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Lu, Junda (2023) The State as the Celestial: Roots of Statism in Modern China, 1820-1893. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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This thesis aims to overcome the essentialist conception of Chinese politics as inherently authoritarian, the modernist view of statism as representing a rupture in Chinese political culture, and the teleological reconstruction of modern Chinese history toward a preordained end. To do so, I seek to trace the rise of statism in modern China back to the internal context of intellectual developments from the early nineteenth century to the eve of 1895. The ultimate question I raise is why statism, a strand of thought upholding the state as the worldly embodiment of cosmic authority and thus self-legitimizing, would prevail. I attempt to answer this question by reconstructing the evolution of statist thinking as a complex interaction between the two dimensions of transcendental visions on the state and mundane agendas of institutional reform in the late Qing. Through analyses of essays, letters, memorials and newspaper articles by scholars, officials, diplomatic ministers, treaty port intellectuals and merchant reformers, I pay special attention to the cosmological underpinnings of political thought that was constantly appropriated and reinvented by the literati, which greatly enhanced the tenacity of statism in modern China. My findings suggest that intellectual precursors of Chinese statism crystallized from the statist re-orientation of Confucian scholarship at the turn of the nineteenth century. By idealizing the Qing state as the embodiment of dao (道) and formulating a symbiotic relationship between the state and the literati, such a re-orientation facilitated growing calls for literati empowerment in politics against autocratic rulership when dynastic decline saw institutional breakdown in domestic governance and mounting pressures of Western intrusion. In the name of building a strong state, statism emboldened literati activists to advocate comprehensive reappraisals of the state as an institutional entity while upholding its idealization as the embodiment of dao, a theoretical potential increasingly realized when the spread of Western learning profoundly reconfigured the late Qing intellectual landscape. Statism is thus inextricably tied with intellectual dynamics evolving over the last decades of imperial China, despite the unmistakable ruptures in China’s political modernization after 1895.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
SOAS Doctoral School
Supervisors Name: Andrea Janku and Lars Laamann
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 04 Mar 2024 14:51

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