James Bonk

Visiting Assistant Professor of Chinese Studies and History, College of Wooster
Faculty Adviser: Susan Naquin

Chinese Military Men and Cultural Practice in the Early Nineteenth Century Qing Empire (1800-1840)


The military in early nineteenth century China (1800-1840) has often been portrayed as an institution in steep decline, its troops addicted to opium and its officers incompetent and corrupt. This dissertation argues that the narrative of decline has overshadowed significant changes in the relation between military and society during the same period. These changes were shaped most profoundly by the White Lotus War (1796-1804), a major conflict between the Qing dynasty and White Lotus sectarians in central China. Many of the most neglected effects of the White Lotus War emerged through the deaths and lives of its military participants. In the decades after the war, the tens of thousands of Chinese war dead and military veterans, most of them members of the Green Standard branch of the Qing military, became the focus of cultural practices across the empire. These men are the main subjects of the dissertation. Chapters 2 to 4 explore the commemoration and representation of the Chinese war dead, with case studies on the construction of prefectural Manifest Loyalty Shrines, the issuing and reception of hereditary titles to officers killed in battle, and the writing and compilation of nonofficial and official biographies. Chapters 5 to 7 look at the veterans of the war, men who took advantage of loosening state control over discourse on military topics to tell their own stories and were, in turn, the objects of fascination at many levels of society. The cultural practices discussed in the dissertation emerged at the intersection of state initiatives, cultural tradition, representational space, and personal history. They were a sign of both the hegemony of ideas about the state and the limits of the Qing state as a system. I suggest that the early nineteenth century state took on the role of a cultural authority, authorizing certain sites and symbols related to war as legitimate objects of cultural practice, but increasingly unable or unwilling to directly choreograph war commemoration and military spectacle. The elaborate and top-down production of military culture that had been typical of the Qianlong reign (1736-1795) gave way under the Jiaqing emperor (1796-1820) to diverse practices organized but not controlled by the state.