legitimacy.

The particular forms of cultural activity that gentry culture favored covered a wide range. Ritual, literary exercise, artistic appreciation, scholarship, philanthropy, and patronage were all regarded as appropriate activities through which both the crowning Confucian concept of benevolence (ren ) could be realized and the gentry's priority at the top of the Confucian social order could be reaffirmed as unassailable. These cultural practices lent substance to gentry hegemony in several ways in addition to the sort of aggressive symbolic display caricatured by Lu Xun. The two I examine are the reinforcement of associational networks among the gentry and the creation of a recognized public sphere for gentry activism; both became part of the gentry's cultural identity.

Associational Networks in Gentry Culture . The key to the dominance that these old gentry families enjoyed in the county lies in their interaction with each other. They did not exist in isolated eminence; instead, they were consistently forming and reforming ties, building networks that favored men of equal status and disadvantaged lesser gentry and nongentry. Friendship, marriage, political commitment, and cultural pursuits all furnished opportunities for the elite to associate with one another. Through such social interaction, the leading families found a common identity and made entry into their charmed circle difficult. In this context, family continuity was critical, for it provided ready-made ties to other dominant families in the gentry elite's network. These ties could pass from generation to generation almost automatically, especially when members of the elite, like the betrothed newborns of the Wan and Zhou lineages, found themselves playing a part without any voice in the matter.

The intensity of the ties among the county gentry is reflected in another sixteenth-century jingle recorded by Li Yesi of the Qijie Lis:

The Fu family of Huijiang and the Jiatang Wus:
Their huge gates face each other, their buildings touching roofs;
The Zhangs and Lus support each other like a pair of willows entwined;
The Zhus and Chens, living together in one place, are likewise so inclined.[33]

The families in the first line are the Wuxiangqi Fus and the Lianghu Wus. Together with the Qijie Lis they were known as the "three great families of eastern Yin." In the third line appear the superelite Chahu Zhangs and the Xihu Lus. In the fourth are the Jiangshan Chens and possibly the Maodong Zhus, a family that had won two jinshi degrees in the latter part of the fifteenth century but by the late Ming was of little consequence.[34] All but the Zhus are found in Table 1.1.

The verse is silent on the types of ties we tend to look for in elite networks,


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particularly marriage ties, which are poorly reported in the available records for Yin. But it is revealing of one aspect of elite association—physical proximity. The Fus and Wus are pictured as living within sight of each other, the Zhus and Chens as neighbors. At first glance, the solidarity between the Zhangs and Lus would appear more symbolic than physical because the Lus lived in the city's exclusive Moon Lake area, whereas the Zhangs' native village was some six kilometers southwest of the city wall. "A pair of willows entwined," however, is probably not pure metaphor, for the Zhangs probably maintained a residence in town near the Lus. We have already seen that a family could maintain both a rural residence and a second house in town in the case of the Fushi Zhous, who acquired a property on Moon Lake in the sixteenth century.

Of the forty-eight lineages in Table 1.1, I have been able to determine addresses for forty-two. Twenty-four of these forty-two lineages were based either within the city of Ningbo or in its immediate suburban area. Another eleven, among them the Chahu Zhangs and the Fushi Zhous, identified themselves with villages west and southwest of the city within ten kilometers of the city wall. This area was the part of Ningbo's hinterland plain first drained and farmed during the Song dynasty. Of the other seven lineages, five were located on the eastern plain, and two were in major towns in the peripheral upland. If we restrict our sample to the nineteen lineages placed highest in Table 1.1, eleven lived in or adjacent to the city, and the rest lived on the hinterland plain. However the sample is determined, the distribution of elite lineages is skewed more heavily to the urban core of Yin county than is true for the population as a whole. As the Zhou family's possession of a second residence inside the city indicates, this survey underestimates the urban concentration of elite families. At the very least, it suggests a tendency for elite lineages to gravitate toward the political and commercial core of the county, adjacent not only to the center of power but also, and as important, to each other.

