The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han - Mark Edward Lewis The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is a readable overview of the histories and culture of the first two dynasties of imperial China, a period lasting from 221 BC to AD 220. It’s the first in a series of histories about China published by The Belknap Press of Harvard. If they maintain the quality evidenced in this book, I’ll be interested in seeing subsequent volumes. However, one of the drawbacks in any work of this sort is that the reader flies at a tremendous height over China’s landscape, only dipping down occasionally to take a look at an interesting feature of the geography, getting little in the way of a sustained argument for a particular interpretation. If a reader doesn’t have some background in Chinese history, they can easily get lost. That, I think, is my strongest criticism of Lewis’ effort – he may assume too much prior knowledge on the general reader’s part. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone other than a person who already has a good but not extensive background in the period and wants to know more without necessarily getting bogged down with academic focuses like “The Development of Han and Wei Yueh-fu as a High Literary Genre.” A fascinating article, I’m sure, but probably more information about that particular topic than the general reader wants to know. Which is why the bibliography and the notes are two of the more attractive features of the book – anyone interested in a specific topic has a good resource to find more specialized knowledge (I acquired four books for my own To-Read shelf). To get a better handle on the general history of the period a reader might want to start with an edition of Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization or Wolfram Eberhard’s A History of China.

The book is divided into ten chapters that cover the usual suspects starting with “The Geography of Empire” and continuing through “A State Organized for War,” “The Paradoxes of Empire,” “Imperial Cities,” “Rural Society,” “The Outer World,” “Kinship,” “Religion,” “Literature” and “Law,” and a short concluding essay. One of the greatest pleasures in reading was that every chapter held heretofore unknown information and/or made me see China in a slightly different light, enhancing my understanding of the era.

Chapter one: Early China was divided along two axes – an east-west one (the floodplain of the Yellow River and the highlands west of the Hangu Pass) and a north-south one (the Yellow River and Yangzi River valleys, respectively). The eastern side of the axis (Guandong) represented the economic and cultural center of early Chinese life; the western half (Guanzhong) represented the military and political focus of the empire. In this period, the north-south divide was one of culture – the north was the home of civilization; the south was full of uncultured barbarians still, it’s later economic and demographic dominance awaited the Song dynasty. From its earliest days, the empire struggled to suppress local customs, laws and culture in its effort to create a unitary, universal kingdom. The superior man (the sage) was someone who knew the text-based, universal wisdom of Shang and Zhou; inferior was the man who only knew the wisdom of a particular region, which (at best) was the corrupted knowledge of the ancient sages.

Even before unification, Qin had been a highly regimented state devoted to maintaining the army and the agricultural base that supported it. These policies (reminiscent of Sparta’s in the West) were carried over into the empire and were a major cause in Qin’s overthrow. Yet Han also tried to maintain a base of small, independent farmers to man and feed their armies. Unfortunately, imperial policies didn’t always lead to imperial goals, and the Han were less and less successful in curbing the centrifugal developments that eroded imperial authority.

Another stereotypical feature of Confucian governance – its loathing of the merchant class – found early expression in imperial policy: Income from mercantile activity was taxed at twice the level of landed wealth. A strong incentive for the wealthy to convert as much of their wealth into land as possible; and an irresistible force pushing peasants into tenancy and turning the wealthy into landlords.

Chapter two picks up and amplifies the discussion of Qin’s political organization. Much of its success during the Warring States period was due to its subsummation of other priorities to waging war. Qin fielded armies better led, trained and supplied than any of her enemies could hope to muster (or were willing to). But this organization proved inadequate to governing a unified state and, as we saw in Chapter one, led to the first dynasty’s collapse not even a generation from its founding. The most interesting section of this chapter is Lewis’ discussion of strong evidence for a growing, powerful regionalism that the Qin and Han ruthless suppressed. He suggests that, absent the Qin, Chinese unification was not a foregone conclusion. In an alternate universe, a China as politically and culturally diverse as Europe is not farfetched.

Chapter three charts three trends that led to a political unification that has shown surprising resilience for the last two millennia. The first is the professionalization of the armies. A process that every major state undergoes when its peasant levies or citizen militias prove inadequate to the demands of the state. The second factor was the enforcement of a common imperial culture as the government assumed control over the patronage of art and literature. Local variations continued, of course, but their legitimacy went unrecognized, and any ambitious man was perforce obligated to master what the capital prescribed to secure any position. The third factor in unification was the growth of an elite commited to imperial service, which owed its position and wealth to local networks of family and allies (an uneasy compromise between the interests of court and gentry).

