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In Session: New Architects of Empire: Reconfiguring Sovereignty and Authority in Nineteenth-Century East Asia
1: Activist Educators: County Instructors and the Maritime Frontier in the Early Nineteenth Century Qing State
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Johns Hopkins University, United States
As the Qing state’s “prosperous age” of the eighteenth century gave way to successive administrative, military, and ecological crises of the nineteenth century, new actors emerged to address the many urgent problems of an empire in decline. Among these new actors, county instructors (教諭, 訓導)—lowly bureaucrats in charge of district-level educational administration—assumed innovative roles in the maintenance of empire, serving on the ground by pursuing activist cultural and political agendas.
This study examines the personal writings of county instructors and Qing archival documents in order to understand the new capacities of the instructors along the Qing southeastern coastal frontier of Fujian and Taiwan as they faced up to transnational waves of pirates, European imperialists, and local unrest during the early nineteenth century. It also assesses the source of their newfound influence: their identity as activist alumni of a vast academy (書院) network, which connected instructors working in county schools to fellow alumni in the Qing court and across the empire. As they confronted the multifaceted crises in coastal regions, instructors’ academy networks allowed them to produce and circulate information on pressing maritime issues, lobby government officials, and even impact relevant policy decisions at the Qing court.
This paper argues that as the county instructors acquired new roles in literati political involvement in their home provinces and in assisting to formulate policies on the central level, they developed a legitimate voice in the local management of empire, demonstrating adaptive strategies of the Qing in an era of political and social transformation.