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Essay/
Politics & Government
Detail from The Departure Herald, unknown artist, Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Image courtesy Wikipedia

Everyday politics

Imperial Chinese conscription shows how ordinary people exercise influential political skills, even in a repressive state

Michael Szonyi

Detail from The Departure Herald, unknown artist, Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Image courtesy Wikipedia

Michael Szonyi

is professor of Chinese history and director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. He is a social historian of late imperial and modern China. His latest books are (co-edited with Jennifer Rudolph) The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power (2018) and the The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China (2017).

Published in association with
Princeton University Press
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Brought to you by curio.io, an Aeon partner

3,000 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that because people in the past didn’t live in democracies, they must have faced fewer political choices and had fewer political skills than we do. It is true that imperial subjects did not choose their emperors in democratic elections. But if we think about politics in a broader sense – as encompassing all of the diverse interactions between a state, its agents and its population – we soon realise that ordinary people in the past operated in complex political arenas, and often developed sophisticated political skills. Historians can sometimes reconstruct these skills even for ordinary people in the distant past. 

Consider the case of the Zheng family, who lived on China’s southeast coast in the late-14th century. The family was conscripted in the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In the Ming, conscription meant a permanent, hereditary obligation to provide one male member of the family for military service. The two adult brothers of the family negotiated over which of them would serve. The solution they came up with involved revisiting the terms of their dead father’s will. Rather than dividing their inheritance equally, as the law required, the two men decided that the younger brother would receive 75 per cent of the estate in exchange for taking on the burden of military service. The agreement was intended to be in perpetuity; the younger brother was making commitments not just for himself but for all of his descendants. A generation later, the three sons of the younger brother underwent another round of negotiations. This time, they used relative status within the family as the main negotiating tool. In exchange for agreeing to serve in the army, the second of the three brothers earned the right for him and his descendants to get priority when the family conducted ancestral sacrifice in the future.

The Zheng family’s arrangements don’t easily fit into conventional understandings of politics. But they should. For what they were really about was how the family negotiated its relationship with the state. In the most traditional and narrow view, politics is mainly about states and their rulers (and, in the form of international relations, the relations between them). At the other extreme, many modern anthropologists see politics in every conceivable human interaction. But in most human societies in most times – past and present – there is also an intermediate zone where the state and ordinary people interact.

This notion that relations with the state and its agents constitute a type of politics is not new. Landmark studies by E P Thompson and James Scott showed – for 18th-century English peasants and their early 20th-century Burmese and Vietnamese counterparts, respectively – that ordinary people were quite capable of organising and coordinating for collective action when they felt that political elites were violating community norms. A huge body of subsequent historical and anthropological research has explored the myriad ways in which ordinary people could resist those who were more powerful than they.

But for all the insight of these works, the binary between compliance and resistance they imply remains a narrow conception of politics. In past times just as in our own lives, many and perhaps most interactions with the state occupied the wide middle ground between these two extremes. The term ‘everyday politics’ is a useful way to describe the political strategies, conflicts and negotiations of this broad middle ground. Everyday politics, as the political scientist Ben Kerkvliet put it in 2009, involves people ‘embracing, complying with, adjusting and contesting norms and rules regarding authority over, production of, or allocation of resources and doing so in quiet, mundane, and subtle expressions and acts’. ‘Everyday politics’ captures exactly what the Zheng family was up to.

Everyday politics can be found everywhere, but military conscription is a particularly good place to explore it. Because most states in human history have had armies, looking at how people in different times and places have engaged with the state over the issue of conscription presents rich possibilities for comparison. The political scientist Margaret Levi uses the history of military mobilisation in 19th-century Europe to build a typology of conscription regimes. She argues that governments at the time had four basic options to staff their army: a professional army (usually with the officer corps drawn from a traditional elite, and enlisted men who were volunteers, conscripts or mercenaries); universal conscription; conscription with provisions for exemption by finding a replacement; and a conscription system with provisions to buy one’s way out of service.

Over the past 200 years, the third and fourth systems have largely disappeared in democracies – not, Levi argues, for reasons of military efficiency or democratic preference but because citizens are less willing to comply with a system they see as unfair. And when citizens are unwilling to serve, the army’s overhead costs go way up – it becomes more expensive to conscript them in the first place, to keep them on task, and to stop them from deserting. Thus 19th-century European states learned that the most effective way to staff their military was through a system that relied on the contingent consent of the citizenry, and this ruled out some of the options that worked for earlier states.

