State & Society in Fin-de-siècle Sichuan


A review of Conflict, Community and Crime in Fin-de-siècle Sichuan, by Quinn Doyle Javers.

In Conflict, Community and Crime in Fin-de-siècle Sichuan, Quinn Javers explores the complex nature of state-society relations in Ba County, Sichuan (a county with almost a million people, of which Chongqing was the county seat), the multifaceted interaction between formal and informal cultures of law and justice, and the social norms and forces that shaped everyday manifestations of violence in the last decades of the Qing. The material on which this study is based is the Ba County archive’s collection of ming’an (“cases of unnatural death”) from the last decade of the nineteenth century. In recent decades this important county-level archive has supported a number of studies of social history and legal history in late imperial China.

Chapter 1 begins with an analysis of deaths that occurred on the roads and rivers of Ba County, arguing that roads were liminal spaces that existed beyond state and community ties while rivers were important sites for the extension of state power. The second part of the chapter examines a fascinating body of sources – maps that were drawn up and used in local disputes at the Ba County yamen. By examining the ways in which local parties used these maps to argue their case in court, Javers shows that the state’s understanding of local space was mediated by community actors and interests, part of the dissertation’s larger argument about the considerable agency that local actors exercised in shaping the legal culture of Ba County and, by implication, the Qing. Chapter 2 uses a close analysis of suicide cases to explore the social tensions that culminated in suicide and the negotiation of social ties and obligations that followed in its wake. Following the larger theme of the dissertation that violence both reflects existing social ties and is productive of social meaning, this chapter examines the ways in which relatives and other interested parties demanded compensation for a death, revealing in the process the ties of obligation and hierarchy that were understood to bind people together within the community. Javers shows that the county yamen was invested in sorting out the competing claims that emerged in the wake of suicide and enforcing socially-appropriate compensation by activating the web of mutual expectations and obligations that in life had tied the deceased to relatives, employers, and others.

Chapter 3 continues to examine the social meanings latent in violence through the economic and social tensions that led to cases of homicide. Javers argues that in many homicide cases violence was not a manifestation of disorder or an external threat to the community but was rather a predictable outcome of the violation of well-known community norms. Thus, murder could reflect a kind of “private justice” (p. 131) in response to the breaking of established social norms. Chapter 4 examines the use of false accusation as a strategy for litigants to gain access to the court. It shows that a broad swath of local society used false accusations to attempt to resolve disputes that were being unfavorably handled within informal resolution mechanisms of the local community. In these instances, once again, the government yamen was invested in resolving the underlying issues, not legalistically punishing those who made false claims to gain access to the court. Chapter 5 explores the local practice of destroying an adversary’s property as an informally-sanctioned response to local conflicts and disputes. These instances of ransacking followed normative rules that were not destructive of community ties and boundaries but rather served to reinforce them.

This study demonstrates that the local administration of justice as seen in Ba County ming’an was not simply about applying and enforcing the laws of the Qing Code. Rather, the state was interested in mediating local disputes, maintaining the integrity of customary social ties and obligations, and engaging with a society that often did not meet orthodox standards of social relations and performance. Most tellingly, the county yamen routinely turned a blind eye to statutorily illegal practices such as false accusation and private detainment. In this sense, this study must be located firmly in relation to works that have investigated divergences between the “representation and practice” of law in late imperial China by reading legal documents between the lines and making use of local archives (i.e. Philip C.C. Huang, Civil Justice in China: Representation and Practice in the Qing. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996; Bradly W. Reed, Talons and Teeth: County Clerks and Runners in the Qing Dynasty. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). Javers’ study is also clearly engaging with scholarship that has read legal cases for an understanding of economic ties, social relations, and gender norms (i.e. Matthew H. Sommer, Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000; Janet M. Theiss, Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). Yet, this study also sets a new standard for the use of the rich legal sources contained in county-level archives. Javers’ careful analysis of maps and lists of destroyed property, for example, are particularly creative uses of these materials and reveal just how far they can be pushed to provide an understanding of everyday life in late imperial China.

For scholars of Chinese legal history, one of the most important arguments of the dissertation will be that “the court formed only one element of the legal culture in Ba County, though it was clearly the most powerful” (p. 62). The late imperial state, at least as represented in Ba County, had no monopoly over the definition of justice, the ways in which local people utilized the law and the courts, or the use (or legitimation) of violence. While Javers does position this study in relation to existing scholarship on “legal culture” in late imperial China (i.e. Paul R. Katz, Divine Justice: Religion and the Development of Chinese Legal Culture. London: Routledge, 2009), his own analysis of the interaction between legal institutions, law codes, and social and cultural norms and meanings uniquely and distinctively demonstrates both the value of this concept and the kind of textured research that is necessary to fully realize its insights. Specifically, Javers makes the compelling case that the legal culture of yamen and local community were intertwined and that this interaction governed important parts of what we usually think of as “Qing law.” For example, Javers shows that the capacity of yamen authorities to know the facts of a case was in important ways dependent on what those who came to court told them. The knowledge on which the Qing legal system relied was inseparable from the local interests and agendas that drove people to go to court in the first place. Thus, the administration of justice as an official state activity was embedded within the “enlarged and rowdy legal culture” (p. 186) that existed around it.

In the end, Conflict, Community and Crime in Fin-de-siècle Sichuan presents a finely textured picture of everyday life in Ba County during the second to last decade of Qing rule, the social ties and tensions that ran through it, and the ways in which local actors negotiated the meanings and implications of the violence that often resulted. Javers’ nuanced analysis demonstrates that the local state was both less essential than one might think – there were plenty of other mechanisms for resolving disputes and achieving justice – yet still highly relevant as a venue at which common people could appeal to resolve some of the most pressing issues of their lives. That Javers contextualizes the history of “conflict, community and crime” in Ba County within scholarly literatures on violence, everyday life, and legal culture in other global sites is only one aspect of this study that should make it of interest to scholars far beyond the China field.

Daniel Asen
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Pittsburgh

Primary Sources

Ba County Archive (Sichuan Provincial Archive, Chengdu)
Qing-era published legal cases, handbooks, and the Great Qing Code (Da Qing lü li)
Imperial Maritime Customs Service reports
Republican-era published materials on local conditions and history

Dissertation Information

Stanford University, 2012. 240 pp. Primary Advisor: Matthew Sommer.


Image: Cases from the Baxian Dang’an [Ba County Archive, Sichuan Provincial Archive, Chengdu] Case number BXDA 7711.

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