Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine – An Interview with Maura Dykstra

Cover image of Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine, by Maura Dykstra

As the Qing dynasty wrested control over the Chinese empire from Ming rulers in the mid-1600s, officials in Beijing needed information. Administering a state both geographically large and bureaucratically deep, the central government relied on reports from below to ascertain events outside the capital city and assess the performance of officials who operated beyond its immediate reach. Quickly, however, the Qing state began to recognize the problems of relying on these reports from below: the empire only worked as well as the information it received. In response, the imperial court began developing more rules, deadlines, and reporting requirements; this, in turn, created more need to monitor and punish those who did not comply. The result? Paperwork. So, so, so much paperwork—a good portion of which is now held in archives in mainland China and Taiwan.

Historian Maura Dykstra has delved into that paperwork in writing her new book, Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine: The Administrative Revolution of the Eighteenth-Century Qing State (Harvard University Asia Center, 2022). Dykstra, who will take up a position at Yale University later this year after teaching at Caltech since 2015, examines the first century of Qing rule to understand how the dynasty’s archive developed. Officials at the top pored over reports from the provinces and fretted that they weren’t getting a complete picture of the situation, which led them to worry about the health of the empire. As Dykstra argues, “The more the Qing state learned about itself, the more uncertain it became.” It responded to that uncertainty by demanding ever-greater amounts of information from below.

Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine reveals how many small procedural changes amounted to a greater administrative shift in Qing China, resulting in concerns about the solidity of the state itself. Those piles of paperwork that might appear to be the standard product of any bureaucracy are, more significantly, a tangible manifestation of the anxiety Qing rulers felt about the security of their rule.

Over email, I interviewed Maura Dykstra about her work.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: You write at the outset of the book that Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine was originally intended to be an article, but then grew into a book project that you pursued rather than revising your dissertation. Can you talk about how that happened, and the factors you weighed in making the decision to put your previous work aside and focus on something entirely new?

Maura Dykstra: I remember feeling despondent upon the occasion of my first book workshop, when I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center. I had sent out the [dissertation-based] manuscript to several friends and admired colleagues, and although I felt that each one of them captured something really important about the dissertation, the big picture—what I wanted to say about the workings of the late imperial state—seemed to get lost for the trees. We concluded, as a group, that the dissertation was actually three separate books. So before I tackled the task of revising my dissertation into the first of these three separate monographs, I wanted to take just a few insights about the operation of the late imperial state that I felt were truly important prefatory points to my larger project and write them up in an article, since people seemed very confused by my assumptions and claims about the evolving character of late imperial administration. The deeper I got into that article, the more I was drawn into the subject. By the time I came up for air, the article had ballooned to over 90 pages. It had developed a momentum of its own.

By the end my first term at Caltech, I realized there was no way I could put it down. So I announced that my first book would be something completely different and the revision of the dissertation would have to wait. When my advisers and mentors told me that I couldn’t possibly do such a ridiculous thing, the deal was sealed. I didn’t choose this career to be bored with what I was reading and writing, so I went down the rabbit hole.

Friends and mentors still ask me, sometimes teasingly and sometimes with dismay, whether and when I’ll revise the dissertation. But this project, the next project, and the one following are all in conversation with the theory of the late imperial state that emerged from reading commercial disputes in the Ba County archives. I am still realizing, researching, and hammering out the implications of what I began exploring as a graduate student.

MEC: Your book looks at not only the contents of the archives Qing historians consult, but also at how those contents came to be. One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is how central government requests for information spiraled into ever-greater demands for documentation from below—leading to those stacks of paper in the archives. You term this “an administrative revolution,” but note that it was a gradual and subtle one. How did you see that revolution take shape in the archives? Or in other words, what prompted you to take a meta approach in thinking about the Qing archive?

MD: At first, as a legal historian working in a local archive, I went to Beijing merely trying to figure out what the central state knew about litigation at the county level, as I discuss in this blog post for the Journal of the History of Knowledge. But, after spending a very short period working in the First Historical Archives (FHA), I suddenly became able to place a document in time simply by looking at it, without even starting to read. Any scholar with time in the FHA can probably do this. And the patterns go below the surface level, to the structural and the formulaic as well. There is simply something different about a Qianlong-era document and its Guangxu-era counterpart.

Those moments—when I realize that, at some point, somewhere, a switch has been flipped and I don’t know where or why—those are the moments I live for, as a historian. I become fascinated with figuring out the story behind an obvious but unexplained change. I became curious about the documentary formalism that one sees emerging by the nineteenth century and why it mattered. What’s in a document? What lies below the phenomena discussed in our texts, or before them? How is the content, format, or subject of a document shaped by its purpose? How do we think we know what we claim to know, and what does that have to do with what the Qing was trying to learn, in an effort to grapple with the problems it understood? There were too many interesting questions. I couldn’t stop thinking about them in relation to one another.

MEC: As I read Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine, I kept mentally pairing it with The Magistrate’s Tael by Madeline Zelin for the ways that you both show how the 1722-1735 reign of the Yongzheng emperor served as a pivot point in the arc of the Qing dynasty. What was it about Yongzheng’s time on the throne—less than a decade and a half, in an era before phones and email!—that resulted in so many reforms? How did his reign then set the course for emperors who followed?

MD: One of the things I’m most excited about in the years to come is how people interact my work with Zelin’s work on the Yongzheng era. What her monograph beautifully established was the Yongzheng emperor’s role as a centralizing administrator. Where I think my project furthers the discussion is in focusing on what administrative centralization means in the case where central authorities rely on textual information to govern large and diverse spaces. I hope that, after my book, some of the earlier scholarship on autocracy in the Qing may be reconsidered in light of the distinction between centralizing processes and actually gaining power or control. This may help historians start to re-imagine the space between the two wildly-diverging narratives we have of the Qing: was it a dynasty of extreme control, or lack thereof? What if it was both? How would that help us refine the ways in which we ask questions about authority in the late imperial context?

MEC: Thinking more broadly in terms of time and/or place, how does this history of bureaucracy in Qing China add to our understanding of the administrative state and its growth? For someone interested in exploring this topic, what are some of the other works you recommend they read?

MD: I’m very curious to see how readers engage this question, as my work is in conversation with earlier monographs on comparative history such as Alexander Woodside’s Lost Modernities, R. Bin Wong’s China Transformed, Kenneth Pomeranz’s Great Divergence, Wong and Rosenthal’s Before and Beyond Divergence, as well as works on progress, development, and modernity from beyond East Asia and history, like Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Politics of the World-Economy and Robert A. Nisbet’s Social Change and History. What do theories of modernization—whether we confront them head-on or as they operate in the background of historical narratives—presume about what activities must be measured, or what institutions must develop, to establish whether and when a society or an institution becomes modern?

Working on my manuscript in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, I developed a compelling—almost obsessive—curiosity about the relationship between information, control, and crisis. This paired interestingly with some conversations I had in the summer of 2019 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, where I participated in a working group on the history of bureaucracy. We talked a lot about the relationship between the rationalization of bureaucratic processes and the interplay between complex realities and the “facts” processed by these organizations. In researching the Qing, I felt like James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which presumes that this tension fuels a push towards high modernity, could not quite describe the “information trap” that I was seeing in the case of the Qing. I guess, if I were to put it more simply, I’d say: the Qing teaches us that, although more information is almost always desired by rulers and administrators, it’s not as straightforward a commodity as historians and rulers tend to assume. Centralization does not necessarily entail control. Information does not necessarily result in better or more useful knowledge.

MEC: It seems like the Qing central government’s attempts to get more information from lower levels created a textbook example of formalism (xingshizhuyi), with local officials producing endless routine documents that failed to satisfy the recipients in Beijing. As you write toward the end of the book, “Emperors became skeptics; supervisors became scrutinizers; bureaucracy became the enemy of the empire.” Can you carry the story forward a bit and briefly share how the conflict between bureaucracy and empire played out over the remainder of the Qing, prior to its fall in 1911?

MD: I can’t! It’s the subject of the next book! But I can tell you: the story gets even wilder. In the upcoming monograph, I’ll be tracing how the connection between central imperial offices and the archives of the territorial yamen, after the administrative revolution, completely transforms case-making practices at the local level. The resulting story is one of intensive local state-building, culminating in the late nineteenth-century era of local self-governance. I hope to completely re-write the history leading up to the moment of institutional efflorescence in the late nineteenth century by re-centering it in earlier Qing practices (rather than the standard response-to-the-West model). Stay tuned!

MEC: Finally, what else has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

MD: One of my current fascinations is the moon jar form. I’ve been working in a ceramics studio for about three years now, and I’m finally starting to throw larger vessels. My house is slowly filling up with these ceramic orbs. Between studio sessions, I’m plugging away on a book that will continue the story from this first monograph into the nineteenth century and down to the local level, as well as polishing up a few articles in legal and economic history. And I’ve just started a working group based out of the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, which will take five years to discuss the evolution of a Chinese Legal Tradition. I also just hit a new personal record at a 100-lb bench press. There’s always something to keep me moving.

MEC: Congratulations on both the bench press and seeing Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine in print, and good luck as you move to Yale!