The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study

By Victor Purcell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
CHINESE SOCIETY DURING THE
LATE CH'ING PERIOD

What was the nature of the society in which the Boxer Uprising took place, and what were the forces operating within it which tended to be favourable or otherwise to rebellion?

Whether the traditional Chinese system should be known, as it is by the founding fathers of Marxism, as the 'Asiatic form of production', or as a 'feudal bureaucratism', or as a 'bureaucratic feudalism', it was certainly very different from anything that Europe ever knew. The shih, or scholar-bureaucrats, were peculiar to China and remained the managerial class for two millennia. They were the non-hereditary élite in a non-acquisitive society which was inimical to the development of capitalism.

The mandarinate system was so successful that it inhibited the rise of merchants to power in the State, it walled up their guilds in the restricted role of friendly and benefit societies, it nipped capitalist accumulation in the bud ... it creamed off for 2000 years the best brains from all levels of society into its own service.I

Chinese society has been characterized as 'immobile', but this is incorrect. It has changed very considerably at different epochs, though at periods—certainly in the late nineteenth century—conservatism and the appeal to the past might seem to the uninstructed observer to be due merely to vis inertiae.

Among modern students of Chinese society there has been a keen discussion as to the degree of social mobility that existed. Certainly families rose into the estate of the scholar-gentry at all periods, and sank out of it again. On the other hand, the mandarinate appears not to have been quite as 'classless' as has often been stated by nineteenth‐ century observers, and even in the best and most open periods, boys from learned homes which had good private libraries had a great advantage over the others.

There have not lacked internal critics of Chinese society from Confucius onwards, but up to the end of the nineteenth century these critics as a body attributed the shortcomings of contemporary society

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