The concentration of elite residence in or near the city of Ningbo reflects the associational pattern of gentry life. This relationship is underscored by Wan Yan's reminiscence about the betrothed newborns that furnished this article's opening story.

When I lived in Guangji ward in the prefectural capital, I was neighbors with many noted families. The Shens, the Huangs, the Zhangs, and the Gaos all lived there. My great-great-grandmother Wang was related to both the Huangs and the Zhangs, so I had cousins in both families.[35]

Wan further comments that in the winter of 1656-57 he and these cousins, thrown together during a period of civil unrest, formed a literary society, and that half the members were young men from the neighboring families.

Wan Yan's story brings us to the central issue of culture and its critical


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function in gentry hegemony. The connections between Wan and his associates, facilitated by residential proximity, were lent greater substance through a cultural practice unique to the gentry, the writing of poetry. The gentry came, in a sense, culturally equipped to exercise their hegemony over local society by the cultural expertise nourished by elite life-styles: a confident competence in the arts of reading and writing, an ability to interpret and manipulate the symbols of the Confucian order, an appreciation of complex artistic media through which elite values found expression, an understanding of courtesy and deference and their effective use in social encounters, a knowledge of acceptable models and precedents for decision making. These skills were automatically gained through neither classical study for the examinations nor acquisition of the wealth needed for leisure and cultural display, but they were polished through exposure to the practices and society of highly cultivated elites. Several generations might be required for the upwardly mobile to master these social and cultural marks of good breeding, without which they could not hope to be admitted to the upper levels of societies like that of Ningbo, where a mature gentry was firmly established.

Viewed from this perspective, family continuity was more than an empty symbol of established authority. By passing on the appropriate cultural orientation from generation to generation, a family steeped in gentry traditions was better positioned to train its young men to acquire and hone skills essential for succeeding in both serving the state and maintaining status at home. Culture should thus be thought of as providing a repertoire of activities by which the gentry could create and maintain networks of personal ties with each other and set themselves apart from those who had not mastered the nuanced language of elite life.

A good example of the mastery of this repertoire is Zhang Shiche (jinshi 1523). The Chahu Zhangs entered the sixteenth century with a reputation for living communally in accordance with the Confucian ideal of kinship harmony.[36] After three decades in bureaucratic office, in his years of retirement from the 1550s through the 1570s Zhang Shiche embodied the Confucian model of gentry responsibility by actively participating in a wide range of sociocultural activities. His name appears in numerous inscriptions, dedications, and publications connected with important projects in the region: Chongde Shrine, raised in posthumous honor of a Taoyuan Chen for lightening the tax burden of local peasants; the Donggang Sluice, built in neighboring Dinghai as part of a large gentry-sponsored hydraulic project to improve irrigation on Yin's eastern plain; the Dinghai county school; a private academy; four bridges, one of which was known as Minister Zhang's Bridge; and the prefectural gazetteer of 1560, for which he served as editor-in-chief.[37] Zhang Shiche was the mentor of the younger elite cohort of the 1570s, of whom Tu Long was the principal figure. We see him, for example, at a select reception for the Suzhou painter Wu Zhoushi when the latter visited Ningbo


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in the 1570s. In addition to his eldest son Bangren, this coterie included Tianyige library owner Fan Qin, the poet Shen Mingchen, two Jiangbei Tus, and two other eminent gentry.[38] Zhang Shiche's presence among these younger men in turn placed his own family in a central position within that generation, so that when Zhang Bangren published his collected poetry several decades later Tu Long wrote the preface recommending the work.[39]

Cultural pursuits thus were organized through the networks of elite society, and mastering cultural skills was necessary for those who sought access to those networks. Entry into the elite world of the gentry was difficult, even more so if one lacked formal gentry titles. Occasionally an interloper could break in by other means. A contemporary of Zhang Shiche, Lu Chuanmei, was a merchant whose father had come to Yin to escape pirate troubles elsewhere along the coast. Lu was annoyed at being unable to deal with the "powerful lineages" of his neighborhood. His lineage biographer says that he overcame their exclusion and came to their notice by cultivating "virtuous conduct."[40] Its exact meaning is not indicated, although Lu's mercantile wealth hints that he was buying his way into the elite. Entry into the gentry's world could thus be facilitated by strategically adopting gentry "virtues" (which could be measured by donations) as well as discouraged by ignorance of them.

