White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire.

Author:Miller, Ian Matthew
Position:Book review

White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire. By WENSHENG WANG. Cambridge, Mass.: HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2014. Pp. 252. $42.

On Lunar New Year, 1796, the Qianlong Emperor abdicated after sixty long and glorious years on the throne. Almost immediately, the new Jiaqing Emperor faced a rebellion in the intemal borderlands of Hubei, inspired by the millenarian teachings of White Lotus sects. On the southeast coast of Guangdong he faced another crisis: pirate raiders allied with the new Vietnamese Tay Son regime (1788-1802) and incursions by the British, emboldened by the apparent weakness of the Qing Dynasty. At court, the new emperor's ability to respond was hamstrung by his father's insistence on ruling from retirement until his death in 1799 and by the continued influence of Heshen, the former emperor's corrupt favorite. In White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, Wensheng Wang argues that these "all-encompassing contentious crises" were not the beginnings of a long era of dynastic decline, as they have often been portrayed. Instead, Wang asserts that the dual crises at the frontiers provided the Jiaqing Emperor with "the space and dynamic for a 'decisive intervention'" (p. 10) to root out corruption at court and reform imperial administration. The book's core is a study of policy reforms, focused on responses to the two frontier crises and to the more general political malaise of the early Jiaqing Reign (nominally 1796-1820, but effectively starting in 1799). Wang's first goal is largely theoretical: by complementing bottom-up narratives with central state responses, Wang aims to study how individual events join into "conjunctures" where change is possible and ultimately lead to "structural transformation" (p. 11). His second goal is largely historiographical: by rehabilitating the Jiaqing Emperor as a capable and conscientious monarch, Wang aims to shift the longstanding notion that presents 1800 as the beginnings of Qing decline.

White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates is structured along a dialectic between "a view from the bottom" based largely on prior studies of the White Lotus and piracy crises and "a view from the top" that is the main product of Wang's original research on court records and policy essays of the early Jiaqing court. The first chapter, set it its own section, introduces the "Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises." Wang presents three related developments leading to the early Jiaqing...

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