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Introduction ............................................................................................................................................................. 1 Derk Bodde and the Fundamental Principles of His Work ..................................................................................... 2 Derk Bodde on the Qin ....................................................................................................................................... 2 “To what extent is it reliable?” – Evaluating Bodde’s Source Sriticism............................................................. 2 Li Si’s Youth and Arrival at the Qin Court ......................................................................................................... 2 The Death of Qin Shihuang and Zhao Gao’s Plot............................................................................................... 3 The Forged Letter ............................................................................................................................................... 4 The Machinations of Zhao Gao .......................................................................................................................... 4 Li Si’s Tribulations in Jail and Subsequent Execution ....................................................................................... 4 Li Si’s Petition to Huhai ..................................................................................................................................... 5 The Epilogue ....................................................................................................................................................... 5 Comparing Cho-yun Hsu’s Work to Bodde’s ......................................................................................................... 7 Mark Edward Lewis ................................................................................................................................................ 8 Mark Edward Lewis’s Account of the Rise and Fall of Qin ............................................................................... 8 Lewis’s Sources to the Fall and Rise of Qin ..................................................................................................... 10 A Script – Hot from the Priests’ Workshop? .................................................................................................... 11 Questionable Assumptions and Implications in Lewis’s Use of the Written Sources ...................................... 14 The Relation between “Story” and “History” in Lewis’s Work ....................................................................... 16 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................................ 18

The past century’s rewriting of Chinese history is surely among the most exciting developments of our time. Astonishing discoveries of unknown texts and artifacts have destroyed some myths while confirming others, and have provided the impetus for much effort in sociology, anthropology, and linguistics. Sub-disciplines of history, such as the histories of mathematics, medicine, and architecture, have been much enriched by new finds as well as by translations of earlier Chinese works. Indeed, in books of modern world history China has made the remarkable transition from lackluster sideshow to central venue within a few decades. At the same time, as Paul Cohen pointed out twenty-five years ago, the flurry of novel thoughts and methods within the historic field has made it legitimate for historians writing about modern China to focus their attention on many previously marginalized groups as well as to employ insights from other disciplines.1 The history of ancient China, however, still seems conspicuously preoccupied with the pastimes of the elite: centralized religion,

Paul Cohen, Discovering History in China. Studies of the East Asian Institute (New York 1984), ch. 4.



politics, building projects, and warfare. Given the shortage of contemporary letters, diaries, statistics, etc., this may not be surprising; yet, there is a striking continuity and homogeneity in a line of works dealing with early Chinese history, detailing the disintegration of the Zhou, the transient Qin, and the ultimate consolidation of the Han dynasty. Such steadfastness could, of course, arise inexorably from a wealth of irrefutable and concordant sources, but, as will become clear, this conjecture is less tenable than one might think. In order to scrutinize some of the basic tenets of early Chinese history, I will examine the level of source criticism in works by three of the most influential Western scholars on the subject, viz. Derk Bodde, Cho-yun Hsu, and Mark Edward Lewis. I will look at how they grapple with potential problems such as the ability and willingness of the purported authors to report truthfully; how they deal with issues of representativeness (given that many of the texts were produced hundreds of years and miles apart); and how they work with texts produced in dissimilar – and often unknown – situations and fulfilling diverse, unfamiliar and perhaps even contradictory roles for different people. I will argue that a rigorous attention to source criticism exposes crucial problems in the works of each author, and that the fundamental problem is undue faith in the truthfulness of the sources coupled with exaggerated belief in the executive power and deliberative capability of the Bronze Age ruling elite. In short, none of the three historians heeds Henri Maspero’s admonition that “[t]oute l’histoire de cette période, telle que les écrivains chinois l’ont écrite, est à reviser et à soumettre à une critique minutieuse et sévère.”2 I believe this may explain why the exciting archeological discoveries in China seem to have had their greatest impact outside the purview of ancient Chinese history.

Derk Bodde and the Fundamental Principles of His Work
Derk Bodde on the Qin Professor Bodde (1909–2003) was generally acknowledged as the pre-eminent expert on the Qin dynasty. He was also admirably careful to lay bare his reasoning and suppositions. The most important of Bodde’s works for the present analysis is his China’s First Unifier (CFU ), because it contains an entire chapter devoted to discussing the reliability of his sources. Furthermore, Bodde continues to refer to this work in all his subsequent publications; in fact, in Bodde’s later work on the Qin, his most frequently cited secondary source is this monograph. The first thing to notice about CFU is that its main protagonist is not Qin Shihuang 秦始皇 (the first emperor), but his minister Li Si 李斯. A central claim of CFU is that Li Si was actually the driving force behind the conquests, and that “the great deeds [supposedly] performed by Qin Shihuang, [were] in all likelihood […] attributed to him through courtesy only.”3 Now, let us take a look at Shiji’s 史記 87th chapter, Li Si’s biography, almost our sole source about him. For analytic purposes Bodde divides the chapter into seven parts, each of which he scrutinizes in order to answer his question: “To what extent is it reliable?”4 These seven parts are as follows. (1) Li Si’s youth and arrival at the Qin court. (2) The death of Qin Shihuang and the plan of Zhao Gao 趙高 (the powerful court eunuch) to place the malleable prince Huhai 胡亥 on the throne instead of his elder brother who had been selected by Qin Shihuang. (3) The false letter of Zhao Gao and the success of enthroning Huhai.5 (4) Through machinations Zhao Gao tricks Huhai into jailing Li Si. (5) Li Si’s laments in prison. (6) Li Si writes a petition to Huhai. (7) The epilogue relating events from the execution of Li Si to the final collapse of the Qin dynasty. Of these seven parts Bodde, on various grounds, questions the authenticity of the latter six. “To what extent is it reliable?” – Evaluating Bodde’s Source Sriticism
Li Si’s Youth and Arrival at the Qin Court
2 3

4 5

Henri Maspero, “Le roman de Sou Ts’in,” in Etudes Asiatiques 2 (1925), p. 141. Derk Bodde, China’s First Unifier: A Study of the Ch’in Dynasty as Seen in the Life of Li Ssu (280?–208 B.C.). Sinica Leidensia 3 (Leiden 1938), p. 121. Ibid., p. 89. By assuming the throne Huhai’s rightful designation changes to Ershi 二世 (meaning second emperor), but for the sake of clarity I will continue to refer to him as Huhai.



