China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Scholars of imperial knowledge tend to illustrate how the state might benefit from the accumulation of knowledge over its territory. Few have discussed how a crisis of state control contributes to the collection of such knowledge. This paper shows the constructive function of crisis by examining its connection to knowledge-making and state-building.
The paper centers on early nineteenth-century geographical surveys in the Sichuan-Shaanxi-Hubei internal borderlands after the decade-long “White Lotus” rebellions (1796-1804)—the costly crisis that dragged the attention of the expansionary Qing state back to its domestic territory. These surveys were led by the scholar-official Yan Ruyi (1759-1826), who was in close connection with the contemporary statecraft school. By looking at maps, route pamphlets, and strategic writings made by Yan’s team, this paper analyzes how the “White Lotus” rebellions triggered the Qing state to study underdisciplined regions like trans-provincial highlands. I argue that the surveys did more than increase geographical knowledge; instead, they also restructured how statesmen conceptualized the interrelationship between administration and environment: for instance, statecraft thinkers of this generation made efforts to adapt reconstruction strategies (i.e. baojia or militia organization) according to local geographical variations and farming cycles. That the vision had changed emerges from comparison of these surveys with the Ming state’s management of the same area after the series of peasant rebellions in Yunyang (1465-1472). Building on such interplays between a specific regional crisis and the long tradition of statecraft thinking, this paper illustrates how crisis management integrates local experiences into imperial knowledge.