New and Old Histories of the Qing Dynasty: An Interview with Richard J. Smith

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I’ve been reading and learning from Rich Smith’s work for decades now, and most recently I have been enjoying his latest book, The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture. Smith, whose earlier “biography” of the Yi Jing was reviewed for LARB by James Carter back in 2012, was recently good enough to make time to respond to some questions I put to him via email, both about The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture, which Rowman and Littlefield published in 2015, and other topics, from the politicization of historical work in the PRC to what he is working on now. I begin, though, as I plan to make it routine to start future Q&As for the China Blog and in due time LARB’s new China Channel, with the trio of questions I put to Paul French last week about readings he wishes got more or less attention than they have and things he hasn’t read, seen, or listened to — that he knows some people think he really should have. 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Is there any recent book on China that you wish had gotten more attention?

RICHARD J. SMITH: Well, there are many, but the one that comes immediately to mind is Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (2008), a gritty, no-nonsense expose of working conditions in the decadent southern Chinese “factory city” known as Dongguan. Her work reminds me a bit of one of my favorite investigative journalists in the US, the ever clever Barbara Ehrenreich, whose Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001) and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2006) offer similarly revealing exposes of working people in the contemporary United States.

Ironically, the kind of history I most enjoy reading is not what I generally write. I love journalistic accounts like Chang’s, as well as historical biographies and narratives, large and small. Paul French’s Bloody Saturday focuses on a single day in the history of Shanghai, but it is absolutely spellbinding. Jonathan Spence’s collections of biographies (To Change China and The Gate of Heavenly Peace), as well as his individual studies of such diverse historical actors as an emperor (Kangxi), a bondservant (Cao Yin), a tormented peasant (Woman Wang), a rebel leader (Hong Xiuquan), a treasonous scholar (Zeng Jing), a loyalist hermit (Zhang Dai), and a Chinese Christian convert (John Hu), all bring the past to life in colorful and powerful ways. Although I have done some biographical work and written a certain amount of narrative history, I have no gift for it, and prefer to organize my material topically within a general historical framework. This is another way of saying that nothing I write is exactly a page-turner. I would love to have the narrative gifts of French or the biographical genius of Spence, but life is unfair.

Same question but with a twist: is there a recent book on China, scholarly or popular, that you wish was getting less attention now or, if you’d prefer, a past one that you wish did not have as much influence when it came out or you wish had not hand such lasting influence?

That’s easy, although rather than identifying a single book that has gotten too much attention, I would name an author: Gavin Menzies. His two books based on the great naval voyages of the eunuch-admiral Zheng He (1371–c. 1433) — 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (2002) and 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (2008) — are a travesty, to be charitable. His main arguments have been thoroughly refuted by responsible scholars, but his work continues to have legs, in part because, like Donald Trump, Menzies is a supremely gifted self-promoter and con man. I hate this kind of fake history — which is sadly like the fake news of our own time. Besides, the true story of Zheng He’s naval expeditions is impressive enough, as Geoff Wade, the late Ed Dreyer and others have shown.

I’ve enjoyed the “Twenty Questions” feature that the TLS has started with authors, which includes a variation on the “humiliation game” featured in a David Lodge novel, that is, asking someone if there’s a book (or other cultural product) that everyone will assume they’ve read (or watched or listened to) but they are embarrassed to say they haven’t, so I’d like to pose a China-related variant on that to you. Is there any famous book or film that you know you really should have spent time with but haven’t been able to bring yourself to actually read or watch?

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I have never read any novels about China by Western writers, aside from The Good Earth, which I read in high school. I know that there are plenty of accomplished fictional works on China out there — including books by James Michener, James Clavell and Richard McKenna, as well as some by China specialists such as Robert Van Gulik (author of the famous Judge Dee mysteries), Robert Oxnam (Ming and Cinnabar), Betty Bao Lord (Spring Moon), Robert Elegant (Manchu), and François Cheng (Green Mountain, White Cloud). But I can’t enjoy such novels because they require too much mental energy worrying about the liberties these creative writers have taken. So when I read for pleasure, I read WAY outside my field.