It is worth quoting the opening paragraph of the chapter both for the flavor of the Shiji and because it will become important later. Li Si was a native of Shangzai in Chu. When a young man, he became a petty clerk of his district. In the toilet room belonging to his official quarters, he noticed that there were rats that ate the filth, and that the approach of man or dog would repeatedly frighten them. But upon entering the granary, he observed that the rats there were eating the stored up grain. They lived beneath the great side-galleries, and did not evidence any uneasiness from man or dog. Thereupon Li Si sighed and said: “A man’s ability or non-ability is similar to (the condition of) these rats. It merely depends upon where he places himself.” He thereupon became a follower of Xun Qing [Xunzi] in studying the methods of emperors and kings.6 On the whole, Bodde limits himself to noting that the opening “is probably no more than an anecdote. Perhaps it represents a tradition that goes back to Li Si’s time, but it is equally possible that it was added by Sima Qian merely to give force and color to the opening of his story.”7 Apart from this reservation, he finds no reason to question the veracity of this section, which sketches the first thirty years of Li Si’s time at the Qin court.
The Death of Qin Shihuang and Zhao Gao’s Plot

This section comprises a number of discussions – in direct speech – wherein Zhao Gao first persuades Huhai to usurp the throne, and thereafter convinces Li Si to support the plot. Bodde perceptively points out that “it is difficult to imagine how discussions of this kind, held in secret between the three plotters, could even have been heard by anyone else at the time they took place, let alone be put into writing.”8 Bodde furthermore questions Sima Qian’s 司馬遷 rendition of the speeches on two accounts. The first of these is based on the grammatical work of Bernhard Karlgren, who showed that the character ji 及 very seldom functioned as a connective in the 3rd century.9 Since ji is indeed used as a connective twice by the conspirators, Bodde warns against accepting the speech as genuine.10 Subsequently, Bodde turns to a content analysis, and he finds that Zhao Gao’s appeal sounds very Confucian, despite the fact that he was known as “an opportunist quite devoid of any moral principle.” Furthermore, “[r]eferences like these [to Confucius] seem out of place in the mouth of a person of Zhao Gao’s character, living in the state of Qin, which was the antithesis of everything Confucius stood for.”11 Based on these two pieces of evidence, Bodde infers that Sima probably penned the speech himself (writing, as he did, at a time when ji was more commonly used as a connective). All in all, Bodde’s conclusion seems almost certainly true – after all, conspirators rarely produce exact transcripts of their incriminating schemes. Bodde’s use of Karlgren is, however, highly problematic, because he completely disregards one of the fundamental points of Karlgren’s work, namely his demonstration of the numerous instances where Sima Qian replaces obscure words in his sources with more common ones.12 In other words, the reason for focusing on ji completely evaporates, unless one disregards Karlgren’s compelling evidence (and doing so would also prohibit usage of his grammatical insights).13 Furthermore, this invalidates the larger part of the grammatical scrutiny exercised by Bodde in all his works based on the Shiji! As for the contention that the “opportunist” Zhao Gao would not have employed Confucian arguments, this comes dangerously close to circular logic. Bodde knows that Zhao Gao is an opportunist, and therefore Zhao Gao

6 7 8 9

10 11 12 13

Ibid., p. 12. Transcription has been changed to pinyin by the author. Ibid., p. 90. Ibid., p. 92. Bernhard Karlgren, “On the Authenticity and Nature of the Tso Chuan,” in Göteborgs Högskolas Årsskrift 32 (1926), pp. 1-65. Bodde, China’s First Unifier, p. 92. Ibid., p. 93. Karlgren, “On the Authenticity,” pp. 29ff. See Burton Watson, The Tso Chuan: Selections from China’s Oldest Narrative History (New York 1989), pp. xiii-xv.



could not have used Confucian arguments, because then he would not be an opportunist. One might point out that opportunists are not generally known for being persnickety in choosing arguments.
The Forged Letter

This section is made up of a letter supposedly written by the conspirators in the name of the deceased emperor that succeeds in convincing the legitimate crown prince to throw himself on his sword. After thorough grammatical examination, Bodde concludes that the letter is probably not original. Again: Bodde’s conclusion is almost certainly correct, but the lengths he apparently feels obliged to go to before questioning the truthfulness of the Shiji, is plainly astounding.
The Machinations of Zhao Gao

