A well written and thoughtful overview of the last Chinese empire, the Qing. This is not a conventional narrative survey. Rowe's approach is to concentrate on major structural themes - the formation and organization of the Qing state, social structure, economy, interactions with the Western world, and then to trace changes in these features across the history of the Qing Empire. While not a conventional chronologic narrative, Rowe skillfully folds in the important political history, focusing on major transitions - the formation of the Empire, the 18th century zenith, the traumas of the 19th century, and the collapse of the Imperial state. Given the length of the period covered, the large secondary literature, and the complexity of the topics covered, this is an impressive performance.
Rowe emphasizes a number of particularly interesting points that have emerged over the past generation of Qing studies. One is the creative nature of Qing state formation. Far from blindly adopting Chinese governmental structures, Rowe shows the Qing as creatively combining Chinese-Confucian traditions with with other traditions to form a polyglot imperial state with the Imperial court at the center. The Qing expanded China to its present borders. While not discussed extensively, Rowe sets Qing state development in the context of "early modern" empires, Muscovy - Ottoman Turkey, the British empire - that emerge in approximately this period. Rowe also emphasizes the relatively modest nature of the Qing state. From the early 18th century on, the Qing limited taxation and the size of the imperial bureaucracy. Made possible by relatively limited international pressure, encouraged by neo-Confucian tradition and the Qing tradition of coopting local and regional movements into governments, the Qing minimal state was accompanied by vigorous population and commercial growth in the 18th century. Rowe also mentions how globalization of this period, for example, the increasing monetarization of the Qing economy made possible by silver imports from Japan and the western hemisphere, were important features of Qing history. Following the work of Kenneth Pomeranz and other economic historians, Rowe stresses the "Smithian" nature of Qing society - something much closer to the laissez faire ideal than any contemporary European state. The minimal Qing state, however, proved to be ill-suited to the challenges of the 19th century. Population growth and environmental degradation, the cost of suppressing internal rebellion, and the increasing challenges of western imperialist powers stressed the Qing state to an apparent breaking point. Even when the Qing appeared to weather the mid-19th century storm, the successful responses were driven more by emerging regional institutions and power rather than vigorous central reforms, a further erosion of the central state.
Rowe has a nice set of discussions of the response to western imperialism, stressing the erosion of Chinese sovereignty, the complex interactions between the western powers and the emerging Japanese state, and the heterogeneity of Chiinese responses. Rowe particularly stresses the emerging nationalism and ethnocentrism, developing into frank racism in some cases, of Han Chinese, a phenomenon that undermined the legitimacy of the Qing state. Its clear that the nature of the Imperial state also required vigorous leadership at the top. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, Qing society benefited from the leadership of 3 exceptionally capable emperors. Their successors were less impressive though they did inherit a relatively weak state in an unusually challenging environment. Rowe also points out the considerable degree of modernization that occured in the last years of the Qing. The collapse of the dynasty marked a real inflection point in Chinese history, the end of almost 2 millenia of Imperial history and the beginning of a distinctively different trajectory of Chinese history.