In “Imperial Cities,” I was struck by the dual nature of most Chinese cities: There were two quite distinct districts. One was devoted entirely to the government; the other was devoted to residents and the economic pursuits of the city. Lewis argues that this was the physical expression of the deep divide existing between the state and the urban elements that threatened its power: mercantile wealth; gangsters and “wandering swordsmen”; and the grey market of esoteric teachers, beggars and prostitutes.

Chapter five is an unfortunately (but unavoidably) cursory overview of rural China. As with all premodern civilizations, the overwhelming majority of Chinese were farmers, and imperial policy was explicitly formulated (at least in theory) to support them. It discouraged trade, inhibited landlordism and protected the small farmer. In theory. As mentioned above, the state constantly struggled to curb the growth of large estates full of tenants not paying their taxes.

One of the more interesting sections here was Lewis’ discussion of the elite’s ethos – namely, the strong ethic to redistribute wealth. To accumulate too much was to invite immorality – “wealth was of value only when circulated” (p. 123).

Chapter six takes a look at the early empire’s relations with its neighbors, primarily the nomads to the north and west. For most of the time, these were represented by probably the first of the great nomadic “empires” that periodically arise in the steppe – the Xiongnu. It’s interesting to note that the Chinese emperors (huangdi) acknowledged the equivalency of the Xiongnu leader (chanyu), which departed from later dynasties that made all rulers subordinate to the suzerainty of the emperor. Ultimately this policy failed: The Xiongnu were broken in the late second century AD, no similar nomad empire took its place, and the Chinese were never able to understand the nomads as anything other than a mirror image of the imperial court. A cultural blindness that made it difficult to respond effectively to nomad threats. It didn’t help, either, that the Eastern Han (post AD 25) tended to neglect the western provinces and the army.

“Kinship,” Chapter seven, is a fascinating essay. Lewis highlights the competing visions of the family. On the one hand you have “lineages,” tracing descent from father to son across generations. Competing with this vision is the “household,” defined by the nuclear family and the relationships between husband/wife and parent/child. Also under the Han, children first became the topic of literary reflection. Adumbrating the “Baby Einstein” craze of a few years ago, Chinese philosophers stressed the importance of the prenatal environment in the child’s destiny. What the mother saw, ate, heard, said and did were critical to producing a “good” child. Or – to be avoided – Damien from “The Omen.”

Chapter eight introduces us to early imperial religious practice. There were four primary intersections between the secular and spiritual. The first was at the sacrificial shrine or altar. The second was contact with spirits, usually mediated by a shaman. The third consisted of geographical foci – mountains, lakes, streams, etc., or the extreme ends of the earth (the Taoist Immortals were rumored to live on floating islands to the east, for example). The final contact with the supernatural was via divination, which didn’t predict specific events so much as illuminated general trends and possibilities. Religion, as a whole, is characterized by a lack of systematized mythology or creation myths, and focused on maintaining a proper order betwixt the quick and the dead, heaven and earth. The afterlife is of a nature with this one; so much so that it’s just as prone to bureaucratic inefficiency as the earthly empire. (For the interested, Gore Vidal’s] novel [b:Creation is the marvelous account of Zoroaster’s grandson’s adventures as the Persian ambassador to the kingdoms of China and India where some of these differences between eastern and western spirituality are explored in a setting that doesn’t demand knowledge of or even great interest in Chinese history.)

Passing quickly to the final two chapters: “Literature” discusses what the Chinese (the elite, at any rate) were reading. In its efforts to control thought, the empire quickly established several classes of “legitimate” writings: The canons (jing) (which included belles lettres) and their commentaries (zhuan or shuo), which were universal principles and explanations that showed how to apply them. Of somewhat lesser stature were the encyclopedias, which endeavored to gather together the sum of all knowledge. The last class of literature is the history, which aimed to give expression to the “project of empire” (p. 214). As with every aspect of imperial culture, authors such as Sima Qian were remarkably focused on upholding and justifying the idea of a unified empire under a universal monarch governing with universal principles. The very idea of intellectual disunity reflected decay and social disorder. An attitude which strongly mitigated intellectual curiosity or dissent.

“Law” proved to be another fascinating chapter. There’s a surprisingly modern “feel” to the rules for investigating crime scenes. The investigator is supposed to carefully inspect the physical evidence; closely question witnesses and suspects; and extract a confession from the guilty. Punishments were usually corporal, usually brutal, often fatal, though there was in increasing tendency for many to be condemned to serving as laborers or in the armies.

The concluding essay wraps things up nicely. Lewis argues here that the fundamental reason for Eastern Han’s collapse was that its court lost touch with its subjects and, more importantly, lost its monopoly on violence, i.e., it lost control of its armies, which became the personal militias of landlords and generals. A phenomenon all too common in both modern and premodern states.