Bodde’s analysis of this section consists of a list of all the, indeed very many, discrepancies between the events narrated here and the same events related in the sixth chapter of the Shiji. These differences include different dating, same speeches attributed to different persons, different sequence of events, different numbers of people executed, as well as other details of equally conspicuous kind. Bodde does not go into the possible implications of the many inconsistencies, and merely states that: “Summing up, it is evident that the same sources have been used by both accounts [i.e., the 6th and the 87th chapter of the Shiji ] but have been pieced together differently.” The divergences – and the reappearance of ji – leads him to conclude that both chapters “must have been pieced together during the Han dynasty from a variety of different elements.”14 Considering Bodde’s previous eagerness to engage with minutiae, his reluctance to delve into the possible ramifications of the numerous incongruities here, does seem striking. The difficulties raised may very well be insurmountable, but Bodde’s abstention from engaging with them does little to allay the feeling that the problems blemish the sanctity of the Shiji. It is furthermore interesting that Bodde does not question the details on which both chapters agree. Surely, it does not seem very credible when the young (soon to be deposed) ruler declares that “[n]ow that I govern the empire, I desire everything which the ear and eye enjoys, and the utmost of whatever my heart’s desire delights in” and proceeds to ask his advisors how he can best give free rein to his desires and live a life of complete self indulgence.15 This sounds more like the self-justification of a usurping dynasty than writing pieced together “from a variety of different elements.”
Li Si’s Tribulations in Jail and Subsequent Execution

Zhao Gao has managed to convince the young Huhai to have Li Si imprisoned and this section consists of Li Si’s jail cell soliloquy. Bodde points out that “it is difficult to imagine how this lament, uttered within the walls of a prison, could have found any immediate recorder.”16 After a few grammatical indications that the language is 2nd rather than 3rd century, Bodde points out that Li Si compares himself to “men of undoubted loyalty to their ruler, who at the same time possess high moral principles of their own, in defense of which they are prepared to suffer death. Such men would have little appeal for Li Si, who believed that good government can be maintained only by severity, not by moral principle.”17 It seems superfluous to point out that even villains may stoop to compare themselves with honorable men. What seems likewise superfluous is Bodde’s circumspect arguments for dismissing this speech as a later invention. What is much more interesting, is the fact that even with all these reasons weighing against the reliability of Li Si’s prison speech, Bodde nevertheless cites it later on. “In his last days, Li Si may have realized his mistake, for we find him, according to Sima Qian’s account, bitterly bemoaning Huhai’s tremendous taxation.”18 Suddenly the speech is rehabilitated and taken as circumstantial evidence that Li Si may have come to see the errors of his ways. Having dismissed the speech as invention, Bodde is quite happy to haul it out of the dustbin, as soon as it will prop up a point.
14 15 16 17 18

Bodde, China’s First Unifier, p. 97. Ibid., pp. 34-35. Ibid., p. 98. Ibid., p. 99. Ibid., p. 170.



Li Si’s Petition to Huhai

The next part of the Shiji is a letter written in jail by Li Si to Huhai, pleading his innocence. Unfortunately, the letter was intercepted by Zhao Gao and never reached Huhai. ”The memorial [i.e., the letter] is a powerful piece of work, quite in harmony with his [Li Si’s] character, and fully worthy of his undoubted literary ability. Most of its statements, furthermore, are confirmed by other sources.”19 As for these “other sources,” Bodde uses a footnote to refer to other footnotes from which the eager reader learns that the “other sources,” all four of them, are in fact other passages in the Shiji. The epithet “other sources” is therefore only valid if we suppose that these four passages are based on other, independent sources – which they are nowhere proven to be. In the end, Bodde’s main reason for accepting the provenance of the memorial is that it is “a powerful piece of work, quite in harmony with his character.” One cannot help but wonder whether Bodde refrains from analyzing the memorial because it functions as the main testimony to Li Si’s crucial role under the Qin dynasty. In fact, it seems unlikely in the extreme that Zhao Gao should not have destroyed such a letter – either before or after Li Si’s execution – as it is replete with powerful indictments against himself. The added improbability that the letter should have been preserved over a century only to end up in the hands of Sima Qian, does for some reason not trouble Bodde.
The Epilogue

The epilogue presents Bodde with a problem. No reader can help noticing the many factual differences from the Shiji’s sixth chapter, and this is obviously unpleasant for someone who treats the Shiji as a veridical source. Accordingly, the reader would expect Bodde to go out of his way to discredit the epilogue. As indeed he does. The centerpiece of his argument is that the character tan 談 occurs here. Bodde considers it very improbable that Sima Qian should have used this character as it is part of his father’s name and, therefore, taboo. In order to substantiate this point, Bodde trawls though the Shiji and finds six other instances of the tan character, whereupon he tries to demonstrate by various means (as the ones employed above) that these passages have been tampered with by later interpolators. In the end, Bodde concludes that these six passages do show traces of interpolation, and that they – and per extension the epilogue – cannot have been written by Sima. Bodde furthermore feels that we thereby arrive at a principle of some importance in the textual criticism of the Shiji. This is: whenever the word tan occurs in the Shiji (and there are probably other instances of its use which I have not discovered), these passages or chapters can be held suspect of having been added by some later writer, and should be examined for other evidence of this fact.20 In my opinion, this epilogue may very well be an interpolation. However, Bodde’s claim that we should doubt all the passages containing tan seems somewhat fanciful, and it appears more likely – albeit less impressive – that later scribes copying the manuscript over many generations are responsible for the tans. They did, after all, not labor under the injunction against using this character and they may very well have inserted it; not least in the places where Sima Qian had substituted tan with another character in proper names. Bodde’s much more drastic proposal (that one tan should cast a shroud of doubt on an entire chapter) may seem odd until one remembers that his textual criticism is based almost exclusively on philological grounds. If later scribes, willingly or unwittingly, have changed the manuscript in a myriad of minor ways, then Bodde’s textual criticism (such as the importance attributed to ji), utterly erodes. However, if the painstaking work by Renaissance philologists is anything to go by, then manuscripts do tend to accrue mistakes (as well as deliberate “improvements”) when they are copied over the years – and Chinese character are, if anything, certainly not easier to copy than Latin letters. Another major problem is that tan is not found in six places in the Shiji, but in 15 places.21 Of course, Bodde can hardly be faulted for not finding every instance of a single character in such an immense work; however, if the existence of this single tan character forces us to suspect 15 passages in the work as being later interpolations,
19 20 21