Literary accomplishment was a key basis for signaling status and forming groups among the elite. Yin sources are particularly rich in information concerning poetry clubs, especially in the mid-seventeenth century when they provided Ming loyalists a refuge from the calamity of the Manchu occupation in 1645. The collapse of the Ming dynasty provoked a major crisis for the Ming gentry. Their legitimacy as the local elite rested on an agreement to serve imperial power in return for the highest tokens of status. Loyalty to a fallen dynasty, which such a contract demanded, essentially marginalized the existing gentry elite. They were not supposed to acquire further degrees or hold office under the new rulers, though some of course did. Bereft of public careers and further access to legitimizing state titles, the gentry in the immediate postconquest period turned to literary groups as the safest way to honor the fallen dynasty and display their own status. Indeed, the Yin elite achieved something of a reputation in this regard, for Quan Zuwang notes that "the gentry of Ningbo, whose distress had driven them into retirement, became nationally prominent after the fall of the Ming." The postconquest poetry clubs that Quan declares most noteworthy—like the "eight gentlemen of West Lake" and the "nine gentlemen of South Lake"—were highly exclusive. But he says there were many other "societies and gatherings" (she hui ) besides these.[41] He describes in some detail the Discarded Silk Society (Qixu She), formed by his ancestor, Quan Meixian, who chose for its name the appropriately gloomy emblem of discarded silk to express how the late-Ming gentry perceived their prospects under the Qing dynasty. In addition


43

to several Quans, the society's members included seven members of the most successful lineages listed in Table 1.1 and five men from other well-known families.[42]

Somewhat later, as their emotional response to dynastic collapse faded, some greater gentry of Yin sought to come to terms with the political crisis of transition by turning, as Wan Yan did, from the romance of the poetry of remorse to the labor of scholarship by attempting to reconstruct the causes of the Ming's decline. The intellectual tradition spawned by this reaction—from Wan Yan to his student Quan Zuwang and thence to his student Jiang Xueyong (juren 1771)—has been called the Eastern Zhejiang School of historiography.[43] The focal figure for this interest and its original inspiration was Huang Zongxi, living in retirement in the next county and presiding over a scholarly circle called the Society for the Discussion of the Classics (Jiangjing Hui).[44] This coterie arond Huang Zongxi, which Wan Yan and Li Yesi referred to as "our party," was based on existing networks among the leading families of Ningbo: a Dingyuan Wan, a Qijie Li, a Quan, a Shaoyaozhi Qian, a Longgu Chen, and a Qingjiezhen Rong, among others, were counted in this group. History neither excluded nor replaced poetry, however. Although Wan Yan says that the poetry group he formed with his neighbors in 1656-57 made a point of not talking about "historical records and the suppression of disorder," his presence in the Huang group indicates that the poets and the intellectuals did not move in separate worlds. Indeed, essentially the same elite families in Huang Zongxi's coterie can also be found gathering around Li Yesi in the Mirror Lake Poetry Society. By the next generation, poetry and history were fully combined in the Candid Society (Zhenshuai She), formed by Quan Zuwang and others in 1742. The network that existed among these men passed on through their families, for Li Yesi's son, Wan Yan's younger cousin, and the sons of several others in Huang Zongxi's circle met together at exclusive semiannual drinking parties later in the century.[45]

Nongentry elites appear to have had little place in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century social networks that operated through these cultural associations; at least, local sources do not indicate their presence. Formal gentry status continued to define access to this cultural realm, and associational activity within this realm was the mantle of exclusiveness in which the elite wrapped itself.

