OATs 2020: Studies of Chinese History

This week's sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: Books pertaining to the history of China.

This week’s sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: Books examining the history of China.

1. The White Lotus War: rebellion & suppression in late imperial China
Dai, Yingcong. Washington, 2019

Dai (William Patterson Univ.) provides the first in-depth, comprehensive study of the White Lotus War (1796–1805), which aimed to suppress a sectarian rebellion in central and west China. Through meticulous analysis of the central government archives, Dai refreshes and builds on the common understanding of how this prolonged, costly war damaged the imperial system and marked a turning point for the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Contrary to previous knowledge, local elites and the militia they organized did not play a pivotal role in suppressing the rebellion. Therefore, the devolution of political power was not a prominent issue at the turn of the 19th century. Instead, the corruption and dysfunction of the military system, and the emperors’ inability to tackle these issues, marked the failure of the imperial system. Military commanders embezzled war funds and used delaying tactics to prolong the war for personal economic gains, and the insufficiency of soldiers forced the government to recruit a large number of militiamen, which incurred cumbersome expenditures.
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2. Maoist laughter
ed. by Ping Zhu, Zhuoyi Wang, and Jason McGrath Hong Kong University Press, 2019

pic of book cover Maoist Laughter

The Mao era (1949–76) is often depicted as oppressive, traumatic, and inhumane, and thus many people would consider “Maoist laughter” an oxymoron. In the introduction to this collection, Ping (Chinese literature, Univ. of Oklahoma) points out that “the Mao era was actually a period when laughter was not only ubiquitous but also bonded with political culture to an unprecedented degree.” This scholarly study of what made people laugh during the Mao era convincingly demonstrates the diversity, complexity, and dynamics of various cultural productions in Mao’s China. Divided into three parts—”Utopian Laughter,” “Intermedial Laughter,” and “Laughter and Language”— the volume’s ten essays cover, among other things, cross talk, cartoons, dance, children’s literature, comedy, regional oral performance, film, and fiction. Taken together, the essays work in concert to offer groundbreaking insight into laughter and humor in the Mao era. View on Amazon

3. Ways of heaven: an introduction to Chinese thought
Sterckx, Roel. Basic Books, 2019

As Sterckx (Chinese history, science, and civilization, Univ. of Cambridge, UK) reveals early on in this book, he does not approach his subject in the typical way—i.e., he offers no metaphysical or epistemological theses or arguments. Instead the reader gets an elaborate, allegorical narrative using imaginative figurative analogies (battlefields, being a tourist in a busy city, a full meal), much like those in ancient Chinese texts. In other words, instead of bringing Chinese thought to the reader’s world, Sterckx allows the reader to navigate the Chinese world. This reviewer experienced something akin to taking a carefully planned tour that not only visits the most important landmarks (the chapter themes) but teaches the stories and reasons behind those landmarks. Just as one would be comfortable visiting and exploring a city after such a tour, the reader comes away from this volume feeling comfortable delving into more of Chinese thought.
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4. Agents of disorder: inside China’s Cultural Revolution
Walder, Andrew G. Harvard, 2019

A large body of literature has been produced on China’s Cultural Revolution over the past decades, but, as Walder (Stanford Univ.) reveals through his in-depth analysis, there are still unturned stones, so to speak. The issue he treats was an enigma: during 1966 and 1969, a widespread change of power took place at all levels of government across the country. Existing scholarship attributes this phenomenon to the actions of the Red Guards, or the college students who responded to Mao Zedong’s call to attack the so-called “capitalist roaders” in government bureaucracy. But if Red Guards were the agents responsible for the power seizures, they were then also quickly embroiled in factionalism, so much so that the military had to be called in to quell the chaos. Using contemporary sources and statistical analysis, Walder probes this preexisting narrative, discovering that a different picture emerges.
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5Fir and empire: the transformation of forests in early modern China
Miller, Ian Matthew. Washington, 2020

Miller (St. John’s Univ.) offers a persuasive analysis of Chinese silviculture (controlling forest growth) from 1000 to 1600, roughly covering the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties. Previously, Mark Elvin’s hypothesis of “the Great Deforestation” claimed that China suffered deforestation during the medieval economic revolution. Using a variety of primary sources, Miller provides a rebuttal, arguing that China’s deforestation occurred in the 19th century. During the above-mentioned six centuries, China actually experienced reforestation owing to the huge demand for timber, commercial development, private management, and governmental fiscal, cadastral, and property holding policies. Although the empires of those periods did not create a formal forest bureaucracy as in other European and Asian countries, the minimal state intervention in China does not indicate a lack of progress in forestry. In fact, by planting and replanting trees, the Chinese experienced a growth of forests. Needless to say, timber was crucial to empire-building, because it served as a vital material for royal navies, urban reconstruction, and daily life.
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