Ibid., p. 100. Ibid., p. 111. The 15 occurrences can be found by searching at



then the sacrosanctity of the work must be questioned. Either there has been much more later corruption of the text than Bodde is willing to admit, or we may have to acknowledge that we understand less of the rules and regulations of Chinese taboo characters during the early Han-period than we like to think. All in all, there is certainly ample reason to challenge Bodde’s source criticism – which entails a cautionary revision of the standard history of the Qin dynasty. He is not nearly critical enough of his material, some of his interpretations are blatantly willful, his grammatical analyses are problematic at the least, and his moral strictures tend toward circularity by proving only their own premises. An Attempt to Understand and Systematize the Problems of Bodde’s Source Criticism The most obvious problem with Bodde’s usage of the Shiji is his fervent belief in its truthfulness. It is, in fact, hardly an overstatement that Bodde, rather than critiquing the Shiji, attempts to cleanse the book of impurities. Consider such statements as: This sentence, being a repetition of what has just been said, is almost surely an interpolation.22 This paragraph is very probably an interpolation, as it has no direct connection with the rest of the biography.23 The second half of the biography, which is chiefly concerned with the rather disgusting intrigue between Lao Ai [嫪毐] and the First Emperor’s mother, must also be accepted with reserve.24 Whenever something seems implausible, repetitive, inconsequential, revolting, or obtuse, this is assumed to be the work of an interpolator – Sima Qian would, presumably, never have committed such things to bamboo. Bearing in mind that Shiji houses between its covers thousands of minor self-contradictions, this premise of original spotlessness is indefensible. This has, nevertheless, been the prevailing way of reading the book throughout Chinese history, and Bodde is simply partaking of this tradition. The extent to which Bodde has imbibed this view of the past is exemplified by his invective against the merchant Lü Buwei, who lived one generation before Qin Shihuang. Even the part played by Lü Buwei in the compilation of the important philosophical work, Lüshi Chunqiu, proves nothing as to his own literary tastes. [Even today we know] the crude, uncultivated, selfmade man, who becomes a patron of the arts chiefly in order that he may gain the plaudits of the élite. Lü Buwei’s intense vanity and pride are indicated [...] by the way in which he attached his own name to the Lüshi Chunqiu, of which he probably did not write a word.25 This is but one of many examples of how Bodde embraces the position traditionally held by the Chinese commentators on the Shiji, and it is remarkable how fully he fails to realize that his opinions echo the writings of Sima Qian. As when he writes that “[e]ven putting aside what may be Sima Qian’s elaborations, however, and judging Li Si solely on the main external events of his life we must admit that, considered as an individual, he was a man lacking in moral principles.”26 How, one wonders, do we judge Li Si on “external events” of his life, when Sima Qian is well-nigh our only source for these events? Part and parcel of Bodde’s faith in the Shiji is his reluctance to read it as a literary construction. One apposite example, hinted at above, was his neglect to comment on the “parablesque” quality of the rats-and-dogs story opening Li Si’s biography. Bodde describes it as “no more than an anecdote [or] a tradition that goes back to Li Si’s time.”27 What he fails to realize here – as well as in many other places – is the figurative implication of this prefatory allegory. When Li Si sighs: “A man’s ability or non-ability is similar to (the condition of) these rats. It

23 24 25

26 27

Derk Bodde, Statesman, Patriot, and General in Ancient China: Three Shih Chi Biographies of the Ch’in Dynasty (255– 206 B.C.). American Oriental Series 17 (Peiping 1940), p. 2. Ibid., p. 7. Ibid., p. 18f. Ibid., p. 11. For all we know, of course, he may have written it. What we do know, however, is that the works by Confucius, Mencius, Laozi 老子, Zhuangzi 莊子, Li Si, Shang Yang 商鞅 and many others, were almost surely not written, or at least only in modest part, by themselves. Bodde, China’s First Unifier, p. 230. Ibid., p. 90.



merely depends upon where he places himself,” this is surely not Li Si’s grandmother reminiscing, but Sima Qian conveying spectacles through which we are to see Li Si’s character (whether or not this was Sima Qian’s intention, this is surely the effect on the reader). One more example readily demonstrates how eager Bodde is to demarcate literature from fiction, namely when he writes of Zhanguo ce 戰國策 that “its value as compared with the Shiji is slight, both because of its episodic nature and the fact that so much of it is anecdotal and literary rather than historical.”28 As we have seen, Bodde’s belief in his own ability to weed fiction from facts, rests on his close linguistic analysis, and it is further reinforced by what he perceives to be the linguistic underpinning of the differences between the Chinese and the Western mind, a particular hobby horse of his.29 A few examples will suffice: [T]he effect of Chinese words upon their reader is akin to that of poetry.30 [N]ames as those of the tyrants Jie and Zhou do not, for the Chinese, signify merely these men themselves. They are also symbols of the ideas of cruelty, tyranny, debauchery, etc. [...] associated with these men as to be instantly called to mind by the mere mention of the men’s names.31 [Rhetorical and poetical arguments rather than scientific arguments] are to a considerable extent typical of Chinese thinking as a whole. All of them are inextricably bound up in the peculiar characteristics of the Chinese language.32 One might ask whether names like Jesus and Judas do not “instantly call to mind” ideas for most Europeans, but Bodde’s insistence that the Chinese people are vaguely poetic, spontaneous, and childlike, and that the Chinese language is in essence poetic and not suited for science, really cannot be taken seriously. In short, Bodde believes ardently in the division of literature and history (never mind that Sima Qian undauntedly lifts and modifies as he sees fit many passages from the Zhanguo ce – and presumably from many other now lost “anecdotal and literary” works and oral traditions) and this blinds him to the very efficacy of the literary artifices employed by Sima Qian. The one overshadowing problem with Bodde’s approach is his faith in the veracity of a pristine Shiji, regrettably defiled by subsequent redactors.

