Preferred Citation: Esherick, Joseph W., and Mary Backus Rankin, editors Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.


Studies of the Local Elite

As Western states grew stronger in the twentieth century and the weakness of the Chinese imperial state was brutally demonstrated by the assaults of Western imperialism, scholars began to doubt the power of "Oriental despotism." The lowest level of bureaucratic administration in China was the county, numbering about 1,436 at the end of the eighteenth century.[8] This meant that on average, each county magistrate was responsible for governing almost three hundred thousand people. By contrast, there were about three thousand persons per administrator under the ancien régime in France.[9] In addition, because the "law of avoidance" prevented Chinese officials from serving in their own province, the county magistrate was always an outsider, typically serving three years or less. Clearly, China's thinly spread and weakly rooted state apparatus had a limited ability to penetrate local society, and much of the governance fell to local elites operating outside the formal bureaucracy.[10] Considerable scholarly attention was devoted to dissecting the anatomy of these local elites.


Gentry Studies . The earliest systematic studies of Chinese local elites were done by a generation of Chinese scholars working in American universities who defined Chinese elites as gentry and continued the Weberian mission of distinguishing them from Western elites. Their concern was the late imperial period—the Ming ( 1368-1644) and the Qing ( 1644-1911) dynasties—and they focused on the gentry's relationship to the bureaucratic state: their recruitment through the civil service examinations and their service to the state in local governance. Ch'ü T'ung-tsu stressed the gentry's role as intermediaries between the bureaucracy and the people, a role guaranteed by their legally protected access to local officials whose Confucian culture and training they shared. Ch'ü explicitly treated the gentry as "the local elite."[11] Chang Chung-li described the social position of the gentry: their fiscal and legal privileges (favorable land tax rates and immunity from corporal punishment) and their functions in education, public works, local defense, tax collection, and cultural leadership. He also addressed the question of stratification within the gentry and provided an extremely useful estimate of the size of the gentry class in the mid-Qing period.

Chang divided the gentry into upper and lower strata. At the top were about eighty thousand active and retired civil and military officials, including all who had passed the highest, metropolitan, level of the examination system and earned the jinshi degree (about two thousand five hundred in number for the more prestigious civil degree). About eighteen thousand men (combining civil and military) held the provincial juren degree, but failed to pass the jinshi or go on to official roles. The lowest level of the upper gentry were the gongsheng degree holders, about twenty-seven thousand in number. The total size of the upper gentry, which included all those qualified for regular appointment to office, was thus about 125,000 people at any given time. The lower gentry had qualified to take the examinations that would allow access to higher gentry status and official position but were not yet eligible for regular appointment. There were two main groups of lower gentry: 555,000 shengyuan who had passed exams at the county and prefectural level (of whom 460,000 were civil shengyuan and the rest military), and 310,000 jiansheng , virtually all of whom had purchased the degree. The total size of the degree-holding gentry class was thus about one million individuals, who, with their immediate families, represented about 1.3 percent of the Chinese population.[12]

Ho Ping-ti noted the strongly hierarchical organization of Chinese society and focused on the question of social mobility into the elite. He hypothesized that substantial mobility into the elite mitigated the inherent injustice of the hierarchical order and thus helped explain the persistent dominance of the gentry class. By analyzing the backgrounds of jinshi degree holders, he concluded that the gentry were quite open to new blood, and he stressed "the overwhelming power of the bureaucracy and the ability of the state


... to regulate the major channels of social mobility."[13] Robert Marsh similarly concluded in his detailed study of 572 Qing officials that there was significant circulation in and out of the bureaucracy, although this movement involved only a tiny fraction of the Chinese populace.[14]

In all these works, the Chinese elite was perceived as equivalent to the gentry class, defined by the single criterion of their examination degrees. Chang's second book, The Income of the Chinese Gentry , revealed significant occupational diversity within the gentry and underlined the importance of commercial wealth. Nonetheless, by defining elites as holders of state-conferred degrees, all these works stressed elite-state relations more than the role of elites in local society. More important, the uniformity of state-conferred degrees suggested a uniformity of local elites all across China. Little attention was paid to possible variations in elite types—and especially to the possibility that degree-holding gentry might be quite unimportant in some areas. Finally, the fundamentally sociological approach of these works lent a disturbingly static cast to their analysis. Defining eliteness by unchanging imperial degrees, titles, and offices suggested that however much quantitative rates of mobility might change, the basic nature of the Chinese elite remained the same. We remained trapped in Balazs's "uninterrupted continuity of a ruling class of scholar-officials."

