‘It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.’ Machiavelli, The Prince
Central Xinzheng Reform and the Twentieth-Century Chinese State
The effort of the Qing dynasty to transform itself and forge a new set of relationships with society in its last decade has been one of the less explored areas in the scholarship on modern China. Although this set of radical initiatives, collectively known as the xinzheng (‘New Policy’) reforms attracted a good deal of commentary from its contemporaries, until recently it has been relatively understudied. There are two reasons for this neglect. First, conventional periodization has divided historical turf between Qing historians (for the Qing dynasty 1644–1911), Republican historians (for the period between 1911 and 1949 ) and political scientists (who cover 1949 to the present). Second, since the dramatic narrative for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century has been largely understood as a process of ever more radical forms of revolutionary change, scholars have understandably been more taken with exploring the antecedents of revolution and/or locally based studies of elite transformation than they have been with exploring a case of seemingly bona fide failure.The central government-initiated xinzheng reform period (1902–1911) has thus borne the full brunt of a Whiggish interpretation of history; too late to command the attention of most Qing historians, too early for the majority of Republican historians, at best a prologue for the real revolution to come, and at worst an abortive failure.
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