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

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Intellectual, Religious, and Cultural Implications of the “Localist Turn”
  • Non-Literati Local Elites

Chinese Studies Local Elites in Song-Yuan China
Chang Woei Ong
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0161


The Song-Yuan period is part of the larger time frame that historians now call the “middle period” (roughly 8th–15th centuries). As compared to the two great and unified dynasties of Han and Tang that came before, the Song dynasty (960–1279) is often perceived to be a militarily weak regime that eventually fell prey to its stronger neighbors, including the Khitan Liao (916–1125), the Tangut Xi Xia (1038–1227), the Jurchen Jin (1115–1234), and finally the Mongol Yuan (1271–1368). We now know that such conventional view of Song military strength is misguided. Yet the Song was unique in its ability to institute a civil order based on the collective visions of the literati (shi 士) class. In the Southern Song, the literati were leaders of the local society, often acting as the link between the state and the populace. Even after the establishment of the Yuan, many of these literati families survived and continued to thrive under the new Mongol regime. While new political circumstances may have altered their strategies, their commitments to building a local power base persisted. However, the literati class in the north was weak and local power was concentrated in the hands of non-literati groups, one of which was the religious elites. There, Buddhist monks and Daoist priests took on roles to direct and manage local affairs, tasks typically performed by the literati in the south. Historical sources from the 9th century onward also documented the growing importance of a group of militarized local strongmen known as tuhao 土豪. While some of them had converted and assumed literati status and left their power base to pursue an official career, others continued to hold on to their local base. In late 12th and early 13th centuries, many of these local magnates in north China took advantage of the power vacuum at the local level created by the Mongol invasion and established semi-independent political domains that lasted for about half a century. This north-south divide in the elites’ local activism reveals deep-rooted regional variations in the middle period, which continued to shape late imperial Chinese society.

General Overviews

Broadly speaking, studies of Song-Yuan period local elites are products of historians’ interest in traditional China’s state-society relations. When introducing modern scholarship on the topic, this bibliographic article will mainly limit itself to representative works that address two separate but related concerns. The first is an extension of scholarly interests in the nature of Chinese gentry (shishen 士紳 or xiangshen 鄉紳) and the roles they played in Chinese society. The anthropologist Fei Hsiao-t’ung wrote during the first half of the 20th century that even after the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the countryside of Republican China was still under the leadership of this resilient group of elites who derived their social status through passing the civil service examination at various levels and with landholding as their economic sources. In Japan, sociological theories about “rural communities” (sonraku kyōdōtai 鄉村共同體) and “local societies” (chiiki shakai 地域社會) have dominated scholarly discourses on Chinese gentry since the mid-20th century, but the focus has mostly been on the Ming-Qing period. Historians of the Song, such as the author of Huang 2009, have applied their findings to study Song society, but their studies are also influenced by Chinese historiographical discussions concerning the “grassroots society,” which are aptly reviewed in Wu 2002. The second concern is generally associated with the “localist turn” thesis. It begins with Robert Hartwell’s critique of Edward Kracke’s findings (see Kracke 1947, cited under Impacts of the Civil Service Examination) in Hartwell 1982, about whether the examination system had turned the Song into a more open society as compared to the Tang in terms of social mobility. This led to an investigation into the social origins of the elites. Hartwell argues that Southern Song (1127–1279) political, social, and cultural elites differed from their Northern Song (960–1126) counterparts in that their strategies of maintaining dominance over a few generations involved expanding their influence at the local rather than national level. In the meantime, office-holding ceased to be the top priority as it used to be during the Northern Song. Hartwell student Robert Hymes tested the hypothesis in Hymes 1986 on the transformation of the elites of Fuzhou, Jiangxi, between Northern and Southern Song. He further argues that the Yuan elites continued this Southern Song trend amid a different political circumstance. But not all historians agree with Hartwell and Hymes, and some historians have written pointed discussion essays to refute the findings of Hartwell and Hymes. These include Bao 2005 and more indirectly Dardess 1996. Chen 2017 brings these disparate views together and offers a critical review of the debate. De Weerdt 2016 provides a fresh perspective for understanding why the “localist turn” did not result in the educated elites abandoning the political center and the ideal of a unified empire.

