The Sensational Empire

Valerie Hanson The Open Empire. Norton 2000.

The present reviewer saw Chapter 2 of this work in draft, as is mentioned by the author on page xiii. Not to violate the privacy of comments then made (though I wish in passing to dissociate myself from the author's habit of referring to Jin Wvn-gung as "Double Ears"), here is a separate reaction, on encountering Chapter 1 of the work as finally printed.

Valerie Hansen

The author notes her struggles to distance herself from scholarly writing in this book, which is based on lectures given to her History 315 course at Yale. Thus, "my editor Steve Forman taught me to abandon the conventions of monograph writing so that I could produce something more enjoyable to read (xiii-xiv)." And again, "my husband Jim Stepanek's profound skepticism about academic writing goaded me to write a book that would appeal to all readers" (xiv). At the same time, the author is billed by her publisher as a Professor of History at Yale, and her readers will undoubtedly expect that, in however readable a form, they are getting fact rather than fiction. She makes much play with new evidence, including archaeological evidence (p6-7), and though she has used other people's translations, she claims to have checked the originals in all cases (p415). An impression of scholarly accountability is created. Is it warranted?


I take first the example of the Shang/Jou transition. Here is the author's text:

Some one thousand years after the end of the Shang, the historian Sima Qian used a series of exaggerated stereotypes to depict the extreme excesses of the last Shang king in his Records of the Grand Historian. Most modern analysts see Sima Qian's account as a legend and not an accurate historical account.

So far so good (Szma Chyen did not write the Shr Ji, but this fact is not yet widely known), and the reader will be expecting to have these stereotypes replaced by something firmer. The reader is in for a surprise. We read on:

According to Sima Qian, the last Shang king liked the company of women, drank too much, enjoyed "depraved songs" with erotic lyrics, and hosted orgies. At the same time he raised taxes while generally neglecting matters of state. When some of his subjects objected, he invented a new way of punishing them, by roasting them on a rack. He turned some of his critics into mincemeat, others into dried meat strips. He appointed evil officials, and his good officials drifted away from his palace to serve the Zhou.

That is, the author proceeds to relate the Shr Ji atrocity stories as though they were in fact an account - perhaps a slightly exaggerated account, but still an account - of the last Shang ruler.

What the author might usefully have said, at this point, is that this horror tale is an instance of the standard Bad Last Ruler topos, a topos worked to death in the Confucian historical literature. Most of the crimes of which the Shang king is accused are stock items from that topos. The point of the Shr Ji tale is the accusation that the Shang King did not listen to his advisors. Since the writers of the Shr Ji are themselves professional advisors to government, the not so hidden moral of this sentence is, "The Shang King came to grief because he did not take the advice of people like us." The analysis is thus self-interested, and its claim to be received as a factual account, miraculously handed down from high antiquity by methods never specified, is correspondingly weakened. The self-interested stance of the Shr Ji is typical of Chinese historical writing in general. Here was a wonderful opportunity for Hansen to share with her readers this important fact about Chinese historical writing. The opportunity is not seized. The author instead fills her pages with the standard atrocity stories. She protects her scholarly credibility by distancing herself from the Shr Ji tales, and then proceeds to grab the reader's attention by recounting those tales. This is simply meretricious.

But one dead swallow does not make a summer, and we read on:

When the Zhou king's advisors urged him to invade the Shang, he refused, saying, "You don't know the Mandate of Heaven yet." Then the last Shang king killed an official who dared to criticize him by cutting his chest open while he was alive, so that the king could examine his still beating heart for signs of virtue. When he heard this, the Zhou king launched his invasion and defeated the Shang troops, and the last Shang king plunged to his death in a fire. The Zhou king then impaled the head of the dead tyrant on a pole for all his vanquished subjects to see. (n14)

Ick. If this doesn't get a reaction from the teenaged and TV-jaded readership, nothing will. But even the most teenaged among the readership may conceivably feel some doubt about this lurid description, and they will turn to n14, far in the back of the book. There they will find there a reference to Nienhauser's Shr Ji translation (v1 p49-52), and K C Chang's Shang Civilization (p13-15). Those who actually track these books down will find that the former refers to a "slightly abridged version of the end of the chapter" in the latter. So we really have only one book here. The Nienhauser group themselves express no doubt about the reality of the scene in question. On the contrary, they point to such details as the discovery of a jade suit at Mawangdwei. Only at the very end of the passage cited by Hansen do they suggest that the writer of this Shr Ji chapter, by merely listing the Shu among his sources, has subtly indicated "his misgivings with these sources." They then defer to K C Chang, who (p3) "can still acknowledge this [Shr Ji) annal as the single most important traditional text pertaining to Shang." Which does not exactly say that it is true, though careless readers may get that impression. The Nienhauser team carefully conclude, "some of the detail in this chapter has been verified by these inscriptions." Leaving it open to suspect that, in time, all details in the chapter may be so confirmed, if the archaeologists keep digging.

They will not. These are stock legendary inventions; variations on a made-up theme. They are historical garbage.

What we see here, in Hansen and in Nienhauser, is an awareness of the doubtful quality of the sources, coupled with an unwillingness to abandon the violent and thus attractive details so skillfully purveyed by those sources. A revolution in our understanding of early China would here have been possible, by dropping the propaganda and substituting the facts. Neither Nienhauser nor Hansen takes that step.


Hansen goes on to suggest that the Mandate of Heaven concept, another staple of Confucian historical writing, might have had a political function:

. . . it fit neatly into the later scheme of the dynastic cycle, which was developing as Sima wrote his Records of the Grand Historian in the first century BC. It made historical events seem the outcome of divine will - even though divine will could be discerned only after the fact.

In this comment there lies the beginning of a suspicion about the emblematic rather than factual nature of all that precedes. Excellent. Hansen actually moves nearer to a critical view than the works she cites. This is surely to her credit.

Is it enough? Or do students of the rise and fall of states, sitting there in History 315, leave class with atrocity stories ringing in their ears, and no germ of critical interpretation festering in their minds?

For the student of the Chinese past, the issue might be posed this way: Given the dubious nature of the "Mandate of Heaven" theory, with its atrocity stories as the justification for a change of rulership, we need another way of explaining the replacement of Shang by Jou. What alternatives are there? For example, what was the economic situation of Jou versus Shang? What were the respective social structures? What was the state of the desiccation of Inner Asia in their time, and was Shang or Jou more affected by it? Were there trade routes, and who controlled them? Were there resource zones, and who was better poised to exploit them? Had new tastes or technologies recently redrawn the resource map? Did one side have military advantages over the other? It would require independence of temper, and some knowledge of how the world works, to raise these questions, let alone begin to answer them. There is so little of this sort of thing in Hansen's book that we can only assume that such matters are not routinely taken up in History 315.

Which is surely a pity. Here was a golden opportunity to get serious about something important; a chance to understand how the world really works. Nothing is made of it, and historical understanding loses yet another round to sensationalism.

Harkness Tower, Yale University

Our future leaders (and it would be strange if some of them were not sitting right there in History 315), and their future followers, need to understand the world. Not effortfully, but habitually. They need to be accustomed to reality, including its deceptive side. They need not to get suckered out by every sob story. They need to get on terms with historical understanding, and with the critical spirit that historical understanding requires. They need a view of the past that can operate as a guide to the present; a past that is peopled by something more than cardboard ogres and sugar sages. At what point in the Yale curriculum are the beginnings of this understanding made available? If not in History 315, where? If not in college, when?

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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21 Oct 2012 / Contact The Project