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  • Wenkai He, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
November 2023
Print publication year:
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Book description

How were state formation and early modern politics shaped by the state's proclaimed obligation to domestic welfare? Drawing on a wide range of historical scholarship and primary sources, this book demonstrates that a public interest-based discourse of state legitimation was common to early modern England, Japan, and China. This normative platform served as a shared basis on which state and society could negotiate and collaborate over how to attain good governance through providing public goods such as famine relief and infrastructural facilities. The terms of state legitimacy opened a limited yet significant political space for the ruled. Through petitioning and protests, subordinates could demand that the state fulfil its publicly proclaimed duty and redress welfare grievances. Conflicts among diverse dimensions of public interest mobilized cross-regional and cross-sectoral collective petitions; justified by the same norms of state legitimacy, these petitions called for fundamental political reforms and transformed the nature of politics.


‘In this deeply researched work, Wenkai He makes a major contribution to our understanding of state formation. Breaking new ground with a sweeping comparison of early modern England, Japan, and China, he shows how central the provision of public goods was to the process whereby states secured legitimacy, as well as to pre-democratic forms of political participation. This book will be of interest to scholars of contemporary state-society relations, as well as everyone interested in state formation.’

Peter A. Hall - Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies, Harvard University

‘Sometimes the story of the state begins with welfare and legitimation, not warfare and taxation. Wenkai He’s masterful and creative comparative-historical analysis of early modern China, England, and Japan demonstrates that fruitful state-society collaborations originated with the state’s professed duty to provide public goods rather than contractual exchanges of taxes for individual rights.’

Dan Slater - James Orin Murfin Professor of Political Science, and Director, Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies (WCED), University of Michigan

‘This elegantly written book explores a neglected aspect of state building before the advent of mass democracy: how states and their subjects negotiate and co-operate in the provision of public goods, thus expanding the state’s reach and imprint. Rather than through war or the guaranteeing of property rights to maximize tax revenues, Wenkai He shows that the state in early modern England, Tokugawa Japan, and Qing China enlarged its power and legitimacy by safeguarding the public interest of society.’

Andreas Wimmer - Lieber Professor of Sociology and Political Philosophy, Columbia University

‘This is an important book. Recent comparisons of state building have focused on its most easily measured dimensions: taxation, the mobilization of armies, and, to a much lesser extent, the provision of infrastructure and other important services. Wenkai picks up where this literature leaves off, asking important questions about ideology and state legitimation, and moving our discussion of political participation and representation beyond a simple yes/no binary to a much more nuanced exploration of how the interactions of local elites and their governments changed over the course of the early modern period in England, Japan, and China. His impressive combination of large-scale synthesis and original primary source research should appeal to scholars and students across the social sciences and humanities; one hopes it will be widely imitated.’

Kenneth Pomeranz - University Professor of Modern Chinese History and the College, University of Chicago

‘Wenkai He draws on his wide reading in Chinese, Japanese, and English historical literatures to engage with social science debates about early modern state formation, as both a common and a pluriform process. Redirecting attention from war and coercion to infrastructural and welfare provision, he looks set to ignite exciting interdisciplinary conversations.’

Joanna Innes - Emeritus Professor of Modern History, Oxford University, and Senior Research Fellow, Somerville College

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