Gently Culture and the Public Sphere . The gentry's typical cultural practices served as mechanisms for not only bringing them together but also enlarging their presence in the public sphere of local society. This public sphere may be defined as the arena of nonstate activity at the local level that contributed to the supply of services and resources in the public good. It existed throughout the late-imperial period, but the types of activities pursued in this arena prior


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to the latter half of the nineteenth century were restricted because of the state's anxiety about local autonomy. Given the limited state resources available for local development, it was essential that the gentry adopt this role. As the state was forced more and more to rely on local decision making to maintain local stability, the public sphere grew gradually until, under the impact of the Taiping Rebellion and subsequent reconstruction, it expanded quickly to create a substantially new and greatly enlarged local political arena.[46] Prior to this enlargement, and to some extent even after it, the greater gentry occupied almost entirely the center of this public sphere in Yin county.

The historical origins of this public sphere are to be found largely in what Susan Mann has called the "liturgical" services that the state expected of the gentry. Max Weber derived the notion of "liturgy" from the Athenian practice of having the elite discharge various public responsibilities at private expense; similarly, in China local elites were expected to render services for the benefit of the local community, usually to ensure public order. Chief among gentry responsibilities were operating welfare services, supervising public works, and maintaining local institutions. In some areas, the gentry might also involve themselves in regulating local trade because, as Susan Mann has pointed out, "orderly markets and contented merchants were as important as schools and granaries to community well-being."[47] The Yin county gazetteer of 1788 contains an intriguing reference to "high-handed gentry" extracting payments from small-time merchants who traded in Ningbo's main commercial area on the river fiats east of the city wall about 1640. The assistant maritime commissioner for the region stopped this practice by punishing the bond servants who were acting as the gentry's agents and forbidding them to enter the area.[48] The gazetteer presents this practice as extortion, although possibly the gentry's agents were simply collecting customary fees that both they and the merchants accepted as the price of liturgical supervision. Although problems inevitably arose, the state not only accepted but also encouraged gentry involvement in the public sphere, for it met needs for which state funding was inadequate or unavailable. For their part the gentry embraced the opportunity because this public service both heightened their social standing and more immediately augmented their incomes.

In some instances the gentry undertook activities in the public good at the behest of the state, whose practice of understaffing local administration made policy implementation impossible without help from some quarter. Famine relief particularly needed cooperation from local elites. The wealthy were called on to contribute grain, and the gentry were mobilized to manage its distribution, reinforcing the notion that the gentry should work in the public good. This division of labor is documented for a famine that struck Yin county in 1751:


45

During the Eastern Zhejiang famine of 1751, the magistrate deputed gentry to go to the wealthy people and encourage them to make donations. Li Changyu (jinshi 1754) and his friend Tu Ketang (juren 1751) rushed about encouraging people to forward grain and were successful in amassing the required amount. The magistrate suggested setting up a central soup kitchen, but Li Changyu pointed out the dangers of doing so..... [He argued that] the better method would be to draw up ward registers and distribute grain directly to the people [in their home areas] The magistrate agreed to his plan and thousands of lives were saved.[49]

Li Changyu's plan called for excluding yamen runners and involving the area's "wealthy households" as well as the local tax captains in overseeing the distribution of the relief grain, but it also held them doubly responsible for making sure that irregularities did not arise. The men of nongentry wealth whose grain made the relief effort possible were thus kept subordinate, subject to the gentry's managerial power. Mary Rankin has noted the role of welfare activities among the local elite in stimulating the growth of the public sphere during the post-Taiping reconstruction period.[50] Local-elite activism of this type was already found among the eighteenth-century gentry, however, though its influence in generating a public sphere was limited by the state's stronger supervisory presence.

