After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924


From 1885- 1924, China underwent a period of acute political struggle and cultural change, brought on by a radical change in thought: after over 2,000 years of monarchical rule, the Chinese people stopped believing in the emperor. These forty years saw the collapse of Confucian political orthodoxy and the struggle among competing definitions of modern citizenship and the state. What made it possible to suddenly imagine a world without the emperor?

After Empire traces the formation of the modern Chinese idea of the state through the radical reform programs of the late Qing (1885- 1911), the Revolution of 1911, and the first years of the Republic through the final expulsion of the last emperor of the Qing from the Forbidden City in 1924. It contributes to longstanding debates on modern Chinese nationalism by highlighting the evolving ideas of major political thinkers and the views reflected in the general political culture.

Zarrow uses a wide range of sources to show how "statism" became a hegemonic discourse that continues to shape China today. Essential to this process were the notions of citizenship and sovereignty, which were consciously adopted and modified from Western discourses on legal theory and international state practices on the basis of Chinese needs and understandings. This text provides fresh interpretations and keen insights into China's pivotal transition from dynasty to republic.


This is a study primarily of political thought. I began with a set of simple questions. How did the Chinese people stop believing in the emperor in the late Qing period and decide to overturn a monarchical system that could be traced back over two thousand years—in some respects over three thousand years? Did the foreign origins of the Qing dynasty (16441912) really weaken it after 260 years of rule? What made it possible to suddenly imagine a Chinese state without the emperor—what conditions of political possibility had emerged by the end of the nineteenth century? For millennia the monarchy had held a central position in any conception of Chinese politics and culture: how could it be replaced? and whatever replaced it, did ideas about the monarchy collapse and disappear, or did they continue to influence the shape of the post-imperial political order? How did the monarchy manifest itself in the daily lives of people as its institutional basis broke down? What did the court do to makes its presence known and press claims to its indispensability? Above all, how were these claims attacked? How did new republican rituals come to replace the old imperial rituals after 1912?

These questions turned out not to be so simple and led to further questions. What does it even mean to speak of a “belief in” the emperor—supposedly “Son of Heaven” and possessor of Heaven’s mandate—while it was no secret that emperors were all-too-fallible men? Was it the Qing’s policies or the entire emperor system that proved incompatible with the changes China was undergoing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? If the Qing had been Han Chinese instead of Manchu, would it have survived in some form? Yet put another way, the question is not how the Qing failed but how did popular attitudes change so that its overthrow made sense? Could new political institutions ever replace the numerous functions that the emperor (or the idea of the emperor) performed? Once the emperor was no longer, did this create a sudden vacuum? Or was the . . .

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