Book Review: The Art Of Being Governed

The Art Of Being Governed: Everyday Politics In Late Imperial China, by Michael Szonyi

This author explores something that I would like to read a lot more of and that is a seldom-discussed area (at least in my purview) regarding questions of authority. What is the art of being governed? Is there an art to being governed at all, and if there is, what would it look like? The author makes a good case here for the existence of the art of being governed and discusses why this is the case in the matter of regulatory arbitrage. In fact, this looks a lot like the way I behaved as a child growing up in a complex family. Knowing how to discuss about what matters, seeking to deal with competing power centers sometimes at odds with each other, this is what the book details, and it looks a lot like the way that a child navigates in the family, shrewdly deciding who is the first to hear good news or bad news, what sort of requests should be made to which parents, and the like. It is a fascinating discussion, and I found this book to be a very impressive example of the powerful knowledge and insight one can gain from seemingly dull genealogies and written discussions about Chinese law during the Ming dynasty. This book ought to be a good lesson to future researchers that there is a great deal one can learn when one asks why something is written down in the first place.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages long but it covers a fascinating and often neglected aspect of social history, and that is social history where government authorities are viewed from below, in the behavior and everyday strategies of people to cope with and maneuver the laws and institutions in place over them through regulatory arbitrage. The book begins with illustrations, a discussion of the families included in the book, and an introduction that discusses the loss of three sons to the Ming army and a look at everyday politics during the Ming dynasty. After that there is a look at everyday politics in the village (I), with a discussion of family strategies in dealing with conscription and military service and the disposition of rank and property (1) as well as a look at how proper maintenance of family ties with their relatives can silence local bullies through the recognition of kin and responsibilities (2). After that there is a discussion of the art of being governed in the Ming guard itself (II), with a discussion of the collaboration between soldiers and smugglers in coastal Southern China (3) and the founding of a new school for the support of the political and social ambitions of the children of hereditary guards (4). After that there is a discussion of military colonies (III) through a look at the regulatory arbitrage strategies in such colonies (5) as well as the management of social relations between soldier-farmers and non-military local civilians (6) in temple and religious life. Finally, the author examines the persistence of the legacies of the Ming military system that have long persisted (IV, 7), after which there is a conclusion, acknowledgements, glossary, notes, a bibliography, illustration sources, and an index.

This book is a good example of why it is that historical research of seemingly esoteric and random places is so vitally interesting. The subject matter in this book consists of various Ming families that were hereditary soldiers, but the author’s insight demonstrates that these families sought to maximize their benefits from being of service to the state while simultaneously spreading out the costs of service in such a way that the family as a whole profited a great deal while minimizing the costs of service. Best of all, this book demonstrates that even after hereditary service ceased to be a phenomenon of Chinese military planning in the aftermath of the Qing takeover, they still managed to maintain a privileged local position through land ownership and the shrewd handling of tax obligations and control of local religious and social institutions. The author demonstrates that patterns of marriage and property holding relating to Ming military service have endured to the present day even though the Ming dynasty itself fell in the 17th century. The persistence of social patterns on the ground and in life is something that a reader can really muse and reflect on, and I have no doubt that I will seek out further examinations of the art of being governed and muse on the subject myself.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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