The State and Local Society . The contribution of these early gentry studies was enormous, especially in distinguishing certain features of the Chinese elite. But by stressing the close ties between gentry and the bureaucratic state, they overlooked the obvious tensions. Japanese scholars have also identified local elites with the gentry but have been much less concerned with links to the central state and more intent on elucidating local socioeconomic foundations of elite power; the implications of this perspective are evident in their discussions of "gentry landholding." In the Ming dynasty, the gentry were exempt from onerous corvée labor requirements. As a result, many peasants commended their land to gentry families to escape the corvée, not only substantially increasing gentry landholding but also significantly decreasing imperial tax revenues. The widespread use of bond servants by elite families also gave them a coterie of personal dependents to bolster their domination of local society. According to an official report included in a Ming statute of 1479, "When moving about ["powerful magnates" who are honorary officials] ride in sedan chairs or on horses and take along a group of three to five bondservant companions (puban ) who follow them on their rounds. Relying on their power and wealth they conspire to occupy the landed property of small peasants (xiaomin ), forcefully drag away cows and horses and make the children of free people into bondservants (nu )."[15] Clearly such behavior conflicted with the interests of the bureaucratic state.

To some extent, excessive self-aggrandizement by the Ming gentry was


responsible for both the fall of the dynasty to peasant rebellions and the Manchu invasion which led to founding the Qing dynasty in 1644. Under the Qing, the commutation of corvée labor duties to tax payments in silver and the elimination of most gentry tax privileges significantly reduced the structural conflict between state and gentry interests. In a widely influential formulation, Shigeta Atsushi saw this new Qing arrangement, not as "gentry landlordism" built on privileged status and personal dependency relations between master and bond servant, but as "gentry rule." Although Shigeta noted that the Qing state supported landlords' rent collection to guarantee state revenues from the land tax, he did not focus on the landlord-tenant dyad. All scholars agreed that the disappearance of most forms of personal dependence in the seventeenth and the eighteenth century made this dyad much less important. His notion of gentry rule was designed to encompass a much broader sociopolitical domination of local society, including influence over small peasants who owned their own land. Such peasant freeholders might still rely on local gentry for access to the local magistrate or for paternalistic relief in times of emergency. However, they no longer personally depended on an individual gentry "master" but instead socially depended on a preeminent gentry elite. [16]

Japanese scholarship has also been particularly important in elucidating local sources of gentry power as opposed to state-conferred status. Landholding, control of irrigation networks, local relief efforts, and other community activities all tended to serve gentry domination of local society. Several scholars pointed to the appearance of the term xiangshen (country gentry) in the sixteenth century and a growing gentry concern for their position in local society.[17] This scholarship suggested a secular trend toward the localization of elite power parallel to the "localist strategy" of lineage formation, militia organizing, and localized marriage alliances that Robert Hymes sees elites pursuing as early as the Southern Song ( 1127-1279).[18]

It is also clear that most of these phenomena could be understood as a cyclical process of elite-state competition for control of local society. As the Southern Song state weakened under nomadic pressure from the north, members of the local elite gained more opportunity to maneuver for local power and had less incentive to orient themselves toward a failing central state. The early Ming government severely restricted the prerogatives of the local gentry and strengthened the power of the bureaucratic state, but gradually the gentry expanded their landholdings and their privileges until the state was so weakened that it fell to peasant rebellion and Manchu invasion. With the early Qing state, the pendulum again swung in the direction of strong central governmental power.

Much literature on modern China—from the mid-nineteenth-century rebellions against the Qing through the Republican period ( 1911- 1949)—also highlights declining central bureaucratic control over local society, with


rural elites filling the power vacuum created when the imperial state weakened. This elite ascendancy is particularly evident in Philip Kuhn's study of gentry militia formation against the Taiping and other rebellions of the mid-nineteenth century. Local militarization led to "the supremacy of 'gentry managers'" as they assumed ever greater responsibility for local security, tax collection, and public works. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 and the collapse of the imperial system in 1911 did not end gentry rule in China: "China's rural elite survived into the twentieth century and indeed in some respects solidified its position in rural society.[19]

There is a strong tendency for this literature to view state-elite competition as a zero-sum game. The autocratic state seeks full fiscal and coercive power over rural society, while local elites—sometimes representing community interests, sometimes pursuing their own gain—seek to check the state's intrusion. Frederic Wakeman suggested a "dynamic oscillation" between integration into the imperial system and autonomy from it, a dialectic in which local elites and state functionaries checked each other's corruption to favor overall order.[20] Studies of merchant brokerage and taxfarming have also suggested more complex interaction of state and elite power: the state assigned powers over local taxes and markets to merchants in order to increase its own revenues, but these powers expanded in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries with the advance of commercialization and the devolution of state power.[21] Nonetheless, most of this literature sees order as the product of state control. When elites organize it is a symptom of crisis, conflict, or the disintegration of established order.[22] In one volume of studies in this vein, a Middle Eastern specialist dared to ask:

Would China look different if it were studied as the outcome of individual choices and actions rather than from the perspective of a total system? What would China look like from an approach which emphasized the differences between localities and provinces ... ? Could informal or illegal phenomena, which seem to "deviate" from the Confucian conception of society and from the systematic ordering of Chinese society, be considered substantial realities in their own right rather than variant aspects of the Chinese system? Instead of seeing Chinese institutions as given forms for the organization of Chinese society, could they be interpreted as the outcomes of the informal dynamics of Chinese social life?[23]

In many respects, the present volume attempts to consider these questions, but its studies also build on several earlier analyses of the extrabureaucratic dynamics of local society.

