Commerce and Corruption at the Frontier: The Gansu Fraud Scandal (1781)
Dr. Elif Akcetin, Postdoctoral Associate, Council on East Asian Studies
The Gansu corruption case of 1781 has taken an important place in memory production in China since the 1990s. The case has not only produced a plethora of articles by historians and the publication of relevant primary sources by the First Historical Archives in Beijing, but has also been remembered in a historical drama, the “Qianlong dynasty” (Qianlong wangchao), shown on Chinese primetime television in 2003. The memory of the Gansu case is also perpetuated in local history, and more particularly, among Chinese Muslim scholars. Hence, trapped between the ongoing process of memory works and the traditional role of interpreting historical knowledge, the historian’s job seems to have become even more challenging. All these acts of remembrance notwithstanding, what was the Gansu case really all about? Was it a clean-up operation, where the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-1796) used the case as a mere excuse to purge the frontier of its long-established and experienced officials? Or were these officials really greedy and corrupt so much so that they caused the local Muslim populace to rebel? Did the scandal represent Qing decline in the late eighteenth century? Or was it the product of rapid commercialization at the frontier? What legacy did the case bequeath to the next generation of policy makers and statecraft thinkers of the nineteenth century? This paper will look for answers to these questions.