The Memory of Shoes -- Reflections on Symbolic Action in Late Imperial China
This talk is about how local people in Late Imperial China “evaluated” their local officials, and sought to influence the officialdom through their symbolic acts of evaluation. In the past, acts of protest and rebellion have received a lot of scholarly attention. These actions were often expressions of local people’s disapproval of officials governing them. But in fact we have even more records of local people expressing their approval and gratitude towards their local officials. Such positive evaluations were generally expressed through symbolic actions such as the retention of a departing official’s shoes, the presentation of “umbrellas of myriad names” and “robes of myriad names,” etc. When these symbolic acts occurred at the end of an official’s tour of duty, they became a kind of counterpart to the formal evaluation the official would receive from his bureaucratic superiors. Interestingly, this kind of symbolic act survived beyond the Qing dynasty, until at least the 1930s.