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Sanctioned Violence in Early China.

"Early China," for the author of this book (a Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Cambridge University), extends approximately from 722 B.C. (first year of the Tso chuan history) to A.D. 220 (last year of the Han empire). Within these almost ten centuries, he focuses major attention on the first five, ending with the Ch'in unification of 221 B.C.

The other two paired words in the title, "sanctioned violence," indicate something of the book's scope. It is not simply a military history because, although it discusses warfare, it also discusses the several other kinds of violence that were socially and politically sanctioned in early China, tracing them in their shifts and intertwinings from the age of city-states to centralized empire. Included are ritualistic sacrifices and blood covenants; oaths and vendettas; the growing importance of the military commander vis-a-vis his troops and his ruler; military games, imperial hunts, and animal combats; myths concerning the origins of civilization; cosmological beliefs and ceremonies designed to fit the human world into the norms of nature.

With great lucidity and persuasiveness, Lewis describes the collegial body of aristocrats who ruled Spring and Autumn China, and who were closely linked to one another by ties of kinship, yet fought many small wars with one another for the sake of honor. From these he proceeds to their gradual replacement by a new kind of Warring States rulers: men who achieved personal cosmic potency by devising ritualistic ties with natural forces, who controlled their subjects by segmenting them horizontally and vertically into small social units, and who employed professional generals to wage large-scale warfare. His account ends with the emergence of a universal empire, administered by a complex bureaucracy and headed by a supreme autocrat. Each chapter is divided into five or six clearly labeled sections, the last of which always provides a convenient summary of those preceding.

The great achievement of this book is its weaving together of several kinds of ideas and behavior, not ordinarily thought of as being either "violent" or interrelated, into an integrated fabric providing a plausible rationale for the dynamics of early China. In carrying out this task, the author displays a remarkable command of the entire literature of his period, often citing four or five relevant text passages in order to support a single statement.

Rather remarkably, the publisher of the book has also published another during the same year on the same general subject. It is called Violence in China: Essays in Culture and Counter-culture, edited by Jonathan N. Lipman and Steven Harrell (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1990). The two books complement rather than overlap one another, and each is well worth reading. Lewis' book is highly integrated and interpretive, whereas the eight contributions to Violence in China are primarily descriptive rather than interpretive, and usually only slightly related to one another. Only one of them goes back before the late Ming or early Ch'ing, whereas no less than three deal with post-1949 China.

Even a good book can usually evoke criticism, and that of Lewis is no exception. My two criticisms are about technique and content. The technical criticism concerns the form (not the content) of the bibliographical citations in the notes. All Western scholars of China owe a tremendous debt to Legge, Couvreur, Chavannes, Dubs and other translators, and we often prefer, because of the resulting convenience, to cite the early texts according to the divisions and paginations worked out by these translators. Lewis, however, almost never mentions them. Instead, he regularly cites Chinese editions--usually modern ones--whose continuous pagination, combined with section divisions sometimes differing from those traditionally used, make identification enormously difficult for anyone not happening to have the editions he uses. He also endlessly repeats in every footnote the usually lengthy titles of the modern editions, instead of citing the texts by their originally shorter titles and relegating the longer modern titles to his bibliography.

Here, for example, is how he refers to a poem in the Shih ching: "Mao shi zhengyi, ch. 4.2, p. 10a." (Lewis uses pinyin romanization, while I follow Wade-Giles.) How much simpler and clearer it would be to write: "Shih no. 78," or "Shih no. 78, tr. Karlgren p. 53," or, if one insists on being a purist: "Shih no. 78; ch. 4.2, p. 10a." Again, in order to cite the Tso chuan, he follows the cumbersome formula: "Zuo zhuan zhu, Lord Xuan year 11, pp. 714-15." How much simpler to write: "Tso, Hsuan 11; tr. Couvreur, 1.607-9."

My criticism regarding content (perhaps it would be better to term it an uncertainty) centers on the question of whether or not the fabric of sanctioned violence in early China was really as seamless, all-enveloping, and historically significant as this book suggests. Several approaches to the problem seem possible:

1) Aside from a few remarks concerning the reliability of the Tso chuan for describing matters occurring considerably earlier than its own compilation, Lewis says virtually nothing about the chronology of his sources. Were he to use them in their strict chronological sequence, the picture of violence he portrays would probably be a good deal less encompassing and more disjointed than it now appears. His greatest chronological jump is to an illustration in the repertory of 1609, San-ts'ai t'u-hui (Assembled Illustrations of the Three Powers |Heaven, Earth, Man~), cited to suggest the kind of primitive clothing allegedly worn by the mythical sage Shen Nung (Divine Husbandman). We all know, of course, that most early Chinese texts cannot be dated with anything like precision. Nevertheless, I think it would have been desirable to have included a discussion of this problem in the introduction.

