2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 272

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Is Knowledge Power?: The Information Order in Late Imperial China

Organizer: Stephen R. Halsey, University of Miami, USA

Chair: Robert Kent Guy, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Discussants: Hilde De Weerdt, Leiden Institute of Area Studies, Netherlands; Robert Kent Guy, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Theoretical treatments of empire by scholars such as CA Bayly have argued that the accumulation, organization, and transmission of knowledge play an integral role in consolidating governmental power and legitimacy. This panel assesses the applicability of his concept of an information order to the Qing period, focusing in particular on the constitution of the imperial bureaucracy as a discrete knowledge community. Using a popular account of Xinjiang as a case study, Matthew Mosca assesses the circulation and consumption of state-sanctioned and privately generated knowledge among literati circles between 1777 and 1820. Stephen Halsey then examines the introduction of telegraphic communication in the 1880s, arguing that this new technology helped to reshape information flows between center and periphery and represented a crucial element in late imperial state-making. Finally, Wang Fei-hsien explores official efforts to define orthodox knowledge by regulating the content, publication, and sale of textbooks after the abolition of the civil service examinations in 1905. To encourage a more intensive discussion, this panel will adopt a new format. It limits individual paper presentations to twenty minutes each, invites comments from two discussants specializing in different historical periods, and then opens the debate to audience participation.

Official Knowledge and the Knowledge of Officials: The Case of Qi-shi-yi
Matthew W. Mosca, College of William & Mary, USA

Under the Qianlong emperor, the Qing state produced voluminous “official knowledge,” minutely scrutinized for scholarly and ideological correctness, including descriptions of newly-conquered Xinjiang. A seeming paradox emerges, however, in the relationship of court-sponsored writings with privately-authored counterparts. At the apex of court literary efforts in the late eighteenth century, the most popular and widely-circulated source of information about Xinjiang was a manuscript composed privately in Kucha by a low-ranking Manchu official named Qi-shi-yi [Ma. Cisii], which relied for its transmission chiefly on bureaucrats working in the capital in literary and clerical capacities. During Qianlong’s lifetime, then, his carefully calibrated official knowledge seems not to have predominated even among officials. Yet this pattern inverted in the early nineteenth century, at least in the case of Xinjiang. Court production of “official knowledge” about that territory virtually ceased, but the spirit and standards of Qianlong-era official knowledge increasingly formed a benchmark against which capital literary officials began to criticize the supposed shortcomings of Qi-shi-yi’s work. Exploring the circulation and reception of Qi-shi-yi’s work between 1777 and 1820 against the larger context of knowledge production about Xinjiang, this paper sheds light on the relationship, among authors and readers holding office or high degrees, between state-authorized information and alternative channels of transmission.

State-making and Strategic Knowledge in the Late Qing: The Case of the Chinese Telegraph Administration
Stephen R. Halsey, University of Miami, USA

The rebellions of the mid nineteenth century left the Qing state’s traditional courier system in disarray, and by the mid 1870s authorities began to advocate the adoption of telegraphic technology from an industrializing Europe. Figures such as Li Hongzhang asserted that the creation of a new communications infrastructure promised to strengthen China in the competition for strategic knowledge with foreign powers and to facilitate future efforts to protect imperial sovereignty. During the late nineteenth century, officials used the growing telegraph network not only to gather military and political intelligence but also sought to provide Chinese merchants with the knowledge of market conditions necessary to recover the “right to profits” from Western firms. Within the imperial bureaucracy, the introduction of this new technology fostered the rapid flow of information between center and periphery and also ensured that the Zongli Yamen took on added importance as a center for the accumulation, processing, and circulation of political information. Despite governmental supervision of the Chinese Telegraph Administration, subjects of the Qing state began to transmit news items and political opinions inconsistent with official policy by the late 1890s. In sum, while the development of telegraphy after 1880 represented a relatively successful element of a broader state-making agenda, it also led to the emergence of an expanded sphere of political discussion beyond official control.

How to Teach World History Without Mentioning the French Revolution: Education and Orthodox Knowledge in the Late Qing
Fei-Hsien Wang, Indiana University-Bloomington, USA

The abolition of the civil service examination in 1905 marked two fundamental shifts in the Qing state’s educational regime: new schools (xuetang) replaced the centuries-old examination system as the main means to forge future socio-political elites and train imperial bureaucrats; and Western Learning (xixue) took the place of the classical canon as the new orthodoxy. In December 1905, the Ministry of Education (xuebu) was established to supervise a new system of schools and direct a centralized administrative hierarchy of education. One of the most urgent tasks this new ministry faced was to provide textbooks to the schools as soon as possible. Since their ideal of state-monopolized textbook production was compromised by budgetary and staff shortages, the Ministry of Education instead regulated textbook production mainly by reviewing privately compiled works. Only titles that passed the Ministry’s review would be granted a copyright and authorized for use in schools as “textbooks.” By examining the Ministry’s review comments, in particular demands that publishers revise their treatment of the French Revolution in world history (wanguo lishi) textbooks, this paper explores how the Qing state attempted to control the intellectual discourse of Western learning knowledge and determine its ideological correctness. It argues that although the state was still regarded as the supreme authority defining orthodox knowledge, the Ministry gradually lost its prerogative to interpret Western Learning to private publishers when it became increasingly unable to manage this new body of knowledge and instead merely edited privately written textbooks.