But the question of how a state can best mobilise its population for military service, and the everyday politics in which people engage in response, is not unique to modern democracies. The case of China’s Ming dynasty is an especially interesting one for exploring everyday politics – because of the size and complexity of the army, because of the surviving bureaucratic archive, and because of unusually rich sources for researching the perspective of ordinary people.

The exact size of the Ming army is unknown but it was in the order of 2 million men. It was by a wide margin the largest standing army in the world at that time. For most of the dynasty, the core of the standing army came from a special category of the population known as military households or junhu. The junhu comprised perhaps 10 per cent of the total population of Ming China. Families could be registered as military households in a number of different ways. The first followers of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming, and those of his defeated rivals became the earliest military households. A second group was conscripted in a series of drafts during the late-14th century. Registration also later became a punishment for certain serious crimes.

Not everyone in a junhu served as a soldier. Rather, every military household had a permanent, hereditary obligation to supply one able-bodied man to serve in the military at all times. Being a military household thus implied an ongoing obligation to provide a certain amount of labour, the services of one able-bodied male. Once a family was registered as a military household, this labour obligation persisted regardless of the social circumstances of the family.

China’s long tradition of bureaucracy and record-keeping mean that a great deal is already known about how the system of hereditary military households was supposed to operate. The dynasty produced several detailed descriptions of its institutions. Historians have relied on them to learn the rules of the military household system.

The Chinese tradition of compiling written genealogies means that it is also possible to learn a great deal about how the system really operated, and this is something to which historians have not paid as much attention. As the term implies, the main purpose of genealogies was to trace ancestry and descent. But Chinese genealogies, which range from handwritten scraps to handsomely bound printed volumes, often also included diverse materials relevant to the extended family – locations of ancestral tombs, biographies of prominent members, and rules for managing shared property. Even today, many genealogies can be found in the Chinese countryside that still have information about the military service of the family’s Ming dynasty ancestors. In some cases, junhu genealogies even include copies of formal contracts recording the negotiations that family members worked through to manage their shared military service obligation.

Families developed in different ways that complicated the basic conscription algorithm

This means that there is both a rich official archive, specifying the rules of conscription, and a popular archive. This popular archive – what Scott might call a hidden transcript – illustrates how people tried to bend and manage their obligations to the state.

The original Ming dynasty policy held that in every military household men serving as soldiers would eventually be replaced by their eldest son. In principle, the policy initiated a simple and endless cycle of conscription, but in reality families developed in different ways that complicated the basic selection algorithm. In many military households there were multiple sons; in others none. In the hope of reducing its overhead expenses, the state left it up to families themselves to decide who should fulfil their obligation. Different families faced this challenge in different ways.

Families developed a range of strategies to address the lack of fit between their own reality and the demands of the algorithm. One common solution for a family with more than one son was to arrange for responsibility to serve in the military to rotate among the sons on a set schedule. When the rotation was complete, the cycle would begin anew. Such a system could continue for generations. This was the method used by the Cai family of Quanzhou – whose genealogy I collected in the village where their descendants live today.

The man who was first conscripted had six sons. The sons agreed to be organised into six ‘branches’, one for each of the six sons. Each branch would be responsible for providing a soldier for a 10-year period, after which the responsibility would rotate to the next branch, and eventually return to the senior one. They formalised the arrangement with a written contract, which has been copied into every subsequent edition of the genealogy. In 1484, the descendants agreed to lengthen the term of service from 10 to 30 years. Probably they were seeking to balance the disruption caused to the individual conscript against the uncertainty that conscription presented to the descendants collectively. As the number of descendants grew and the likelihood that any given descendant would be conscripted fell, the family decided to shift the balance towards the latter consideration.

The Wang family arranged for a previous Buddhist monk to serve as their substitute

Junhu households could also meet their obligation to provide manpower to the army by concentrating the responsibility entirely on a single member of the lineage. The Guo family of Fuzhou, a few hundred miles to the north of Quanzhou, became registered as a military household when one of their members, a fellow named Guo Jianlang, was implicated in a murder. When Guo Jianlang died, the obligation was transmitted to his surviving relatives. His son was still an infant, too young to serve, so his kinfolk drew lots to see which of them would replace him. The relatives collectively agreed that the military obligation would thereafter be concentrated on the unlucky one, and after that it would be up to him and his descendants to fulfil the collective obligation.

From concentrating the obligation on a single member, it was a short step to finding a substitute who was not a family member. In one of my favourite cases, the Wang family of Wenzhou arranged for a man who was previously registered as a Buddhist monk to serve as their substitute. In a somewhat mysterious twist, it was agreed that the monk’s ‘descendants’ would adopt the Wang surname and fulfil the obligation in perpetuity.