Approaches from Local History . By shifting focus from state control or state certification of elite status to the activities of elites in local society, we develop more diverse pictures of local elites rather different from the scholar-gentry norm. Early twentieth-century field studies showed clear consensus among


local residents about whom they considered the local gentry. However, many of these "gentry" possessed none of the normal academic qualifications for that status. One study in a Yunnanese county in Southwest China found several so-called gentry who had risen through corrupt dealings as military officers and one family whose members had killed an opium dealer for his cash, fled for a time, and later returned to establish themselves as respectable merchants and landlords.[24] A similar diversity of late imperial elite types emerged from local history research of the 1960s and 1970s.

Three studies stand out in this literature. Hilary Beattie's study of Tong-cheng county, Anhui, directly challenged Chang Chung-li and Ho Ping-ti's focus on degree holders and suggested instead the importance of land and lineage. She explicitly sought to uncover the "long-term strategy" whereby certain families maintained elite status over long periods—a conclusion that clearly conflicted with Ho Ping-ti's stress on elite mobility. The strategy she identified was "a joint programme of systematic land investment coupled with education,"[25] in which lineage charitable estates were key, in both preserving the integrity of accumulated land and providing education in lineage schools.

Because education for the examinations was still central to Beattie's elite strategy, her local elite remained relatively close to the conventional mold. Johanna Meskill's Chinese Pioneer Family expanded the Chinese elite to include the very different figure of the local strongman. In the frontier society of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Taiwan, the local-elite family Meskill studied perpetuated its local dominance for more than a century through its military power and control of irrigation works. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century did the family show signs of gentrification, with the assumption of a cultured literati life-style.[26]

If Meskill's study, and the earlier Yunnan field work, taught us that frontier areas of China might differ significantly from the "gentry society" norm and that elite society might change significantly over time, Keith Schoppa's study of twentieth-century elites in Zhejiang showed that elites could vary significantly within a single province. Schoppa builds his model on a modified version of the core-periphery analysis used by G. William Skinner and demonstrates systematic variation in elite activities across space. Schoppa finds a more diverse, functionally specialized, commercialized, and politically organized elite in the prosperous lowland provincial core; a greater role of new military elites in the intermediate zones; and considerable continuity of entrenched oligarchies with generalized functions in the more isolated, hilly periphery.[27]

Schoppa's work is particularly important for us in treating the modern transformation of the local elite. Together with Mary Rankin's study of Zhejiang in the late Qing,[28] his book provides a comprehensive picture of elite


organizing from the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-nineteenth century to the accession of the Nationalist government in 1997. By viewing the process from a local perspective, Rankin and Schoppa see not a disintegration of state power but elite activism, social mobilization, and political development at the local level. In their work, it is clear that this local elite activity is much broader, less defensive, and more enduring than the militia organizing stressed by Kuhn. Rankin and Schoppa stress the diversity of the local elite and the fusion of merchant and gentry groups, especially in the commercialized provincial core. Contrary to many twentieth-century images of a conservative gentry elite, both scholars demonstrate the elite's readiness to adopt new associational forms—chambers of commerce, educational associations, and a host of other professional associations and special interest organizations—following the removal of the long-standing Qing prohibitions on private association during the first decade of the twentieth century.

Recent research by historians in China reinforces this picture of a changing elite defined by wealth and local activity as well as degrees. Scholars in China have rarely focused on elites as such, although materials they have collected inform the studies in this volume, but their work on "capitalist sprouts" in Ming and Qing China has greatly illuminated the process of socioeconomic change since the sixteenth century. They document a striking expansion of commerce, development of interregional and foreign trade, and the rise of both household and factory handicraft production that changed social relations from the Ming onward.[29] The merchants leading this commercial expansion joined the gentry by buying land and cultivating literati life-styles, rather than remaining a distinct class. In doing so, they added commercial wealth to the resources available to elites, changed elite strategies for mobility and status maintenance, and opened arenas of activity outside the state-sanctioned paths of degree acquisition, office holding, and Confucian scholarship. The great merchant patrons of art and scholarship in the eighteenth century were only the most visible symbols of pervasive changes in the character of elites within the framework of gentry society and the late imperial polity.[30]


Preferred Citation: Esherick, Joseph W., and Mary Backus Rankin, editors Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.