According to this account, Tu and Li were able managers, but the motivation and justification for their activities rested on more complex cultural meanings. Active involvement in relief demonstrated commitment to general values, like benevolence toward social inferiors, with which the gentry were imbued. Men at the upper reaches of the Yin gentry could claim the moral credentials to take the lead in projects benefiting local society, and by doing so they would further enhance the image of moral responsibility with which the gentry associated themselves. By the same token, they could maintain their claims to superiority over elites with lesser cultural credentials.

Tu Ketang's ability to exploit cultural norms in this way is demonstrated in another context. When his father was, for reasons unstated, imprisoned and sentenced to a beating, Tu chose to embody the kind of filial behavior integral to gentry Confucian norms by begging the presiding official to allow him to be punished in his father's place. Such a grand gesture, with many historical precedents, was part of the lore of Yin gentry dedication during the difficult dynastic transition between the Ming and Qing.[51] A conventional Confucian official might be expected to accept the substitution, or, more magnanimously, to waive the punishment altogether, and Tu was probably hoping to alter the course of justice by this act. As it happened, his offer backfired; the annoyed official increased his father's sentence by forty strokes.[52] Despite the unsatisfactory outcome, Tu Ketang's attempt illustrates some cultural dimensions of the elite's public actions: moral motiva-


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tion rooted in the Confucian tradition, dramatic public display, strategic appeal to basic norms, tension between the values of official duty and kinship solidarity, and the preservation of such gestures in gentry-controlled sources. Tu's part in the relief work of 1751 is integral to these strategies.

Far commoner among the gentry's liturgical duties than famine relief, and more central to their elite identity, was the funding of local institutions and local construction projects. Some of these, particularly larger hydraulic systems, involved at least the supervision if not the active involvement of local officials, but the gentry were the major source of support. All such projects had two aspects in common: they were accessible to the public (not restricted to an exclusive group, as in the case of a lineage shrine), and they were viewed as necessary to maintain the social fabric or economic infrastructure of the county. The number of institutions and projects that belonged to the public realm was great. They included schools, academies, city walls, granaries, bridges, ferry docks, hydraulic systems, orphanages, temples to state-sanctioned gods, shrines to local figures, even Buddhist monasteries.[53] Gentry involvement in these institutions was varied. Financial support was most common. From the seventeenth century onward the use of private wealth for public purposes became increasingly respectable, although private donors are infrequently named in Yin gazetteers. Choosing instead to reflect the gentry's persona as literati, these gazetteers far more consistently report essays, steles, and poetry written to commemorate the public projects with which the gentry were involved and to which they lent the prestige of their names.

Schools automatically attracted gentry support, given their direct link to the examination system by which gentry status was ratified. The local magistrate was responsible for supervising schools, but the gentry were conscious that it was largely their responsibility to keep the schools in operation so as to prepare local sons for the exams. The prefectural gazetteer of 1733 reports accordingly that rebuilding the county school in 1664 was accomplished by "the gentry of the county" under the direction of the county magistrate and further that its restoration in 1727 was financed by gentry contributions.[54]

In projects that served a larger constituency, the gentry were often assisted by "wealthy commoners," probably a polite reference to merchants. For example, "gentry and wealthy commoners" supported rebuilding the city wall in 1658.[55] Irrigation systems attracted the involvement of both "gentry and elders" (i.e., esteemed commoners), according to Zhang Shiche's text commemorating the building of the Donggang Sluice. As we noted in the case of the 1751 famine, the gentry considered the public sphere their particular domain and believed that their involvement should predominate over that of other powerful groups in society. A contemporary of Zhang's stresses that the management of hydraulic systems should be in the hands of "members of the families of gentry," who would be expected to monopolize appointments to


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the position of embankment captain (tangzhang ). Respecting this claim, local officials in 1820 "called together the gentry to manage and complete" the reconstruction of the Fengpeng Sluice.[56]

Philanthropic activity was thus part of gentry life: It enhanced their reputations, justified their dominant position, and notified all that the public sphere depended on them. By mobilizing not only their wealth but also the accompanying educational and artistic skills, the gentry appeared essential to maintaining local society. The late imperial public sphere remained in their hands.