  • Bao Weimin 包伟民. “Jingyingmen difanghua le ma?: shilun Han Mingshi zhengzhijia yu shenshi yu difangshi yanjiu fangfa” (精英们地方化了吗:试论韩明士政治家与绅士与地方史研究方法). Tang yanjiu (唐研究) (2005): 253–271.

    In this most pointed criticism of Hymes’s “localist turn” hypothesis to date, Bao Weimin attempts to show that Hymes’s problematic definition of “local elites” was due to the lack of available sources, which then resulted in misinterpretations and a wrong conclusion.

  • Chen, Song. “The State, the Gentry, and the Local Institutions: The Song Dynasty and Long-Term Trends from Tang to Qing.” Journal of Chinese History 1 (2017): 141–182.

    DOI: 10.1017/jch.2016.30

    This long review article provides an excellent overview of five recent books published in English, Chinese, and Japanese on Chinese elites from Tang to Qing, which summarizes the core issues pertaining to state-society relations arising from the “elite” question that has been central to the study of China’s social history. More important, it connects the middle period with late imperial times and raises several thought-provoking questions critical for rethinking the Hartwell-Hymes paradigm.

  • Dardess, John W. A Ming Society: T’ai-ho County, Kiangsi, Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

    Although this book is about the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Dardess has raised an important conceptual question related to the study of local history in general. He argues that prominent men from Taihe county in Jiangxi only chose to underscore their local identity when they were successful in participating at the highest level of the state system. As such, the local should always be understood as an extension of the state.

  • De Weerdt, Hilde. Information, Territory and Networks: The Crisis and Maintenance of Empire in Song China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016.

    By mapping networks of political communications and showing the changes in how these communications were produced and consumed, De Weerdt argues that the Jingkang crisis of 1126 had helped to reorient the literati’s priority toward the empire and the political center, despite the social trend of elite localism as outlined by Hartwell and Hymes. Such preference of unification had lasting implications on how people conceived the Chinese empire in later periods.

  • Hartwell, Robert M. “Demographic, Political and Social Transformations of China, 750–1550.” Harvard Journal of Asian Studies 42.2 (1982): 365–442.

    DOI: 10.2307/2718941

    This article dates the rise of the “local gentry” to the Southern Song. This new group of elites was fundamentally different from the “professional elites” in the Northern Song who saw office-holding as the most important, if not only, option for maintaining their success over several generations. Southern Song gentry turned their attention to the local, diversifying their strategies that aimed at strengthening their hold on the local communities.

  • Huang Kuanchong 黃寬重. “Songdai jiceng shehui de quanli yu yunzuo: yi xian weizhu de kaocha” (宋代基層社會的權力與運作:以縣為主的考察). In Zhongguo shi xinlun: jiceng shehui fence (中國史新論:基層社會分冊). Edited by Huang Kuan-chung, 273–326. Taibei: Lianjing chuban shiye gongsi, 2009.

    A comprehensive overview of county-level power structure during the Song dynasty, detailing the rise and development of multiple groups of local elites, including the literati, leaders of local militia, and so on within the context of local administrative and financial systems.

  • Hymes, Robert P. Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-Hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    This book began as a PhD dissertation completed in 1979 in which Hymes tried to answer a question arising from the debate between Hartwell and Kracke concerning whether the installation of the civil service examination had made the Song a more open society. The focus of the eventual publication shifted to comparing the differences in Northern Song and Southern Song elites of Fuzhou, Jiangxi and formally launched the “localist turn” paradigm and the trend in historical studies of localities.

  • Wu Yating 吳雅婷. “Huigu yijiubaling nian yilai Songdai de jiceng shehui yanjiu: Zhongwen lunzhu de taolun” (回顧一九八零年以來宋代的基層社會研究:中文論著的討論).” Zhongguo shixue (中國史學) 12 (2002): 65–93.

    A critical analysis of the Chinese scholarship on Song dynasty’s “grassroots societies” since 1980, which is a counterpart to Japanese scholarship on “rural communities” and “local societies.”

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