2) The focus of the book on sanctioned violence inevitably creates the impression that such violence was ubiquitous. For the sake of balance, it would have been well to stress that most of the philosophical schools of pre-imperial China--the Mohists, Confucians, some at least of the major Taoists, the Dialecticians, and others--were strongly opposed to warfare; that even the Legalists, who advocated large armies, never glorified war in the way it was often glorified in the West; and that this anti-militarist tradition (supported in later times by the Buddhists) remained strong throughout the imperial era.

3) I occasionally feel that the author over-forces his interpretations in order to make a point. An example is Hsun Tzu's famous metaphor of the boat and the water, which Lewis mentions but does not translate. As translated, the metaphor reads: "The lord is the boat; his subjects the water. It is the water that sustains the boat, and it is the water that capsizes the boat" (Hsun-tzu, ch. 9; tr. Knoblock, 2:97). Lewis asserts that this metaphor "reduced the people to the status of formless, insensate, potentially chaotic matter and granted design and purpose solely to the ruler." My own interpretation is quite the opposite. In this context, it seems to me, it is the water that is active, alive, and purposeful, and the boat that is passive, lifeless, and purposeless.

4) I am not convinced that the cosmological beliefs and ceremonies used by the Chinese to mediate the relationship between man and nature were always as strongly focused on violence as the author seems to think. For example, he describes the curious practice of "watching for the ethers" (wang ch'i |Chinese characters~). Then he remarks: "... the Han Chinese regarded this technique as an aspect of military affairs." However, the association of the twelve musical pitchpipes with weapons, asserted in the Shih chi passage that he then goes on to quote, has nothing to do with the use of these same pitchpipes to detect the monthly arrival of the yin and yang ethers when "watching for the ethers." Nowhere in the early accounts of this technique are warfare and violence mentioned.

5) A more direct correlation between human activities and the phases of nature is to be found in the Yueh ling (Monthly Ordinances) and other calendars of its type. These calendars relegate the carrying out of penal punishments and military activities to the autumn and winter months (these being seasons of decay and death), whereas constructive activities like planting and cultivating of course belong to spring and summer. As one reads the punitive prescriptions, one wonders to what extent they were actually carried out. In juridical procedure, their influence was in fact considerable: we know that in all probability during the Han, and quite certainly during several subsequent dynasties, the government carried out capital punishments only during the autumn and winter months. The influence upon military matters, however, is much less certain. As a check, I have examined the seasonal distribution of armed conflicts during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (140-87 B.C.), as recorded in the chapter on his reign in the Han shu (ch. 6; tr. Dubs, 2:27-120). The resulting tabulation indicates a total of 25 conflicts that occurred during 19 of the 54 years of that reign. (This count excludes attacks stated to have been made against the Chinese by outsiders, which presumably, therefore, the Chinese did not themselves initiate.) Of the 25 recorded conflicts, 10 occurred in spring, 6 in summer, 8 in autumn, 1 in winter, making a total of 16 in spring/summer and 9 in autumn/winter. This sharp nullification of the prescriptions in the calendars is scarcely surprising. After all, it is presumably usually easier to fight in warm weather than in cold.

6) Material factors--among them the transition from bronze to iron, improvements in irrigation techniques, the invention or introduction of the traction plow, adoption of horseback riding, and others--surely shaped early Chinese history quite as much as did institutions and ideas. Yet the book alludes to some of them only, and then only very briefly in its final paragraph. Again, for the sake of balance, I believe they should have been discussed more thoroughly, perhaps in the introduction.

These objections to particulars do not seriously lower the generally high level of scholarship, insight, and originality of the book. In it the author has succeeded in opening a new and meaningful approach to the historical development of early China, despite the warning in his penultimate sentence that "changes of such scale and duration are not to be squeezed into the pages of a single book."
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Author:Bodde, Derk
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:1721
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