As for films, I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen the classic “Shanghai Express” (1933). My students think that I must (should?) have seen every Chinese martial arts film, but I haven’t seen one (unless “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” counts). Then again, they expect me not to look down my nose at a down and dirty Chinese buffet like the Hunan Express II, and I love it — citations by the Houston health authorities be damned. Also, I have enjoyed almost all of Zhang Yimou’s films, and don’t really care if some people think he has “sold out.” Keep folks off balance, I say.

Your new book is a creatively structured one, mixing synthesis with big arguments. What do you see as the most significant thing that sets it apart from the past books you’ve done as well as from the broad works on the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) by others with which it might seem on the surface to have the most in common?

Before trying to address the question of what sets this book apart from the others I’ve written, I must say that in a certain sense they are all of a piece. That is, I have long been interested in questions that are, broadly speaking, cultural. And my rather idiosyncratic view of culture is that it is primarily a matter of classification. How do groups of people — from families to villages to entire civilizations — name and arrange things, ideas, and activities into coherent systems of meaning? And how should we, as scholars, evaluate these systems, their interrelationships, and their social manifestations? The trick in this sort of cultural analysis is, of course, to avoid imprisonment by one’s own set (or sets) of conceptual categories.

Over the past 45 years or so (I am suddenly feeling very old), I have used this approach in my work on Chinese philosophy, religion, divination, maps, almanacs, official calendars and encyclopedias. In these investigations, I’ve always been especially interested in the relationship between elite and popular culture, the effort by intellectuals and the state to impose order on a vast and extraordinarily diverse empire, and issues of theory and practice. I’ve also been fascinated by constructions of “Chineseness” and “Otherness” — perhaps because I am an “Other” who studies “China.”

The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture reflects these preoccupations. The way in which it differs from most of my earlier work is that it has an extremely broad focus, and, as you suggest, it seeks to integrate my own work and that of others into a kind of synthesis. Like most academic studies, it has a clear interpretive framework and it makes a number of strong arguments — in this case about political, social, intellectual and cultural life in China. But it also seeks a kind of intellectual “middle ground. In fact, an effort to resolve a famous scholarly debate served as the direct impetus for writing The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture.

As you are well aware, in 1967 Ping-ti Ho wrote an extremely influential article asserting that the key to the longevity and cultural florescence of the Qing dynasty was the adoption by the conquering Manchus of a policy of “systematic sinicization” — that is, their self-conscious promotion of certain long-standing Chinese ideas, institutions, aesthetic preferences and social customs.

For nearly two decades this article stood without a direct challenge. But, as you also know, in the mid-1980s and thereafter, a new generation of scholars trained in the Manchu language (as well as in Chinese and Japanese), began to paint a radically different picture of the Qing rulers and their vast empire. An article by Evelyn Rawski in 1996 summarized the results of their labors, offering a direct and powerful challenge to Ho’s sinicization thesis. In her view, the key to the political success of the Manchus was not their sinicization but rather the opposite, their multiculturalism — specifically, their ability to exploit cultural links with the non-Han peoples of Inner Asia. Rawski’s article provoked a fierce counterattack by Ho in 1998, as well as some other studies that supported him, notably Pei Huang’s Reorienting the Manchus: A Study of Sinicization, 1583–1795 (2011). In short, views of the Qing dynasty’s cultural strategy remained highly polarized.

But my reading of the evidence suggested that there was a productive middle ground between these interpretive poles, and this became one of the most persistent arguments my book makes: The success of the Qing dynasty was the product of both the selective patronage of traditional Chinese culture and Manchu multiculturalism.

What surprised you most as you were preparing the book and revisiting the period? In a related vein, was there anything that is in the book that you didn’t originally expect to address but ended up feeling you needed to? 

