Wensheng WangJun 23, 2014
White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates
Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire
Harvard University Press 2014
Wensheng Wang's new book takes us into a key turning point in the history of the Qing empire, the Qianlong-Jiaqing reign periods. In White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire (Harvard University Press, 2014), Wang re-evaluates how we understand this crucial period in light of the eruption of major social and political crises and the consequences of imperial response to those crises for Qing and world history. The book opens on New Year's Day in 1796, with the ceremony by which the Qianlong Emperor abdicated the Qing throne and his successor, the Jiaqing Emperor, took over. Days into the Jiaqing reign, the new emperor had to contend not only with the White Lotus rebellion, but also with a series of large, well-organized and well-connected pirate fleets attacking the southeast coast of China. While previous scholars have treated these two crises as a collective watershed marking the beginning of the end of Qing rule, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates instead argues that these crises actually improved the Qing by instigating a major reorganization of the state and better preparing the dynasty for later challenges. Along the way, Wang reframes conventional understandings of both the Qianlong and Jiaqing reign periods, introduces some major historiographical concepts that might be used to understand the roles of crises and "sustainable political development" more broadly, and brings a wonderfully trans-disciplinary social sciences toolkit to bear on the study of Qing politics. This ambitious work stands to make a significant contribution not only to the historiographies of China and the Qing, but to how we understand and analyze political history more generally.