The Sudden Empire

Chun-shu Chang. The Rise of the Chinese Empire: (v1) Nation, State, and Imperialism in Early China, ca 1600 BC - AD 8, $90; (v2) Frontier, Immigration, and Empire in Han China, 130 BC - AD 157, $85. Michigan 2007

The relocation of footnotes the end of the text, where they create maximum inconvenience for scholarly readers, would normally render this work ineligible for scholarly consideration. This review, however, deals not with what is IN the book, but with what, despite persistent publisher hype, is NOT in the book.

Rise of the Chinese Empire

The gradual rise of the Chinese Empire out of a multi-state system, itself the acephalous residue of a previous indirect-sovereignty system, is one of the great sagas of world history. Among such sagas, it is the one which is least known to comparative historians and political scientists. A book which promises to take full measure of that event, going back to the beginnings of the indirect sovereign power Jou and carrying the story through puissant but abortive Chin and all the way past the interim fall of Han under Wang Mang in its first volume, and to its final dissolution into the Three Kingdoms in its second, is thus a major event, one which fully justifies the full-color, full-page ad for these two volumes on the back cover of the New York Times Review of Books for 3 June 2007. Students of the earlier part of this range in particular, only temporarily daunted by the HB list price of (gulp!) $90, and too eager for enlightenment to wait for the not impossible PB version, will be lining up with their credit cards to get a look at what one of Chang's Michigan colleagues calls "an extraordinary survey . . ."

Easy to overlook is the qualifying phrase ". . . of early Imperial China." Or if one does take note of it, and goes to the University of Michigan Press web page for a presumably authoritative clarification, one feels reassured by the Press's description of the work as "A comprehensive reconstruction of ancient and early Imperial Chinese history based on literary and archaeological texts, and over 60,000 Han-time documents on bamboo, wood, and silk."

The First Emperor

So one after all proceeds, and in due course the book arrives at the front door. It turns out that, so far from being protracted, the rise of the Chinese Empire, as Chang sees it, is startlingly sudden. His Chapter 1 begins with Han Wu-di. What then of the Press's promise that the book, when opened, will contain "insights into the life and character of critical historical figures such as the First Emperor (221- 210 B.C.) of the Ch'in and Wu-ti (141- 87 BC) of the Han? What dreadful thing has happened to the First Emperor, on his way from Ann Arbor to oneself? We seek the back of the book for light on this matter, and the index at "Ch'in Shih huang-ti (Ying Cheng), life and legacy," points us to pages 42-44 and 60-64. These are located within a pre-chapter called "Prologue: From Tribes to Empire," occupying pages 9-64 of the book. Those pages not only supply the promised material on the First Emperor, they contain everything that would justify giving Chang's 459-page book a wider title than "A Study of the Han Frontier System."

Such indeed had been the subtitle of Chang's 1963 Harvard dissertation (the last two of the five persons to whom the present book is dedicated are "Professors Lien-sheng Yang and John K Fairbank of Harvard University"), out of which the present work has been expanded over the intervening 44 years. It is on frontier matters that most of those 60,000 Han documents bear. It is very likely that after reading 60,000 documents from the Han frontier area, the author knows something about the Han frontier system, and that his expanded work is valuable for the Han Dynasty in general. That is not the present question. The present question is whether the book is valuable for the period preceding the reign of Emperor Wu.

In the "Prologue," to put it briefly, Chang repeats almost every mistake in the books that were available to him in the Sixties. He accepts without question the Spring and Autumn state reforms retrospectively, but mythologically, attributed to Gwan Jung. He treats the Mencius as an authority, rather than as a wish list, for the political realities of the Warring States period. He also adds a few eyebrow-raising errors which may be his very own, such as the Confucian character of the First Emperor's social and moral philosophy,

which, unlike his political philosophy - strict Legalism - was basically Confucian, contrary to long-established assumption.

Perhaps the "long-established assumption" may have the better of it. How shall one decide? There is no note supporting Chang's statement at the point where it is made, but if we dig around long enough at the back of the book, we find this sentence toward the end of n107:

My presentation of Ying Cheng's Confucian thought is based on stone inscriptions he had made during his five major inspection tours.

Aha, the stone inscriptions. It would seem that at no point in Chang's studies had he been told, and that at no point in his subsequent professional career had it spontaneously occurred to him, that the public propaganda of a ruler may differ from the principles which actually guide that ruler. Again, we read on p64 that in the governmental theory of the First Emperor

an enlightened ruler should always improve himself by studying the ancient classics (ching).