The biggest surprise to me was that over the past several decades no Western scholar has written a broad interpretive study of Qing dynasty culture. During this time, Chinese scholars on the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong have written incessantly about the historical and contemporary role of traditional Chinese culture, but Western scholars of China have generally shied away from any such studies. One reason seems to be a concern that an emphasis on culture — and particularly an emphasis on cultural differences between “China” and “the West” — will lead to a kind of essentialism: the radical reduction of a given culture to a particular set of fixed values or traits. As you know, this phenomenon is often described as Orientalism.

Orientalism is certainly something to worry about, and there are plenty of examples of careless claims about how the “Chinese” as a group think or act. But however we might define culture, we all know that it is never static, and there there are always significant gaps between proclaimed cultural values and actual cultural practices. In the United States, for example, we are committed to the principle of equal and impartial law, but that’s certainly not how things always work. Still, at any given historical moment, I think it is possible, and, in fact, necessary, to identify certain shared values and categories of concern that allow cultural conversations to take place within a given group. I like Ian Morris’s idea that culture “is less a voice in our heads telling us what to do than a town hall meeting where we argue about our options.”

As for issues I didn’t originally expect to explore at length, I would include Chinese law, science and technology, medicine, gender, sexuality, and military affairs. These are all areas in which the scholarly literature in Asian and Western languages over the past two decades or so has been especially rich and provocative. Also, I didn’t anticipate some of the linkages between these seemingly diverse fields of knowledge — the ways, for instance, that women’s lives were influenced by legal, medical and scientific developments, and even military affairs.

Are you working on things now that continue in the vein of your most recent book, or are you moving off in a new direction?

I’m doing both things. On the one hand, I’m trying to weave some of my previous work and a good deal of additional research into a study of “popular science” in the Qing dynasty. Scholars such as Benjamin Elman, Carla Nappi and Dagmar Schafer have done wonderful work on elite views of the natural world in late imperial times, but popular understandings of science in premodern China have received comparatively short shrift. I am also beginning to work on some totally new projects, including popular perceptions on the great Martial Emperor of the Han dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE) and the naval expeditions of Zheng He. I have also become fascinated by the way that texts written in classical Chinese have been transmitted and transformed in premodern Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Some readers of this blog will know about the controversies swirling around the concept of the “New Qing History,” including the harsh criticisms levelled against it by some scholars in the People’s Republic of China, which reflect how politicized some academic topics unrelated to the recent past can become in that country. For those readers who are not already familiar with the controversy, can you fill them in on it with a brief synopsis, and then describe how your own thinking and work has been affected by, fits in with, or diverges from the arguments of the main people associated with the New Qing History?

In a nutshell, the New Qing History is an effort on the part of Western, mainly American, scholars who have been trained in the Manchu language as well as Chinese and Japanese, to argue that the Qing empire and “China” were not, in fact, the same thing — that the Manchus had a much larger conception of what their regime was, politically, socially, ethnically and culturally. Although not all of the New Qing historians agree on all points, they are generally hostile to the idea of “sinicization” as an explanation for the longevity and success of the Qing dynasty. As I have already indicated, I am sympathetic to the New Qing History, but its approach, is too one-sided.

As to Mainland critics of the New Qing History, one of the most outspoken is Li Zhiting, whose views reflect a certain kind of nationalistically inspired Chinese scholarship. Li claims that the “Manchu-centered perspective” of the New Qing historians is full of “imperialist arrogance,” and “clichés and fabrications.” The “New Qing History,” he argues, is “academically absurd” and “politically damaging to the unity of China.” And then he becomes really outspoken!

Following up, as a final question, I’d like to know if you find it surprising that scholarship on the Qing era should end up triggering such highly politicized writings in the PRC. This isn’t, of course, the first time that has happened.

Smith: I am not surprised. The various forms of Chinese nationalism seem to be especially powerful because they are the product of two potent, state-sponsored, ideas: five thousand years of national pride (expressed in the notion of a glorious and allegedly “uninterrupted” cultural tradition) and “a hundred years of national shame” (the product of Western imperialism that began in the 19th century). Chinese nationalism, reinforced by Chinese Marxism, has resulted, as you suggest, in a great deal of politicized historical writing in the PRC. To be fair, however, not all Mainland historians play the nationalist card in the fashion of Li Zhiting.

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