Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Chinese Gentry

Book Cover

Book Title

The Chinese Gentry: Studies on Their Role in Nineteenth-Century Chinese Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995


Chang, Chung Li


The book emerged as a result of the author’s membership of the Modern Chinese History Project at the University of Washington. By using the term “gentry”, the book is able to comment on a totality of dominance of the group: encompassing realms of the social, economic, political and ideological at the time. This implies that they had been a distinct and unique social group in society.

Critically, the role of the gentry has to be understood within the Confucian education system, of which they were privy. Bringing an examination of the group in more recent history, the gentry is seen as having special positions and a prestige that was unattainable by other segments of society.

Relating the relationship between the gentry and the state, the book fleshes out the complexities of the social relations as well as gives readers the opportunity to understand different ways to read institutional control and agency- the book offers both classification and also a way to look at the system of bureaucracy in China, building upon and similarly refuting ideas of thinkers such as Weber on the nature of the Orient.

Examining the prevalence of the bureaucratic institution and the system of social-institutional relations, the study sheds light on the imperial Chinese state and its nature.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The studies in the book deal with a range of problems. Initially, the book defines the gentry and tries to define the character of the group, being that of both institutional privilege and social function, clearly evident in society at the time. It then deals with the statistical evidence of size of groups within the gentry, and the impact on this size of events such as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and the Opium War (1839-1842). Next, it looks at how the examination system ensured the stature of gentry, and the perpetuity of examinations contributed to the fashioning of official ideology at the time. Finally, it deals with five thousand biographies of gentry from all provinces in China in the period, and gives coherence to the breadth of information, whilst positing ways to decipher the material, building on the prior sections.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Looking at the “shen-shih” or gentry in China in the period is important to understanding relations between state and the particular group in society, whilst also offering insights on the relevance of the titles and privilege such a group received/held.

Showing how the gentry could be sub-divided into two broad divisions (upper and lower), the book is able to demonstrate that even as certain officials such as “chin-shih” were in the upper levels, there were also officials that were in the lower levels “sheng-yuan”. This is supplemented by the fact that gentry groups themselves could be seen to have sub-groups and further can be split into both regular and irregular. The ability to characterize the group as a singular entity, but also providing easy to understand framework, reduces the complexity for the reader (societal structures are complex, the author here demonstrates the ability to negotiate this complexity). The book is also insightful into the ways in which someone could enter the gentry.

Both being an exercise in factual consolidation to support an accessible account of the gentry at the time, whilst also giving good estimates on the components of the gentry through reading titles and edicts, the book features a great deal of statistics that would help anyone in need of understanding the significance both in both qualitative and quantitative terms, of this group.

Placing a great degree of emphasis on the examination system, the gentry lifestyle is examined as one that is earned and sustained through this system and in turn, this legitimized the continued tradition of preserving Confucian moral principles.

This book is supported by a great deal of research and can be seen as the distillation of the vast data compiled and interpreted by the author. Whilst employing a theoretical method, the study is able to use this to the end of consolidating and helping us decipher an aspect of  complex state-society relations in nineteenth-century China.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh