How did citizenship historically develop in China?

As Future Citizen Institute continues to analyse contemporary citizenship practices and identify trends that could lead to a form of “global” or “future” citizenship, it is good to occasionally look at the historical development of citizenship in order to put our findings in a long-term perspective. It is particularly instructive to study current academic efforts to develop a “global historiography of citizenship”, as these analyses cover different regions and traditions.



As FCI explained before, Europe has a long citizenship tradition, first in cities and later (after the French revolution of 1789) in the form of national citizenship. Asian cities, by contrast, did not have urban privileges and consequently never developed any formal citizenship. In order to make a comparison with Europe, researchers have therefore focused on analysing citizenship practices rather than formal citizenship status, assuming that such practices would be scarce or non-existent in countries such as China because the emperors (whose different dynasties ruled from 220 BCE to 1911) were sometimes seen as premodern dictators who did not tolerate opposition under their oppressive regimes.


The editors to a special (open access) issue on Citizenship in Asian History explain why the new focus on practices rather than formal status represents a paradigm shift:

[W]e open up the concept of citizenship with the goal of seeing as citizens not only those who through the social contract were holders of rights, but anybody who acted like a citizen. Conventional citizenship studies have been mainly concerned with the rights of formal members. They have examined the social contract between state or rulers and citizens, and the associated norms, rights and obligations. The recently emerging field of “critical citizenship studies” considers the social contract the outcome of a political struggle. It has argued that shifting the focus towards the contestation itself – which includes contestation by outsiders – offers much greater explanatory power than did the concern with contract.

The new approach therefore prioritizes participation and action over legal rights. In his study Citizens without Nations, Maarten Prak uses a similar perspective and questions the assumption that citizenship was absent in imperial China. By deliberately opting for a more open definition of citizenship “as a set of political, economic, social and military practices”, he shows how in China such practices included large 17th century organised protests in Nanjing, Suzhou and Gaochun during which the inhabitants called for tax and infrastructure reforms. Prak concludes from these early urban civic organisations that “the absence of formal citizenship did not prevent [them from] participating in various kinds of practices that were central to citizenship in Europe”. Prak further explains that three distinct but overlapping forms of self-organisation were important in imperial China: the guilds, benevolent societies which provided poor relief and neighbourhood organisations who were responsible for public order. As these were “social associations not dominated by the state”, they could act as intermediaries between the government and its citizens and therefore led to a practical form of citizenship – at least in the sense that it established mutual claims and expectations between inhabitants and authorities. In fact, it was the weakness of the central government and therefore a “thin” state in China that in Prak’s view inevitably led to “substantial local autonomy, a robust civil society, significant levels of citizen organisation with active craft and merchant guilds”.


Prak’s findings are confirmed and elaborated by Hilde de Weerdt in a paper forming part of the abovementioned special. By drawing on two genres of administrative manuals, the mirror to princes genre (containing instructions to aspiring monarchs on how to act) and local governance manuals, de Weerdt demonstrates how these manuals stress time and again the importance of networking with local elites. With “classical Chinese canonical literature ha[ving] been restored to priority status in school curricula and in the media during the past decade”, she feels the legacy of such historical citizenship practices is especially relevant once again.


De Weerdt, essentially confirming Prak’s findings, explains how citizens were listened to in imperial times and how local negotiation was key to governance because state-penetration was not so deep or widespread in imperial times. While this as a minimum warrants the conclusion that the people were members in a shared polity, de Weerdt goes further by arguing that they were not merely subjects but also citizens, as shown by her examples relating to the importance of local organisations in the areas of famine relief, local infrastructure projects and religious spaces. This should lead us to question the common model, she submits, “that opposes expectations defined by official grace (in Chinese history) to claims made through state-elite negotiation (in European history)”. Or put differently:


“With the [Chinese] reciprocal nature of obligations and benefits in mind, we can question whether the binary opposition between negotiating citizens on the European side and Chinese subjects as passive and ineffectual recipients of official commitments best captures the different histories of European and Chinese state-society relations”.

De Weerdt therefore succinctly concludes: “I hope to have shown that, if in European history citizens have also been subjects, in Chinese history subjects have also acted as citizens. We have tended to overestimate the impact of rights and institutions in European history, bracketing real exclusion and the limited scope of action for many; and, we have tended to discount informal and formal channels of negotiation and effective action in the absence of those same rights and institutions in the Chinese case”.


Perhaps stretching the argument a bit too far, the history of citizenship in China thus resembles what we previously described as noncitizenship in that the absence of formal citizenship can still imply a relationship between individuals and a State consisting of strong mutual obligations and duties. The difference is that the status of noncitizenship is currently held by part of the migrant population, while in the past local inhabitants/subjects held this status in the absence of formal citizenship.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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