Xiaohong Xiao-Planes, Éducation et politique en Chine: le rôle des élites du Jiangsu, 1905-1914

Over the last thirty years, many works, both Chinese and foreign,
have been devoted to the reformist activities of notables from various Chinese
provinces during the last half-century of the Qing dynasty, particularly during
the period 1901-12. These books have also covered the different forms of associations
that these elite organised themselves into in order to increase the efficiency
of their actions and their ability to negotiate with the imperial administration.
In the general hubbub of activity that led the provincial elite to intellectual,
political and social change after the Boxers, the notables and educated classes
of Jiangsu held a distinguished position. This was achieved by sheer numbers as
much as material means, particularly in the abundance of newspapers and print
media they had at their disposal, and which left ample material for historical

It is already well known in its broad outline what important
role was played by the Jiangsu General Education Association, which was founded
in 1905 by several eminent figures from the province and chaired by the illustrious
businessman Zhang Jian, holder of a first-class doctorate. It became the mould
for a real constitutional party, the forerunner Association to a constitutional
regime that was at the forefront of political life during the latter years of
the monarchy and which assured a fairly peaceful transition to the Republican
regime when the 1911 revolution came. Xiaohong Xiao-Planes’ monograph provides
us with a detailed account of the Association’s history from 1905 to 1914,
thanks to the comprehensive collection of the organisation’s own publications
as well as those of local institutions that supported it, and to which the author
obtained access in both Shanghai and Nanking. These sources were supplemented
by the incredible wealth of materials and works that have been published recently
in mainland China and Taiwan. The book analyses this history as a model example
of the development of the local elite’s collective representation and public
action up to the time when the forced takeover by Yuan Shikai, in 1913-14, stripped
these elite of the legal provincial power they had finally gained through their
commitment to serve a political rebuilding of the imperial state after the Taiping

The book describes the innovations introduced into the Jiangsu
education system from 1860-1900, encouraged alternately by the local authorities
and the educated classes. It then covers the application of the imperial reformist
“New Policy” (xinzheng) after 1901–a message relayed by the zealous
initiatives of the notables, the young educated classes, the merchants and even
scorned social groups, such as prostitutes, opera singers and barbers, calling
for a reformed education system. The Jiangsu General Education Association was
founded in October 1905, the day after the imperial examinations were abolished,
against a background of multiple problems and disputes relating to the reform–retraining
of prize-winners and entrants from the old examinations, funding and administration
of the new establishments, and pedagogic anarchy. Its members comprised traditional
educated people and young progressives, provincial notables and men from Shanghai,
a city which, being the home and flagship of modernity, was chosen to house the
association’s headquarters. The organisation modelled itself on the Shanghai
Chamber of Commerce, itself inspired by the “democratic” statutes of
the municipal Council for the international concession. By officially establishing
education associations in each sub-prefecture to assist in the administration
of the education system, the imperial regulations of 1906 enabled the Jiangsu
Association to become part of a wide network of local branches that comprised
more than 5,000 members in 1908.

The Association dedicated itself to providing guidance to
and mediation between the provincial administration, local communities and educational
institutions. Its activities, quite sustained and regular, were conducted by a
small nucleus of young educated people based in Shanghai. The new education administration,
set up in 1906, inaugurated a sharing of functions between civil servants and
educated notables, called in to act as “advisors”. On failing to obtain
these “advisors” through local election, the Jiangsu General Education
Association seized this opportunity to place its members at every level of the
new departments. It filled in for administrative cadres to calm disputes over
education, train teachers, sponsor youth education, revamp elementary education,
promote technical education, collect and manage the finances for education, and
even co-ordinate and integrate educational institutions on a national scale. Among
all these activities, there emerged, with cautious pragmatism, the implementation
of a “professional power” and the use of democratic rules among the

The final part of the book examines the organisations and
political undertakings that the Association’s members became involved with,
involving the development of civics, the election and workings of the provincial
assembly and local councils, petitions for the immediate convening of a parliament
and appointment of an accountable cabinet, joining the Republican revolution,
and support for Yuan Shikai.

At the end of this progression of events, that is sometimes
heavy going but lavishly detailed, covering the local policy of the time, the
author challenges any relevance held by the notions of “public sphere”
and “civil society” in interpreting the evolution of the local Chinese
elite at the end of the empire and the beginning of the Republic. In fact, despite
its spontaneity, the activism of the local elite sought the support of power,
it did not attempt to clash with it or to organise itself outside of its structure.
It aimed to “extend an official approach to turn the regime into a constitutional
system”. The popular sovereignty that the activists sought from the administration
had it foundations in the Confucian doctrine of minben, according to which, the
people are the state’s raison d’être. In their eyes at least,
this implied the existence of organic links between different localities, of the
elite and of the people, following on from which, came the “pedagogic procedures”
of political participation that they defended. Invested with new responsibilities
in their locality, the most educated used these to initiate the people, in the
sense of the general interest, so that the people could, in turn, participate
in public affairs–the power of the notables would engender power among the
people. Mrs Xiao-Planes emphasises, however, that although this political plan
formed part of what P. A. Kuhn called the historical “constitutional programme”
of the Chinese state (i.e. the recourse to administrative decentralisation and
political participation by the rank and file to curb the chronic degradation of
the government apparatus), the local autonomy (difang zizhi) demanded and practiced
by the Jiangsu elite at the beginning of the twentieth century led to a plurality
of independent political entities and to the rejection of a monolithic conception
of central autocracy. In the end, she suggests a fundamentally different definition
of the relationship between the state and society, a definition in which instead
of functioning by integrating the dynamism of the society, the political organisation
arbitrates between different interests. One weakness of the book is undoubtedly
the fact that it does not weigh up exactly what do represent in the Jiangsu elite
as a whole those whom the author calls “the activists” and who are the
specific subject of her investigation. However, armed with an outstanding critical
and bibliographical apparatus, this erudite study of the inner workings of provincial
modernity at the beginning of the last century provides much food for thought
on this subject.

Translated from the French original by
Bernie Mahapatra

Back to top