My Dissertation in a Document

I thought that it was about time to explain a little bit more about my research interests and the dissertation I’m supposed to be writing. To help me put the ‘d’ back in ABD, so to speak, I’ll refer to a document I’ve been reading recently that encapsulates a number of the issues my dissertation addresses. I’ll include some explanatory comments in []s to maybe distract you and to keep it from feeling too much like academic prose.

On July 21, 1886 the Shanghai-based newspaper Shen bao printed a notice of a memorial [i.e. a written communication to the imperial court] that Chen Shijie, the Governor of Shandong Province, had presented for the consideration of the emperor. The purpose of this memorial was to transmit a petition that leading members of Jinan’s elite class had themselves presented to Chen, proposing the construction of a shrine in honor of the former governor Ding Baozhen, who had died earlier that year. By itself, this document is mundane and mostly unremarkable. However, it fits into a much larger and more complex canvass of historical actors, relationships, and questions that together animate my research.

[So the document I’m looking at is a petition, quoted in a memorial, reported in a newspaper, which I found through an online database.]

The main question I want to ask about this document [historians never just read: we interrogate], is why Jinan’s elite would want to honor Ding Baozhen. [Besides, of course, the fact that Kung-pao chicken is named after him.] Fortunately, the document provides some straightforward answers. The petition-writers recount Ding’s distinguished service in Shandong, particularly his achievements in defending Jinan against the Nian rebels, revitalizing academic institutions, and arranging relief in response to the numerous floods that devastated Shandong during this period.

This remarkable record, established over an unusually long tenure (1866-76) [most officials only stayed a couple years in one place], helps explain why Jinan’s elite would deem Ding worthy of recognition. It does not, however, automatically explain the role of Jinan’s native elite in raising the issue. One of the essential principles of the Qing bureaucracy was the so-called “rule of avoidance,” which stipulated that centrally-appointed officials could not serve in their home provinces. Thus, Ding Baozhen was not a native of Jinan, or even Shandong Province. [Actually, he was from Guizhou Province, which is about an 18 hour drive from Jinan, Google Maps says.]

Ding came to Jinan, then, as an outsider, in some sense an imposition on the local people. He obviously left a good impression, but why is it that the local elite – and not the imperial court in Beijing -initiated plans to construct a memorial on his behalf? In the terms that historians of China use: why were members of local society engaging the state to honor someone who was not one of their own?

Ding did not earn these accolades in a vacuum. Instead, his achievements as an official were interwoven with efforts on the part of the local elite to respond to these same sorts of crises. For instance, the lead signatory of the petition was a man named Li Qing’ao. Li had just earned the highest degree in the civil service examination system (jinshi) when in 1853 the Taiping captured the city of Nanjing, turning it into their new capital, and launched an invasion of northern China in a bid to secure quick success for their cause by capturing Beijing. In response to this threat, the court dispatched Li and a number of his colleagues serving in the capital to return to their home towns to raise defense forces.I have found no evidence that Li himself engaged in combat, but he proved himself enough to subsequently be appointed to successively more important bureaucratic posts (again, outside Shandong), until his retirement in 1877 after an unfortunate stint as the Governor of Henan Province. [He failed to respond quickly to the devastating North China famine of 1876-79, which killed millions of people across several provinces, including Shandong.]

In a 1974 article (full citation below), historian David Buck argues (rightly, I think) that in Jinan the commemoration of officials like Ding, who participated in the military suppression of the Taiping and Nian rebellions, is an indication of local identification with the accomplishments of these officials and the social/political prominence of local people, like Li Qing’ao, whose resumés were similar. In other words, honoring Ding was, at least in part, a means for Li to enhance his own status by drawing attention to the parallel between his accomplishments and Jinan’s experiences during a time period in which Li had been largely absent (filling official positions elsewhere). Essentially, individuals and institutions associated with the state – Ding as former governor, Chen as current governor, shrines, etc. – became a vehicle for writing Jinan’s own history.

There is a lot more I could say about both these specific episodes in Jinan’s history and why they are significant and a bit unexpected given what other scholars have written about this time period. To return to the larger dissertation, though, the basic hypothesis, you could say, is that this interweaving of local identity and the state was not new to Jinan in the second half of the nineteenth century. Rather, I plan to trace some specific ways in which the things that made Jinan distinctive as a place were bound up with the state over the course of the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries. The even larger question is what the history of Jinan during this time period can tell us about the concepts of “state” and “local” themselves. A lot of research suggests that they are opposed to each other, but, as we’ve seen in just a small glimpse, that’s not what it looks like in Jinan. That’s not to say that Jinan was like all other places, but studying its history might make us want to rethink some of our basic assumptions in order to account for a broader range of possibilities.


David Buck, “Public Monuments as a Guide to Political Leadership, Ch’ing-shih wen-ti 3, no. 1 (1974): 62-70.

One response

Leave a Reply