Gongwen regulations and state-making in Republican China

I recently published a short piece on gongwen 公文 (official documents) in Republican China (1912-1949), as part of a multi-volumes encyclopedia on non-Western historiographies edited by Nathalie Kouamé, Eric P. Meyer and Anne Viguier1. The first volume, published in 2020 by Presses de l’Inalco, focuses on sources, and contains 216 entries, mostly in French.2 Among them, Xavier Paulès, also a member of the ENP China team, has written two insightful entries: one on statistics during the “Nanking decade” (1927-37) and the other on wenshi ziliao 文史資料 (materials for history and culture). In addition to my entry on gongwen, I also published another text presenting Zhou Fohai’s wartime diary, a crucial source for my Biographical Dictionary of Occupied China project.


Gongwen were the main instruments of communication within the Chinese administration, but also between administrative agencies and the public. As such, they provide historians of China with a wealth of information not only regarding the late imperial period, but also the post-imperial era, despite the appearance of new sources such as the press.

The purpose of this post is not to present the content of these administrative documents, but to analyze their form, which, I argue, constitute an excellent case study to investigate state-making in post-imperial China.

While they are a good illustration of how some of the late imperial bureaucratic practices persisted over the 1900s watershed, gongwen nonetheless underwent important transformations over the different sets of regulations (gongwen chengshi 公文程式) enacted by the successive regimes established during the Republican era. Altogether, a dozen of regulations reforming official documents were adopted throughout the period, usually following a change of regime. These reforms mainly concerned the taxonomy (wenzhong 文種), the markers used to identify and classify gongwen – signature (shuming 署名), seal (gaiyin 蓋印), numbering (bianhao 編號) and dating (jishi 記時) –, as well as the layout (zhishi 紙式), and the language used (wenti 文體).

Illustration : https://catalog.digitalarchives.tw/item/00/0a/90/62.html

I distinguish between three major phases in the history of gongwen regulation during this period: an initial codification in the early months of 1912, which was modified by the Beijing governments (1912-1928); a significant, albeit not very effective, modernization effort by the Nationalist Government successively based in Canton, Nanking, Chongqing, Nanking again, and Taipei (1925-1949); and, finally, gongwen used by collaborationist regimes established in the wake of Japan’s invasion (Manchukuo, Wang Jingwei’s Reorganized Nationalist Government, etc.), which restored previous regulations and invented new ones according to their various ideological orientation (1932-1945).   

I make the case that these recurring changes in the way gongwen were presented reflect a little-known aspect of state-building in twentieth-century China. The general effort toward rationalization was hampered by the fact that each government used gongwen’s reforms as a means to impose its own authority against previous or competing regimes.

On the one hand, most of these regulations were designed to improve administrative efficiency by standardizing gongwen. This was particularly true under the Nationalist Government, which adopted four sets of regulations between 1927 and 1942. Among other things, these reforms tried to introduce new-style punctuation in order to make gongwen clearer. Besides improving administrative efficiency, clarity in governmental decisions was seen as an essential aspect of the overall modernization agenda pursued by the GMD: the sovereign people had to be able to read gongwen, which were published by each administration in their monthly gazetteer (gongbao 公報). To be sure, decisions were actually made by Nationalist leaders behind closed doors without popular consultation nor explanation. But the notion that the government decisions should, at least in theory, be made transparent and available to the governed majority constituted a major shift in the definition of sovereignty.      

In that regard, gongwen regulations were part of a larger reflection in China about the conception of a national language made accessible not only to educated elites but to the general population. While the New Culture Movement’s advocacy for vernacular Chinese (baihua 白話) is well-known, Western scholarship only recently started paying attention to less prominent aspects of this transformation3

On the other hand, however, this general trend toward modernization was slowed down, and often even thwarted by resistance among the administrative and political personel who refused to enforce the new regulations on gongwen. These obstacles often stemmed from bureaucratic corporatism, but also from political struggle between contending groups. Consequently, gongwen constitute excellent indicators that illuminate the state-building process at a micro level: synchronically, these resistances reveal discrepancies between agencies controlled by competing groups, while, diachronically, they show how new practices were gradually spreading within the administrative apparatus.    

At the same time, there were also circumstantial obstacles, such as paper shortage during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). This should remind us, if necessary, that historical documents are meaningful not merely in terms of their content but also in terms of their materiality (i.e., how they existed and were manipulated as material objects); an obvious fact that is less easy to grasp as scholars increasingly consult archives through digital or print copies.

            In sum, I contend that gongwen regulations and the difficulty to enforce them encapsulate the state-making process in twentieth-century China by highlighting both the effort to modernize statecraft and the contradictory process resulting from ideological and material obstacles. This process went on under the CCP-led state. Communists had promoted horizontalization of official documents as soon as the 1920s, before formalizing this practice in 1942. In the wake of their victory in 1949, they presented new reforms of gongwen as a symbol of their commitment to end feudal (fengjian 封建) statecraft, even though regulations enacted in 1951 and 1981 mostly continued those of the Republican era.

Cite this blog post
David Serfass (2020, November 3). Gongwen regulations and state-making in Republican China. Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/o8le

  1. David Serfass, “Les Gongwen (documents officiels) en Chine républicaine (1912-1949)” in Nathalie Kouamé ; Eric P. Meyer, and Anne Viguier, eds., Encyclopédie des historiographies. Afriques, Amériques, Asies, Vol. 1 Sources et genres historiques (Paris : Presses de l’Inalco, 2020 []
  2. The Encyclopaedia of Historiography: Africa, America, Asia is accessible for free in its entirety here. []
  3. see Thomas Mullaney, “Quote Unquote Language Reform: New-Style Punctuation and the Horizontalization of Chinese,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 29, no. 2 (2017): 206-250 []

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