Comparing Cho-yun Hsu’s Work to Bodde’s
In this section I want to examine whether this blind devotion to the sources and the refusal to view them as partly literary constructs, play a central role in another frequently cited work on the history of ancient China, namely Cho-yun Hsu’s Ancient China in Transition. In this book, Hsu attempts to demonstrate that during the period from 722–221, the Chinese “pattern of social relationships change from Max Weber’s ‘communal’ to his ‘associative’ relationships, the authorities from Weber’s ‘traditional’ to his ‘rational-legal’.”33 Apart from a few smaller and later documents, Hsu’s main sources are the two ancient texts Zuozhuan and Zhanguo ce, which are eponymous of this period. By organizing into various tables the thousands of persons, places, and battles mentioned in these texts, Hsu manages to verify his Weberian theses. At the time of publication, Hsu received several positive reviews – everyone agreed that his basic arguments were correct – but a couple of reviewers disapproved of the many numbers and tables. Twitchett, in his review, posed the question: “Can statistical method really do much more than give some slight numerical precision to the general impression gained from reading?”34 I want to suggest that this is actually the wrong question to ask. To explain why, we have to look closer at Hsu’s line of reasoning. Hsu posits that the noble families managed more or less to kill each other off through intense warfare from the 8th to the 3rd century, and that this process was accompanied by the slow crumbling away of traditional chival28 29 30 31 32 33 34

Ibid., p. 91. His book Chinese Thought, Society, and Science (Hawaii 1991) contains an extensive discussion of this topic. Bodde, China’s First Unifier, p. 214. Ibid., p. 224. Ibid., p. 234. Cho-yun Hsu, Ancient China in Transition: An Analysis in Social mobility (722–222 B.C.) (Stanford, CA 1965), p. 1. D.C. Twitchett, “Review: [Untitled],” in BSOAS 31 (1968) 3, pp. 634-636, p. 636.



rous mores. When China stood on the brink of re-unification, the scarcity of traditional power holders made bureaucratization the sole viable way of governing the empire. And this is, indeed, by no means an unfair description of the impression one might get from reading Hsu’s two main sources. The former period (722–468, known as Chunqiu) seems dominated by warriors dueling fearlessly from chariots, and kings trying to outwit one another. In Hsu’s words: “The social structure of the Ch’un Ch’iu period [...] was that of an orderly society in which heads of state, their ministers [and officials] constituted the ruling group.”35 “If time had stood still, the upper elements of the structure would have retained their conviction of divinely granted superiority, and the lower elements would have had to accept their lot ungrudgingly. However, time continued to flow, and change and revolution took place.”36 In the later period (468–221, known as Zhanguo) on the other hand, huge infantry armies battle it out, while ordinary people engage in the sort of sordid affairs ordinary people somehow always get mixed up in. But, as Hsu notes, this period leaves a decidedly less clear impression, because the sources for the Warring States period [i.e., the Zhanguo ce] “do not match the Zuozhuan for continuity and detail.”37 As the perceptive reader has no doubt long since realized, what Hsu has actually found is probably first and foremost a difference in the nature of his two sources. This becomes all too obvious when one investigates Hsu’s “statistical” material, which divides itself more or less neatly into two parts corresponding to the two epochs (i.e., the two sources). He is, as it turns out, unable to show any gradual development, so instead he posits a sudden break in the short interval between his sources: At the close of the Ch’un Ch’iu [Spring and Autumn] period the class of noble ministers had been practically destroyed, and shortly after the beginning of the Chan Kuo [Warring States] period, when historical data again become available, the social stratification had changed radically because of the disappearance of the large noble ministerial families.38 Much more could be said about Hsu’s book, but the important point here is that his fundamental problem is that he does not realize that he is reading literature, and that his sources cannot sensibly be mined for statistics. A second interesting fact is his unquestioned assumption that there once was a golden age and that all subsequent history has been a process of corruption. Just as Bodde believes in an originary Shiji, Hsu believes in a pristine origin of the Chinese state. It may, incidentally, be more than an interesting curiosity that the difference between the two sources used by Hsu, is to some extent analogous to the difference between the earliest surviving Greek literature and its later Roman cousins (the change of favored protagonists, the fading of the supernatural elements, the introduction of humor).39

Mark Edward Lewis
In this part I will scrutinize the scholarship of Mark Edward Lewis, primarily his two widely acclaimed books The Early Chinese Empires (2007) and Writing and Authority in Early China (1999). Briefly stated, I will begin by examining the way he uses his sources to assemble an account of the Qin dynasty. In the second part, I will look closely at his description of the Chinese invention of writing, and subsequently move on to investigate the implications that spring from accepting his views on this matter. Finally, I will study some of the tacit assumptions underlying Lewis’s work, before I round off with some remarks about his depiction of the relationship between fiction and reality. Mark Edward Lewis’s Account of the Rise and Fall of Qin

35 36 37 38 39

Hsu, Ancient China, p. 24. Ibid., pp. 22-23. Ibid., p. 39. Ibid., p. 105. Says James I. Crump (Legends of the Warring States: Persuasions, Romances, and Stories from Chan-kuo Tse. Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies 83 [Ann Arbor, MI 1998]), p. 141: “We scholars have too often missed the amount of parody in Chan-kuo Ts’e”.



