In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Local Elites in Ming-Qing China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Collections of Essays
  • Journals
  • Gentry
  • Civil Service Examinations
  • Local Society and Elite Activism
  • Market and Lineage
  • Merchant and Military Elites
  • Regional Differences
  • State-Society Relationship
  • Significance of the Late Qing

Chinese Studies Local Elites in Ming-Qing China
Tze-ki Hon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0062


Also known as late imperial China, the Ming-Qing period (1368–1911) has received increasing attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a result of debates over China’s modernization. At issue in the debates is whether China was able to modernize without foreign interventions. For a long time after World War II, China was viewed as politically and socially stagnant. Shaped by the Weberian notion of bureaucracy and the Marxist concept of “the Asiatic mode of production,” scholars argued that the Chinese could not revitalize their political and social systems until external stimuli (such as imperialism) arrived. In stark contrast to this earlier view, the Ming-Qing period is now seen as a turning point when fundamental transformations took place owing to a robust economy, a vibrant society, and strong local leadership. Research shows that before widespread contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century, China had already created a mobile and diverse society. One thing that separates the new view from the old is the definition of local elites. From the 1950s to the 1970s local elites were considered a homogeneous group of scholar-officials who worked for the imperial government after passing the civil service examinations. Commonly known as gentry or literati, scholar-officials were said to have exercised their power as government officials and local leaders. In both capacities their power came directly from the imperial state. In contrast, since the mid-1980s local elites have been understood more broadly as a diverse group of degree holders who might or might not work for the imperial government. This expansion of the meaning of local elites has led to research on various forms of local organization, such as market towns, charity, lineages, and religions. In addition, the expansion of the meaning of local elites calls attention to regional differences, because the structure of local power in the Pearl River delta was significantly different from those in the lower Yangzi River delta and the North China plain. As a result, the power of local elites is traced to a variety of sources, including commerce, landownership, local militia, philanthropy, and rituals. The expanded scope of study of local elites has led to a new perspective on the late Qing (1895–1911). Rather than being the end of the imperial period, the late Qing is now seen as the beginning of a new era when political power was shared between the central government and local leaders. Some scholars contend that this trend of decentralization continued after 1911, when warlords and regional leaders became dominant players in national politics. As such, the late Qing and the early republican periods (1911–1927) are the high point of local power before the rise of the party-state.

General Overviews

In the 1950s and 1960s the majority of scholarship on local elites was based on the theories of Max Weber and Karl A. Wittfogel. From a sociological perspective, Weber 1951 describes a Chinese society tightly controlled by bureaucrats appointed by the imperial authority. The book supports the argument that local elites in late imperial China were an extension of the imperial state. In particular, the Weberian concept of bureaucracy offers justification for viewing late imperial China as despotic, with decisions made by the central authority. Separately, based on Karl Marx’s notion of “the Asiatic mode of production,” Wittfogel 1957 offers a similar perspective on late imperial China. The book describes the totalitarian rule of Chinese imperial leaders in developing a hydraulic economy. Focusing on economy rather than the political structure, Wittfogel also sees Chinese rulers as despots who controlled all aspects of Chinese life through an army of bureaucrats (see Brook 1989). Chinese despotism remained a dominant view in the academy until the 1970s, when a new generation of scholars viewed Chinese society as an autonomous realm. There were two factors that led to this change. The first was the introduction of Japanese scholarship, which in many ways challenged the notion of Chinese despotism (see Grove and Daniels 1984). The second was the adoption of social science methodologies that highlighted the complexity and fluidity of local society. Two social science methodologies were particularly important in changing the direction of research. One was the Skinner 1964 study of market towns, which put emphasis on local networks of exchange and circulation. The other was the Freedman 1958 study of lineage, which linked local power to systems of identity. Shaped by these two approaches, the study of local elites turned to the multifaceted and contentious relations between the imperial authority and local societies. While not rejecting local elites’ link to the imperial authority, Denis Twitchett was the first scholar who pointed out the importance of viewing local elites as power holders of local society (see Twitchett 1965).

  • Brook, Timothy. “Introduction.” In The Asiatic Mode of Production in China. Edited by Timothy Brook, 3–34. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

    In the introduction Brook discusses the meaning of “the Asiatic mode of production” and traces its influence on East Asian scholars.

  • Freedman, Maurice. Lineage Organization in Southeastern Kwangtung. London: Athlone, 1958.

    As an anthropologist, Freedman made a large impact on the study of local elites by focusing on kinship, lineage, and the construction of identities. He and G. William Skinner were instrumental in developing a broader scope to study the structure of local power in rural China.

  • Grove, Linda, and Christian Daniels. “Introduction.” In State and Society in China: Japanese Perspectives on Ming-Qing Social and Economic History. Edited by Linda Grove and Christian Daniels, 3–16. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1984.

    The introduction by Grove and Daniels summarizes the development of Japanese studies of late imperial China since the 1940s. The summary not only highlights the complexity and fluidity of Chinese local society but also challenges the notion of Asian stagnation. More important, the summary questions whether the Weberian notion of “gentry” is adequate to encapsulate the multiple roles of local elites in late imperial China.

  • Skinner, G. William. “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China.” Journal of Asian Studies 24.1 (1964): 3–43.

    DOI: 10.2307/2050412

    Continued in Journal of Asian Studies 24.2 (1965): 195–228 and Journal of Asian Studies 24.3 (1965): 363–399. Skinner’s market town analysis brings a spatial perspective to the study of local elites. Rather than seeing local elites as “gentry” who were the same throughout China, the market town analysis highlights regional differences resulting from economic, social, and cultural uniqueness. Skinner’s argument provided the theoretical foundation for regional studies in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Twitchett, Denis. “A Critique of Some Recent Studies of Modern Chinese Social-Economic History.” Transactions of the Conference of Orientalists in Japan 10 (1965): 28–41.

    In this article Twitchett questions the meaning of “gentry” as an all-encompassing category for local elites. To make his point, he distinguishes two types of gentry: gentry as a subdivision of the bureaucracy and gentry as social class based on inherited wealth and power. While Twitchett does not reject local elites’ link to the imperial authority, he opens the possibility of viewing local elites as power holders in local society.

  • Weber, Max. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. New York: New Press, 1951.

    This book examines the sociological roots of Chinese despotism. Since the book highlights the link between power and culture (especially the examination system and Confucian orthodoxy), it provides the theoretical foundation for the argument that local elites were an extension of the imperial authority. The discussion of the literati in the book is often cited in discussions of the roles of gentry in local society.

  • Wittfogel, Karl A. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.

    This book examines the economic roots of Chinese despotism. Building on Karl Marx’s notion of “the Asiastic mode of production,” Wittfogel develops the concept of “Oriental despotism” to describe the totalistic power of Chinese imperial rulers in building a hydraulic economy.

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