Global Asia Journal


Hon-Fai Chen


Occasional Paper No 10

Document Type



The institutional platforms that supported activist intellectuals seeking to inaugurate political and cultural modernity through the formation of study societies (xuehui) proliferated throughout the late Qing China (ca. 1895-1911). While existing studies either subsume this distinctive phenomenon under the political programs of reform and revolutionary movements or conceive it as a kind of the prototypical formation of civil society and the public sphere in late Qing China, they seldom question the meanings and functions of ‘civilization,” “society” and “civility” as the constitutive and highly contested notions underlying the cultural and political practices of these study societies. This paper argues that the symbolic and practical aspects of this phenomenon can be better understood as a sociological process of state formation. By generalizing Norbert Elias’ analysis of the relationship between power figuration and affective self-constraint inEurope’s transition from an absolutist “court society” to an imperialist “world society,” this paper explains why and how these study societies arose as a civilizing movement within the context of Chinese social and cultural politics of the late nineteenth century.