Early China is interesting as a civilization only distantly and sporadically influenced by the West Asian world, or even by its neighbor India. The autocratic character of its political institutions is a useful corrective to the Western tendency to take the Greek acephalous states as not only classical, but normal. The relatively greater development of Chinese statecraft (supporting state power and other vertical relationships) over trade (which tends to enshrine lateral relationships) is also suggestive. Another example of differential development is that the Chinese version of indirect sovereignty and subsequent centralization probably finds its closest typological parallel not in the ancient world, but in the transition from mediaeval to Napoleonic France. Undoubted borrowings from distant cultures (the Mesopotamian war chariot complex in the 013th century, some scraps of Greek lore in the 04th) offer examples of the viability of imported cultural items, and their conditions of survival and extension. These and other openings for comparative history are deeply complicated by the fact that nearly all the early Chinese source texts are dubiously dated or attributed. The work of disentangling them is the focus of the Project's research program.
Politics. Sinology in Chinese vastly outweighs that in all other languages together. Most of it (and much of international Sinology) is affected by the Chinese government line, which seeks to vindicate rather than challenge the received traditions of the often mythical Chinese past. Sinology is a young field, and not securely situated in western academe (see the history pages of the Sinology section, at this site). It is often departmentally bunched not only with the study of Japan (in a manner analogous to the clumping of Greece and Rome), but also, at convenience, with anything else small: Semitic Languages, Russian, even German. Classical Sinologists are expected to be fluent in Modern Chinese, and to be capable of teaching the several thousand years of known Chinese history (sometimes along with that of Japan, and/or Korea, Vietnam, and India). The classical Chinese language is not even taught, as such, anywhere in the world, except as an advanced subject in a modern Chinese course sequence. The resulting subordination of the classical field to the modern field (which is reinforced by the strategic priorities of the major foundations), and the deference which all fields tend to show to orthodox Chinese opinion, are constants in Sinology. All this tends to blunt the concentration, and discourage the independence, of the classical China specialist.
China is not an old culture, and the area of present China was not at first ethnically homogeneous. It has credible traditions about the rulers of the Shang dynasty, and some sacrificial records on bone from the middle of that dynasty, roughly 01200 (when writing was first introduced, along with the chariot, the horse (which is known in Chinese by a name of Indo-European origin), and bronze technology). The Jou dynasty (from c01050), though much discussed in later political theory, is not well known from direct evidence. A relatively secure chronology for rulers, as the Shr Ji authors explicitly noted, begins only in 0841. It is after the fall of Jou (0771), in the "Spring and Autumn" (08c-06c) and the classical "Warring States" (05c-03c) periods, that things come textually into focus. The Empire proper begins in Chin (0221) and continues in Han (formally founded 0202), when contact is made with the Roman East.
- Sya Dynasty (essentially fabulous)
- Shang Dynasty (from c01500)
- c01200: importation of Mesopotamian culture complex based on the horse
- Jou Dynasty (from c01050)
- 0841: Beginning of relatively firm chronology
- 0771: Collapse and relocation of Jou; it is merely ceremonial hereafter
- Conventional beginning of the Spring and Autumn period
- 0721: Beginning of the Spring and Autumn chronicle of the state of Lu
- 0523: [Spurious later claims of law codes at this period]
- 0510: Early signs of the transition from palace state to bureaucracy
- 0483: Introduction of land tax in Lu weakens the former elite landed warriors
- 0479: Death of Confucius; conventional beginning of the Warring States period
- c0390: Earliest Mician writings; beginning of literate philosophical discourse
- 0360: First battle between new-style mass infantry armies
- c0360: First statecraft writings in Chi (Gwandz)
- c0360: First refashioning of ancient history to the needs of present times (Dzwo Jwan)
- 0342: Chi ruler usurps the Jou title of King
- 0320: Mencius leaves Lu; high point of classical philosophical debate
- 0313: Chi establishes Ji-sya patronage system for political science research
- 0249: Lu obliterated by Chu
- 0249: Jou remnant in central China obliterated by Chin
- 0221: Chin completes conquest of other Sinitic or quasi-Sinitic states; Empire begins
- 0202: Effective beginning of Han Empire
- 0140: Accession of Han Emperor Wu (Wu-di); favors official Confucianism
- 0000: Wang Mang usurpation and end of Han
- 0000: Restoration of Han; known as Eastern or Latter Han
History. The Loewe Cambridge History of Ancient China (1999) aspires to the role of a standard work. Despite some excellent pages, its authors are often credulous about the dates of the received texts and their value as historical sources. CHAC may help newcomers frame questions, but it is not the last word on the answers. The Shr Ji, a Han work aspiring to give a history of China down to its own times (in was written over the span from c0135 to c090), and vaguely comparable in its own culture to Herodotus in Greek culture, is partly translated by Chavannes (6v) and Watson, and there is an in-progress complete English version by Nienhauser et al (4v so far issued, of a planned 9v). The earliest history of China was the late 04c Dzwo Jwan, ostensibly a commentary on, but actually a reinterpretation of, the Chun/Chyou chronicle which covers the years 0721-0479. The DJ can be read for pleasure as a novel of battle and intrigue, or analyzed with great care for the retrojected 04c political theory which it attempts to impose on the earlier centuries. For the earlier centuries in their own right, the Chun/Chyou itself (Legge's translation is the only one presently available) is unique and invaluable.
