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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Communities at Work: Reappraisals of Local Autonomy in Late Qing and Early Republican China
2: Town (zhen) or Township (xiang)?: Merchants, Commercial Tax, and Local Self-Government in Late Qing Jiangnan
Friday, March 26, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Washington University in St. Louis, United States
From a bottom-up perspective, this paper examines the social transformation of Nanxun, a rural commercial center in the Yangzi delta, from the Qing-Taiping civil war through the end of the Qing dynasty. The legalization of commercial tax (lijin) gave legitimacy to a new cohort of nouveau riches, who gained wealth from the export of raw silk, to assume local leadership and build their community during and after the civil war. I argue that through the next half century, Nanxun’s local leadership built two complementary communities, a town and a township, with gradually articulated boundaries. In the smaller town, they were protectors of commercial interests. In the wider township, these gentrified leaders and their descendants took care of public welfare as upholders of Confucian morality. The right to collect extra lijin tax ensured their ability to maintain social stability and security of both communities while fending off excessive extraction from the government. To some extent, local leaders constructed the township of Nanxun as a newborn county, with the town center as the county seat. In the New Policies era, the indigenous township became the basis for formal jurisdictional demarcation when the state promulgated the Local Self-Government policy. Ironically, although effective community-building, in Nanxun and beyond, undergirded assertive state-building in the 1900s, it also rendered the dynastic regime a dispensable superstructure when revolution broke out.