The gentry's domination of the public sphere does not imply total exclusion of lesser folk; rather it appears that the latter's contributions tended to go to more modest local institutions. The only full account I have found of charitable work by men outside the ranks of the greater gentry in eighteenth-century Yin is a full-page account in the 1733 prefectural gazetteer of the creation in 1730 of a charitable cemetery in the western hills. The account names nineteen men and one Daoist priest under the ambiguous epithet shimin ("gentry and commoners"). The greater gentry is not totally unrepresented: the list includes two Chengxi Fans, neither of whom earned a higher degree, though they had cousins who did. There is also someone named Chen Zhaoshen, whose brother Zhaojia won a gongsheng degree in 1731.[57] But the other sixteen are complete unknowns. This could signify that a public cemetery was not an institution the greater gentry considered worthy of their attention. But the more intriguing hypothesis is that being named in the gazetteer indicates that the Yin elite in the eighteenth century was obliged to acknowledge men who did not bear full gentry credentials but who, on the grounds of wealth, were asserting elite status in certain contexts and receiving public recognition for it.

Toward the Transformation of Local Hegemony

The gentry of late imperial China was never an aristocracy, but it was aristogenic in character; that is, the cultural conditions of elite life favored reproducing the same relatively restricted elite group over time. Deprived of any legal claim to long-term membership in the elite, gentry families nonetheless succeeded reasonably well in preserving their status from generation to generation. They strategically used the financial and human resources of their lineages to continue to win state titles through the examination system, using this continuity itself as a resource for securing future benefits in the social networks of marriage and friendship that bound them together. They also established long-term ties with other families by successfully manipulating the cultural resources that their training and elevated status made available to them. Associational practices such as proximate residence and the formation of literary and scholarly societies were important in setting this upper


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elite apart from the rest of the less prestigious or merely wealthy, who could enter the high ground of elite status only by assiduously cultivating gentry cultural skills and connections. The result was the hegemony of the gentry in the social processes of local life.

The cultural skills that helped make hegemony possible also provided this aristogenic gentry with the means to participate in the emerging public sphere, which during the Qing consisted of a range of infrastructural projects designed to guarantee social reproduction. These projects were at least formally in the purview of the state, and the gentry were often required to work in concert with state representatives. State power was the local elite's only major rival. As the public sphere grew in the nineteenth century, the waning ability of the state to intervene in managing local affairs enabled the gentry, long accustomed to some measure of involvement in the emerging public sphere, to move decisively into the gap.

The gentry's shift from junior to senior partnership in managing public resources within the local arena occurred as the ranks of the gentry opened wider to admit commercial elites and as gentry families themselves played more conspicuous roles in trade. The shifting basis of local power coupled with the erosion of the state's monopoly on political functions in the nineteenth century correspondingly weakened the legitimating ideology underpinning gentry hegemony; this in turn increased vulnerability to lower-level mercantile competition for elite status, especially in the nineteenth century, and began the end of traditional gentry dominance even before the fall of the imperial order.

The antitax uprising of Zhou Xiangqian in 1852 is emblematic of both this erosion and the limit to which it could go even in the nineteenth century.[58] Zhou Xiangqian was one of the Zhouhanzhen Zhous, a Sichuan lineage that in 1355 had changed its surname (originally Liu) and fled to Ningbo to escape the rebellion of Liu Futong, with whom they had become associated because of their common surname. Zhou Xiangqian had purchased the degree of jiansheng . He claimed relation to someone who had once served as a county magistrate in Shandong, though the identity of that person is not obvious from the surviving sources concerning this lineage. Perhaps the official was an affinal relation. The lineage clearly prospered in the eighteenth century, for it started constructing an ancestral shrine in 1795. Its prosperity probably derived from local marketing: Zhouhanzhen was the main market for the agriculturally prosperous south-central portion of the county, on the Yong River that linked Yin to Fenghua to the south, and the Zhous dominated it. The Zhous were thus a successful commercial-agricultural lineage, but their status as members of the official elite was marginal, propped up with only a minor title at the crowded bottom of the gentry where many a Yin lineage vainly sought entry into more substantive status.[59]

