Uncertainty about the way a state should be working is not necessarily produced by having multiple voices offering competing ideas about it. As Maura Dykstra’s Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine: The Administrative Revolution of the Eighteenth-Century Qing State (Harvard UP, 2022) shows, one relatively uncontested pole of political power is perfectly capable of generating uncertainty on its own including, paradoxically, through the very act of seeking surety.
As Dykstra documents in a fabulously intricate study of administrative and court documents, searches for routinised and carefully monitored ways of running the empire during the Qing dynasty (1636-1911) motivated a range of reforms to the bureaucracy and those that managed it. Over the course of the dynasty’s first centuries these were relatively successful in granting the central authorities in Beijing greater oversight. Yet the imperial centre did not always like what it saw, and the more it got to know about activities in the provinces, the more it came to doubt whether all was well across the realm, a process which eventually culminated in a vast crisis of imperial self-knowledge.
Ed Pulford is an Anthropologist and Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and indigeneity in northeast Asia.