Lewis makes clear that two sets of policy changes enabled Qin to unify the warring states and set up the first Chinese empire. Primacy among these, Lewis attributes to Shang Yang’s reforms, stating that “Qin’s ultimate military and political success was grounded in agrarian reforms instituted by Shang Yang, the chief minister in the middle of the fourth century B.C.”40 Lewis thereupon proceeds to list the reforms attributed to Lord Shang in the 68th chapter of the Shiji. In short, These reforms entailed the registration and mobilization of all adult males for military service and the payment of taxes. While all Warring States were organized for war, Qin was unique in the extension of this pattern to every level of society, and in the manner in which every aspect of administration was devoted to mobilizing and provisioning its forces for conquest.41 The other central development mentioned by Lewis is that through the policies introduced by Fan Sui, Qin alone successfully concentrated power in the person of the ruler. While other states were still dispersing authority and prestige among enfeoffed administrators and royal kin, Qin was largely able to make the ruler the single locus of undivided authority.42 These administrative changes, Lewis posits, had mental ramifications as well. One major consequence of the reconstruction of the Qin state was the emergence of a distinctive national character. Qin increasingly defined itself, and was defined by others, as a land and a people apart. In the earlier Zhou state, Qin had been one state among others, linked to the rest by a shared elite culture of ritual vessels, music, and verse.43 Moreover, “[s]hared military service and exposure to non-Qin people as enemies or hostile subjects would have facilitated the development of an ‘us-them’ mentality in Qin.”44 In brief, the reforms by and large created a meritorious system that shifted power into the hands of Qin natives at the expense of the old Zhou nobility, thereby bringing to the fore local customs which observers within as well as outside Qin perceived to be alien to the traditional and common culture of the Warring States. When contemporaries and, later, Han scholars referred to the Qin as “barbarian” this was, according to Lewis, merely a reflection of the efficiency of the Qin war machine and an expression of the rise of local culture. As is well known, power slipped through the hands of the new dynasty shortly after the death of the first emperor, thus furnishing historians with a conundrum to debate for millennia. Of the proposed hypotheses for Qin’s sudden demise, Lewis finds Jia Yi’s 賈誼 (as given in the Shiji) the most compelling. Jia Yi faults Qin for the continuation of the tough-fisted policies, which had been instrumental in conquest but were utterly unsuitable for ruling an empire. The reforms of Shang Yang and Fan Sui 范睢 had made of Qin a “suicide state,” “destined to selfdestruct” because its military machine could find no more meaningful opponents after 221 B.C.45 Lewis grants that Qin did initiate wide-ranging reforms upon achieving supremacy, but claims that these were not thoroughgoing enough to earn the Qin dynasty a prolonged lease on life. “[T]his fate, which is implicit in the Book of Lord Shang, would work itself out explicitly in the fall of the Qin empire.”46 In the end, Lewis explains, “as Jia Yi would later observe, the Qin dynasty collapsed within two decades because it did not change enough.”47 Now, it was up to the Han to mould a viable model of rulership for the empire, as Lewis says, “[t]he beginnings of the re-invention of the ruler appear in a discussion in the Shiji of how he [Liu Bang 劉邦] triumphed over his chief rival, Xiang Yu [項羽].”48 In his speech, Liu Bang outlines how he managed
40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48

Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. History of Imperial China (Cambridge, Mass. 2007), p. 18. Ibid., p. 39. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., p. 45. Ibid., p. 50. Ibid. Ibid., p. 51. Ibid., p. 61.



to seize and hold on to power, because he was both willing to share his success with his followers and ready to enlist talented advisers.49 That is, briefly stated, Mark Lewis’s account of the rise and fall of Qin. Unsurprisingly, his most important source is the Shiji, and since he does not engage quite as closely in source criticism as Bodde, it is all the more crucial that we scrutinize his reasoning and conclusions. Basically, there are four propositions we must evaluate. 1) The reforms of Shang Yang and Fan Sui made Qin strong enough to vanquish the other Warring States; 2) The implementation of meritocracy and common military service inherent in the reforms brought natives and native customs to such prominence that the state of Qin was considered by contemporary observers as deviant compared to the other states, even generating charges of barbarian influence; 3) The reforms made of Qin a huge war machine, destined to implode from sheer inertia because its policies were suited for conquest, not for governing; 4) The Han, in contrast, managed to establish a long-lived dynasty due to Liu Bang’s willingness to share the spoils of victory and his responsiveness to sound advice. Lewis’s Sources to the Fall and Rise of Qin First of all, Lewis posits that Shang Yang’s reforms were the essential building block making the Qin victory possible, if not downright inevitable, and that “under Shang Yang it [Qin] achieved the most systematic version of the reforms that characterized the Warring States.”50 His main source for this claim is the Shiji, so we must once again ask certain questions about this work. First of all, how do we know that Sima Qian is correct when he stresses the wide-ranging nature of Shang Yang’s reforms? Do we really know just how “systematic” were the versions of these reforms pursued by the other states? Why did 130 years elapse after the reforms before Qin emerged victorious? Even if we accept – as we surely must – that reforms may need many years before bearing fruit, we must still ask the important question: why was Qin suddenly able to conquer every single of the six other warring states in the brief period from 230 to 221 B.C.? Does it not seem likely that events in the other six states were as important as – if not more important than – what happened in Qin? Possible events such as crop failure, civil war, epidemics, treachery, natural disasters, nomads looting, just to mention a few. It will probably never be clear exactly why Qin was able to defeat the other states in such a short time span, but it is worth noticing that Lewis does not entertain ideas which are not explicitly mentioned in the Shiji. Instead, the reasoning seems to be based on the faulty logic of post hoc ergo propter hoc (confusing chronology with causality). But what about the purported barbarianism of the Qin state? This seems, by and large, a question better left to future archeologists, and a solution shall not be attempted here. What is worth noting however, is that Lewis never entertains the idea of “barbarian” influence on Qin. Such an hypothesis would, it seems, not be entirely unreasonable, bearing in mind Qin’s locality as well as what we know of the spread eastwards of equestrian technologies from Central Asia – some of which quite possibly conferred decisive military advantage upon Qin. Instead, Lewis argues vigorously that what seems to the natives of Qin as well as to inhabitants of the other warring states as alien influence, is actually native Qin practices surfacing in the wake of the rise to prominence of locals. Lewis undoubtedly makes an interesting and strong point, but it is worth noting how he categorically rejects the idea of non-Chinese influence, even at the cost of dismissing numerous contemporaneous Qin as well as non-Qin sources.51 Lewis’s apparent eagerness to dispel all suspicion of external influence on the Chinese heartland is a point we will return to later. As for the inevitability of the downfall of Qin, Lewis asserts that the regime was “destined to self-destruct,” and “this fate, which is implicit in the Book of Lord Shang, would work itself out explicitly in the fall of the Qin empire.”52 Again, do we really know that this book was the central tenet of the Qin state? Is it meaningful to argue that one book effectively epitomized and guided the affairs of a large, complex state through 130 years fraught