Military service offered some possibility for social mobility or distinction, but the dangers outweighed the potential benefits; most genealogies treat soldiering as a profession to be avoided. What would have persuaded the monk to become a soldier on behalf of the Wang family? Why did the member of the Guo family who drew the short straw agree to go off to the army? Obviously, money was involved. As the Guo genealogy euphemises: ‘The whole lineage appreciated his righteous actions, so they gave him a reward to encourage him.’ And the former monk? The Wang genealogy explains that a wealthy member of the lineage donated a piece of property for the collective good. The land was rented out, and the rental income used to compensate the monk and his descendants.

Compensation was almost always a part of strategies involving concentration or substitution, but it also often appears in the records of families who used a rotation strategy. After all, if the person whose turn it was in the rotation deserted, the whole strategy might come to naught. A merciless conscription official might descend on the family and seize any able-bodied man to serve in his stead. So the rest of the family wanted their appointed soldier to stay on post. Families found different ways to arrange compensation: they raised funds by levying an annual charge on all the adult males; they endowed permanent estates, the income from which was to go to the serving soldier (as in the case above); they set up estates that were entrusted to the soldier to use at his discretion.

Besides strategies to resolve the question of which family member should serve in the army, members of junhu in the Ming had many other political strategies that were aimed at optimising their relations with the state for their own advantage. For example, the kinfolk of naval officers on the southeast coast often took advantage of these ties to engage in smuggling and even piracy. They turned the fact that they had connections to the Coast Guard into a source of private gain.

In general, these strategies sought to make the obligation to provide military labour more predictable, to reduce the likelihood that one might suddenly be called on to go off to war. Junhu also often monetised military service, converting an indefinite obligation to provide labour into a clear and more specific agreement to provide money. Such strategies resemble the techniques that people use in a very different context: the need to deal with uncertainty and risk in the marketplace. This raises an interesting question about Ming history. China in the mid-16th century was a place of great commercial activity and prosperity, stimulated in part by an influx of silver from the New World. All sorts of economic and financial institutions – what Chinese Marxist scholars label ‘the sprouts of capitalism’ – appeared. Did ordinary Chinese people take their skills and experience with the market and apply them to their everyday politics? Or, more intriguingly, did the strategies they devised in dealing with the state prove useful as the market economy grew and penetrated their lives?

All of these strategies aim to optimise the family’s relations with the state, maximise the benefits and minimise the costs of being part of the state system while not flouting state rules.

Mundane efforts by ordinary people to gain political advantage could have big consequences

Many of them can be described by the modern financial term ‘regulatory arbitrage’. The basic idea behind regulatory arbitrage is simple. Arbitrage means to take advantage of differences between two or more markets. The same asset – the same thing – can have different value in different markets. Buying an asset in the market where it is less expensive and selling it in the market where it is more expensive, in other words ‘buying cheap and selling dear’, is the elementary form of arbitrage. Regulatory arbitrage in economics refers to taking advantage of the difference between regulatory position and economic substance, in other words, between how one is perceived by the regulator and one’s actual situation, or of the difference between two or more regulatory regimes. Regulatory arbitrage was a prominent feature of the everyday politics of Ming military households.

Everyday politics – ‘quiet, mundane and subtle’ efforts by ordinary people to gain political advantage in a system in which they seemed to have little agency – could have big consequences. Mutinies and rebellions – a traditional subject of military history – certainly did occur in the Ming army. But far more important for the eventual fate of the dynasty was the decline in the number and quality of the soldiery, and this was a consequence of the kinds of everyday politics described above. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the junhu’s success at limiting their military-service obligations finally forced the emperor to rely on mercenaries for more and more of his army. The fiscal burden on the Ming state was a significant factor leading to the dynasty’s final collapse.

Historians still debate the causes for the end of the Ming – and for the rise of its successor, the Manchu Qing. But one thing is certain. Though the subjects of the Ming dynasty did not live in a modern democracy, they brought substantial organisational and cultural resources to their relations with the state, and practised a complex and sophisticated type of politics. In doing so, they reshaped their social world, and changed history. The military households of the Ming Dynasty offer an important reminder that politics can take many different forms, and that it is not only those of us in modern democracies who have and use political skills. Their political strategies might even offer resources – or at least inspiration – for contemporary people who must also deal with a powerful state and its sometimes capricious agents.

The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China (2017) by Michael Szonyi is published by Princeton University Press.

Syndicate this Essay

Michael Szonyi

is professor of Chinese history and director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. He is a social historian of late imperial and modern China. His latest books are (co-edited with Jennifer Rudolph) The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power (2018) and the The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China (2017).

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