No doubt that can be reconciled with the Emperor's well-known ban on public knowledge and possession of those same classics, but what is the direct evidence for Chin Shr-hwang as an avid Confucian student? No amount of scrounging on that page, no rummaging in the back of the book, sheds light on this mystery. We do learn, en passant, that Chang has written a book of his very own on the First Emperor. The present reviewer has not rushed to acquire it. Once bilked, twice shy.


Not surprisingly, for one with a 1960's thesis mindset, Chang's notion of the pre-Imperial centuries is heavily controlled by acceptance of the Dzwo Jwan, a work of the 04th century, as a verbatim account of the centuries following the fall of Jou as an overlord power (the classic statement of that position, which retrojects every major feature of the social transformations of the Warring States period into the preceding Spring and Autumn period, is Cho-yun Hsu, Ancient China in Transition, Stanford 1965). As to Jou itself, besides the late works Dzwo Jwan and Shr Ji, each of which has its own ideological axe to grind, Chang on p328 defends the accuracy of the fantastical Jou Gwan (also called Jou Li). Creel in 1970, surveying previous scholarship, concluded that "preponderant opinion" assigns that work not to Jou but to the Warring States, many centuries after the situation it purports to describe, and that "the governing system, so highly organized and elaborately set forth in that work, . . . does not correspond with the facts of Western Chou government as we know them - as has often been pointed out." The Jou Gwan, to be sure, is a recognized "classic," and it was still authoritative in certain backward corners in the Sixties. It seems to have been Chang's ill fortune that his intellectual lot happened to be cast in one of those backward corners. And he has determinedly kept it there; he notes at p361, a propos the scholarship on Confucius and company, that "Modern texts composed of annotations and translations (Chinese or non-Chinese) have generally not been referenced." Critical scholarship has been largely stifled in China since 1937. By dismissing such sprouts of it as have emerged in the rest of the world since then, Chang slams the door on himself.

And there is more. Chang has his own theory of the proper way to handle texts. It is articulated on pages 328-329. One key principle is that other Shang records than the "oracle bones" should be assumed to exist, from which it follows that the extant, and very numerous, oracle bones "should not be used as negative evidence." The void is thus free to be filled in with whatever material is on offer. As for that material, a complementary principle is invoked:

"Second, the literary texts written after the Shang up to the Han period should be considered reliable sources until proved otherwise if parts of those texts have been proved authentic by archaeological discoveries, oracle records, bronze inscriptions, or other earlier sources."

In other words, any authentic or seemingly authentic detail validates a later work in toto. A forger has to get every single detail wrong, and demonstrably wrong at that, for Chang to begin to question the authenticity of his handiwork. The result of this principle is to allow everything challenged by the critical scholarship of a thousand years back into the canon, and back onto the worktable. Chang's view of antiquity is fatally compromised by this promiscuous amnesty of the sources.

Confucius and Confucianism

As for Confucius, he is not even mentioned in the "Prologue." He first comes up, as far as Chang's Index is concerned, in connection with the Confucians to whom Han Wu-di accorded some measure of preference in the early years of his reign. Here is Chang's statement on that subject from p97:

First, we will examine the Confucians. With its long intellectual tradition going back to the late Shang and the Western Chou, Confucianism had its first intellectual framework of statecraft formulated by Confucius (K'ung fu-tzu, K'ung tzu, K'ung Ch'iu, 551-479 BC) and then was revised by Mencius (Meng Tzu, Meng fu-tzu; Meng K'o, ca 372-289 BC) and Hsun Tzu (Hsun Ch'ing, Sun Ch'ing, or Hsun K'uang, ca 313-235 BC). Confucius placed the raison d'être of government, whatever its origin and form, at establishing and maintaining a well-structured political and social order for a state. This order was achieved through a hierarchy of blood and nonblood relationships, which defined the obligations and responsibilities as well as the rights and privileges of members in the loop of this hierarchy of relationships. For a practical understanding of this theory, one can look at the hierarchical structure of the series of father and son, parents and children, elders and juniors in kin and blood relations, and the series of ruler-subjects, ruler-ministers, husband and wife, and teacher-students in nonblood relationships. . .