49 50 51


Ibid. Ibid., p. 39. According to Donald B. Wagner (Iron and Steel in Ancient China. Handbuch der Orientalistik. Abt. 9, Bd. 4 [Leiden 1993], p. 25), Qin may be best understood as a mixture of Zhou and “barbarian” culture, and he even compares the pervasiveness of barbarian influence on Qin to the Muslim conquest of Persia. Ibid., p. 50.



with change and warfare?53 Can we trust the Han sources in their vilification of the brutish policies of the Qin? Did not Augustan Rome, Bismarckian Prussia, Maoist China, and Truman America manage to navigate through periods of intense military (de)mobilization? Do states, in other words, ever have destinies? Or does it only seem so to the historian asphyxiated by the dearth of sources?54 If one rejects the argument that Qin was somehow fated to implode, it becomes all the more interesting to try to understand why the Han was, conversely, able to maintain rule. Lewis echoes Jia Yi’s sentiments that Qin was too inflexible and too brutish to retain power, yet from his description it does not seem that Han changed very much. Just to quote a few passages, “the Han government carried forward virtually all the policies by which the Qin had sought to impose unity on its newly conquered realm.”55 “[T]he Han incorporated Qin practice virtually intact at first, and the few modifications such as simplification of the laws and establishment of fiefs were soon abandoned.”56 “Although Han writers insisted on the disastrous consequences of Qin’s excessively detailed regulations and cruel punishments, the records from their own period do not suggest that the Han made any significant improvements in these areas.”57 The only specific Han invention ever mentioned, is Liu Bang’s description of his unique willingness to share the spoils of victory, and his appreciation of good advisers. This, however, must be seriously questioned. First of all we must ask, how does Sima Qian know of the speech he attributes to Liu Bang? How would Liu Bang know that “Xiang Yu was jealous of worth and ability,” and that he “harmed those who achieved merit and was suspicious of the worthy”?58 Source criticism surely admonishes us to be more than a little suspicious of Han bureaucrats commending their rulers for generosity and for employing good advisers. A Script – Hot from the Priests’ Workshop? Let us now turn to Lewis’s Writing and Authority in Early China and gauge the unique importance he attributes to writing in this complex work. The fundamental tenet of Lewis’s book is that the Chinese writing system evolved out of divinatory practices, and that it maintained a shroud of the supernatural even as it came to be used in the secular domain. As Lewis explains, the use of writing “in divination and sacrificial communication with the spirits charged graphic forms with a numinous power that affected even their use in nonreligious practices.”59 Furthermore, Lewis contends that “the invention of bureaucracy was achieved primarily through the reworking of the cultic practices of the Zhou.”60 The central point here is that ancestor worship offered a hierarchy where authority accrued to persons as a function of their place in the system, thereby furnishing the state with a model for an impersonal power structure that developed into a full-fledged bureaucracy. In addition, Population registers, and the maps associated with them, came to represent authority in a way that transcended their power as legal documents. They magically embodied the people and territory they represented. For example, when Jing Ke attempted to assassinate the First Emperor, his pretext for appearing at court was to surrender territory to Qin through the formal presentation of the relevant population registers and maps. [...] By the late Warring States period, population registration had also become an element of re53

After all, archeological finds and the bibliographic Yi wen zhi 藝文志 (chapter 30 in the Hanshu 漢書) suggest that there may have been hundreds of works circulating in the Warring States epoch. There is furthermore the controversy surrounding the dating of the various parts of Shangjunshu 商君書. Several chapters refer to events taking place after Shang Yang’s death and must have been penned by others. Maspero even believed that the received text is a product of the Six Dynasties period (220–589). See Michael Loewe (ed.), Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Early China Special Monograph Series (Berkeley, CA 1993), pp. 368ff. Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires, p. 64. Ibid., p. 71. It may furthermore be worth considering how much we really know about the “simplification” of the laws. Did it actually take place or was it an early instance of a perceived need being voiced merely to gain support (comparable, perhaps, to candidates for the American presidency and the British premiership who invariably campaign on the reduction of bureaucracy, but somehow never make much headway)? Ibid., p. 244. Ibid., p. 61. Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China (Albany, NY 1999), p. 14. Ibid., p. 51.