Literature. The counterpart to OCD in its literary aspect is Nienhauser's Indiana Companion. It covers all of traditional Chinese literature, in dictionary format with some comprehensive essays. The parts dealing with the classical period are largely orthodox.
Facts. There is no dictionary-type reference work for early Chinese realia (no Pauly). Much basic information, of a substantive as well as bibliographic sort, is included in Cohen Introduction, though not in a form convenient for comparativists. For realia, the pre-Imperial portions of Needham's massive Science and Civilisation in China series are weakened by a credulous approach to texts and legendary traditions, exacerbated by a wish to prove China the innovator in all details which it shares with the rest of the ancient world. The Project is engaged in correcting these claims at many points; see for example Brooks Alexandrian.
Texts. Loewe's Early Chinese Texts (1993) gives a digest of late 20c international opinion about the date and authenticity of the text sources. See the review in Brooks Prospects, which defines the starting point for the Project's effort to reconsider these conclusions. The results of this effort are partly available in the on-line feature Classical Chinese Texts (2001-), which, or the eventual book form of which, is meant to supersede Loewe.
Atlas. The Herrmann Atlas (1936) still has its uses; the recent series Junggwo Lishr Ditu Ji (1975, 2ed 1991), edited by Tan Chi-syang, is superior only in some respects. The historical geography of China is still in its infancy, as the frequent question marks in Tan Chi-syang honorably indicate. For modern topography, the ONC and TTT charts are unsurpassed.
Journals. There is really no journal covering ancient Chinese history as such. The established journal which is chiefly concerned with early China is called, not surprisingly, Early China. Its focus is on texts and culture rather than history as such; within that focus, its basic position in neo-Antiquarian, but there is a range of views in the articles, and the surveys of scholarship (based on the annual summary in the Japanese journal Shigaku Zasshi) are capably done. It is affordable for individuals. The leading edge is represented by our own journal Warring States Papers, which is still incipient as of this writing. As a matter of policy, articles will be mostly brief, and will cover both philology and history. A few Greek and Indian topics relevant to early China, especially in philology, will also be routinely included. Contributions on comparative historical subjects are in principle welcome, and readers of this page are invited to contact us with their suggestions.
- Selected Topical Bibliography
A simple introduction to the Chinese writing system is available in the little book by Björkstén, and the first few lessons of a language guide are available at our Classical Chinese Primer, which attempts to make the subject as simple as it can be, and still be useful to scholars. Those consulting references or translations in English will find a use for our handlist of the conflicting Romanization systems currently in use. The basic bilingual desk dictionary is Mathews, which attempts to cover both ancient and modern usage. For the ancient vocabulary, see Schuessler. Both are arranged by [modern Mandarin] pronunciation; Schuessler also gives reconstructed pronunciations in a variant of the reconstruction system of Li Fang-gwei. Baxter Handbook is a reconstruction of the phonology of all words which rhyme in the Classic of Poetry. For classical grammar, the basic reference, not correct at all points, is Pulleyblank Outline. Not to be overlooked is the on-line dictionary of Thomas Chin; it provides dialect pronunciations and is accessible by English translation tag.
There is no equivalent of the Loeb bilingual series, though discussions about creating one have been underway for more than a decade. Some of the translations of Legge provide a parallel character text (the Analects and Mencius volumes are available in PB reprints from Dover; the entire set of Legge's "Classics" translations is occasionally reprinted in Taiwan or Hong Kong; texts include the Shr, Shu, and the Spring and Autumn (Chun/Chyou) chronicle plus the wildly imaginative but enjoyable commentary, the Dzwo Jwan. All the Legge translations are accompanied by a vocabulary of words and meanings found in those texts. For those who have acquired some ability to handle characters, the Hong Kong concordance series gives word-by-word access to most of the received texts of the Warring States, as well as some major texts from Han and later. Existing translations in all languages tend to reflect standard presumptions, which are historically dubious at many points. An honorable first attempt to deal with a heterogeneous text as heterogeneous is Rickett's treatment of the Gwandz. Translations reflecting the chronological findings of the Project have begun to appear: The Original Analects (1998) will be followed by further volumes on major texts, plus a general survey of the thought of the period. See details under Publications.
- Ancient Song Collections (see in Davidica)
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