The "father be a father" line occurs in Analects 12. It is a reflection of 04th century Chi Legalist theory; exactly the same line occurs in Legalist text Gwandz, whose earliest portions are from the 04th century. All of Analects 12, and the following chapter, Analects 13, show intimate contact with the early Gwandz. Confucius at that time was long dead. The Analects/Gwandz contact may have been brokered by Mencius, who at this time (the 0330's) was still associated with the Analects school in Lu. At any rate, on Mencius's departure in 0320 for a career of his own in advising the rulers of the big states, he took with him a social philosophy which is indistinguishable from that hinted at, though not systematically developed, in Analects 12-13. Chang is thus referring, insofar as he is referring to anything in particular, to the Mencian remake of Confucian ideology. We may quote Chang again:

The instrument for actualizing the purposes and ambitions of this hierarchy was, as articulated by Confucius, cheng-ming, or "ratification of names" (or labels)," the measures employed to achieve the proper correspondence between name (appellation) and reality (content). . .

One more proofreading might have changed "ratification" back to the conventional and probably intended "rectification," but everyone familiar with the period will know what Chang means. He means Analects 13:3, where a perplexed Dz-lu is berated by an anachronistic "Confucius" for not realizing that the standardization of names is the soul of successful government. That passage was recognized by Waley on stylistic and substantive grounds in 1938 as a manifest interpolation; an opinion confirmed on formal grounds by myself in 1998 (Chang's references include both Chinese and Western works as late as 2001). Analects 13:3 is thus not an "articulation" of Confucius, sometime before 0479. It is a concession to Sywndz, made shortly after 0254, when Sywndz was put in charge of the land just south of Lu, land which in that year had been conquered by Chu. The equally threatened late Mencius schools made similar gestures of compliance with the theories favored by their new dictator. (Not that this got them anywhere: Chu in 0249 proceeded to add Lu proper to its conquest area, Sywndz's governorship followed the Chu armies into the Lu capital, and both the Analects and the Mencian schools, to mention no other advocacy positions which had the ill luck to have been headquartered in that unsafe region, simply ceased to exist). The passage here relied on by Chang, then, is not a saying of Confucius, but the defensively motivated adoption of a theory of Sywndz. Chang's whole description of Confucian society as inherently stratified is indeed thoroughly Sywndzian in tone; it is precisely this point that Sywndz himself vehemently emphasizes, as a point of contrast between his and other systems of thought, including other varieties of Confucian thought. And it was in its Sywndzian adaptation, its most nearly Legalistic form, that "Confucianism," changed beyond anything that the historical Confucius would have recognized or approved, came in the early years of the thoroughly Legalist emperor Han Wu-di to be decreed as the required educational background of certain Han officials. Just as the First Emperor's stone propaganda had defined the public face of Chin, in an increasingly totalitarian state, so did authoritarian Han put on itself a benevolent Confucian face..

Cultural Continuity

Chang's notion is that the Jou Dynasty, and Confucius, and Mencius, and the First Emperor, and Han Wu-di, and everyone else over more than a thousand years, held essentially the same theories of government, theories which in some meaningful sense were Confucian in character, and which at length were fully realized and implemented under the Han. That notion will not survive a moment's reflection, or two moments' inspection of the details on which it purports to rest.

Given the errors and inattentions, the lapses of acquaintance and stretches of innocence, which seem to characterize the brief space of Chang's "Prologue," it is perhaps after all not a source of regret or a cause of indignation that the "Prologue" was not longer. It may have been a mercy.

The Chinese convention of having an eminent person calligraph the title page of a new work has the difficulty, in a Western publishing context, that it is the calligrapher, not the author of the book, whose name and seal appear at the end of the calligraphed title. Chang has resolved this anomaly by calligraphing his own Chinese title page. He should have outsourced it. His calligraphy is abominable, and it is little ameliorated by having been executed with a pen rather than a brush. As for characters within the book's printed text, there are none. Characters for a few terms are given, quaintly, as though this were some struggling Orientological journal of an earlier age, in a Glossary at (you guessed it) the back of the book. And this in the year 2007, when any urchin of twelve can produce mixed alphabetic and character text of camera-ready quality on his laptop, without turning a hair - indeed, without turning down the volume in his earphones. Exactly what century do the author and his Press think they are living in?

Chang's two volumes, if considered only in their Han aspect, may well be a worthy contribution. A contribution to our knowledge of the Han Dynasty. Other reviewers, with proper Han credentials, will presumably speak to that point in due course. As for the preceding millennium and a half with which, despite strenuous representations to the contrary, the author and the Press have not in fact dealt, much is going on there. But an adequate account of those goings-on still seems to lurk below the horizon of Sinology at large.

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Back to Reviews Index

21 Oct 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page