Zhou Xiangqian, like most nonprivileged landowners, was annoyed that


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the greater gentry were allowed by local custom to pay a lower tax bill on their landholdings because they could submit their taxes directly to the magistrate's office in a red envelope (and at a lower copper-to-silver conversion rate) instead of paying tax collection officials in white envelopes at a much inflated conversion rate. After discussing this inequity with other local nonprivileged landowners at a New Year's drinking party, Zhou decided to appeal to the local magistrate against what he regarded as an "inequity" (bu gong dao ). He did so by working his way up through the gentry elite. He first approached a "powerful gentryman" in the city to present his complaint to the magistrate, but the man refused. He next sought support in Hangzhou, presumably from powerful Yin natives who resided there, in the hope of resolving this matter at the provincial level, but again his petition failed. Frustrated at his inability to find redress among those who did not consider him part of "our party," Zhou turned to his final option. He refused to pay the tax. Invoking as his ancestor the Three Kingdoms military hero, Liu Bei, Zhou led a broad popular uprising. The magistrate fled in terror. A second magistrate arrived on the scene and defused the crisis by persuading "the gentry inside and outside the city of Ningbo" to cancel the distinction between red and white envelopes.

This story leaves us with some suggestive observations about the state of nineteenth-century gentry hegemony. First, gentry titles, even as insubstantial as a purchased jiansheng , were still perceived as indicators of elite status among wealthy commoners. Otherwise Zhou Xiangqian would not have bought one, and it probably qualified him to assume leadership in this tax protest. In the next decade, the enormous number of juren degrees conferred on Zhejiang natives in the special "grace examinations" (enke ), given out in compensation for the losses suffered during the Taiping Rebellion, attests to the continuing appeal of state titles.

Second, the greater gentry of Yin county in 1852 continued to enjoy hegemony over local matters that, like taxation, were properly within the jurisdiction of the state. They received preferential treatment at the hands of the state, and they alone could intervene in its administration. Zhou Xiangqian would otherwise not have approached certain members to intercede on his behalf. The hegemony of the upper gentry was further strengthened by formal organization, for the magistrate who resolved the issue says that he presented his propositions to the gentry at their office (ju ) in the City God Temple.[60]

Third, however, the resentment of Zhou and others at the lower end of the local elite over their lack of access to privileges in the tax system indicates that the cultural construction of status based on gentry qualifications and privileges could be challenged. Like other lower gentry who led protests against unjust tax levies in the Qing, Zhou Xiangqian was moved to rebel less because of a generalized sense of injustice than because of his objection to


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being excluded from the tax favors enjoyed by the greater gentry.[61] This suggests that lesser elites were not always willing to sanction the full extent of gentry hegemonic practices in the local setting. Zhou's dilemma was that he could only look for politically influential support among the very men who benefited from the practices he sought to dispute.

Zhou Xiangqian was unsuccessful in shaking the aristogenic basis of gentry hegemony in Yin. He failed not simply because the state was stronger than the challenge he posed but because there stood, interposed between disgruntled lesser elites and their demand to redefine elite status on the basis of wealth alone, the very hegemonic structure they sought to overthrow. Gentry hegemony was still the order of the day among the elites of Yin county in the 1850s, but the challenges were growing. Social changes would accelerate as the empire drew to a close, though it would be another century before that hegemony had been completely transformed.


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