55 56

57 58 59 60



ligious practice. The clearest evidence is a story found in a third-century B.C. Qin tomb at Fangmatan, which tells of a man who committed suicide to avoid the disgrace of an unjust execution. Legal petitions addressed to the “Master of Life Spans” led to his body’s being exhumed at the command of a scribe of the god and gradually restored to life. This story depicts an underworld bureaucracy which keeps registers and communicates with mortals in texts based on terrestrial legal documents.61 Even the local level of the judiciary derived from religious practice. Lewis describes how the official “remains silent but keeps an exact account of the witness’s words and then matches the accounts for internal consistency and their relation to material evidence. This derives from the earlier process of invoking spirits as judges of the veracity of oaths and pledges, and it also corresponds to the procedures described in various texts, notably the Han Feizi.”62 In short, “[f]ar from being tools of rational administration or of brutal realpolitik, the Warring States administrative codes remained embedded within the religious and ritual practices of the society from which they emerged.”63 What Lewis is making here are some very strong claims about the beginning, functioning and logics of what would come to be the Chinese state, so they deserve very close attention. If we start with the judiciary, one must wonder about Lewis’s interpretation. The description Lewis puts forward sounds very much like our current legal procedure: a witness gives an account that is written down and evaluated against the evidence. This may, of course, bear resemblance to specific religious rituals, but is it proof that the religious ritual is in any way prior to the judicial proceeding? Maybe it is merely a fairly obvious way of arranging a deliberative system in a literate culture. After all, the Christian God is frequently portrayed in the role of judge, but Judgment Day was not the blueprint for the Roman notion of a court case. It seems more reasonable to argue that deciding between right and wrong as well as meting out punishments for transgressions, is a constitutive part of human society and is consequently played out in religion. Next, let us think about the assertion that “population registration had also become an element of religious practice.”64 Lewis offers two pieces of evidence for this. First, the “fact” (from the Shiji) that the would-be assassin Jing Ke 荊軻 gained access to the first emperor by presenting him with a population register. Does this really prove that population registers “magically embodied the people and territory they represented”? Or is the register merely important and only “magic” in the sense that a diplomatic passport is magic in contemporary society? The example with the document in the grave seems much more interesting, but considered as the “clearest evidence” it is certainly very weak. As Lewis notes early on about exhumed documents: It is unclear whether the documents were buried because they were powerful, sacred texts that would protect the deceased in the afterlife, or whether they were simply another element in the general program of equipping the tomb with all the materials needed to continue the deceased’s mode of living in the world beyond.65 It is at least possible that the text has been considered a piece of enjoyable fiction more than a guide to the afterlife, and Falkenhausen does indeed note about this very story that “[s]uch stories continued to be common in prose fiction of the Six Dynasties period and after.”66 And, much more important, what can we adduce from one document in one grave among millions in a giant area over a time span of many centuries? The historian Carlo Ginzburg performed extensive archival studies to bring to light the weird and wonderful religious concepts held by an Italian 16th century miller, who apparently believed that God had been created out of primordial chaos as maggots are created out of cheese curd.67 Ginzburg’s book provides a rare look into the mind of someone living far away from the centers of power, but how do we generalize from this single case? We surely cannot conclude that the average medieval miller nourished fanciful notions about dairy products? However, if many people throughout
61 62 63 64 65 66 67

Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires, p. 236. Lewis, Writing and Authority, p. 27f. Ibid., p. 18. Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires, p. 236. Lewis, Writing and Authority, p. 21. (Lewis re-states this claim verbatim in The Early Chinese Empires, p. 228.) Lothar von Falkenhausen, Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (Los Angeles 2006), p. 318. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller (Baltimore 1980).



history have held as divergent believes as microhistory seems to prove, then this is a major challenge to historians who base sweeping generalizations on very scanty evidence. The last of the claims made by Lewis is that the Chinese bureaucracy was also inspired by ancestor worship. Again, Lewis’s crowning piece of evidence consists of texts describing a supernatural order apparently operating according to bureaucratic schemata. We must, however, ask ourselves: what is primary and what is secondary? Did people first invent a heavenly bureaucracy and then set to work laboriously establishing one of their own? Or did bureaucratic administration evolve slowly out of the needs of a state growing in size as well as complexity, and was it only subsequently mapped onto the religious realm? After all, very few of the countless cultures engaged in ancestor worship ever developed bureaucracy. In fact, the very idea that communication with the supernatural provided the impetus for the invention of writing must be questioned. The observation that our earliest extant inscriptions pertain to the religious sphere is circumstantial evidence at best – people are not very likely to scratch a simple inventory into a scapula. As Robert Bagley writes, Writing on perishable materials undoubtedly existed at Anyang; the evidence for brush writing and, less direct, for wood or bamboo writing surfaces is clear. Perhaps we lack evidence of writing from other cities or earlier periods simply because it was confined to perishable materials that have perished. [...] since writing was not confined to divination bones, we cannot assume that it originated in a religious or royal context or that it was limited to religious uses.68 And yet, Lewis maintains that writing developed from divination. But are we really to believe that the wish to perform divination (and why on earth through writing?) was enough of a pull-factor to cause anyone to go through the laborious process of inventing a workable writing system? After all, the gargantuan imaginary leap of committing speech to “paper” has, as far as we know, only been made three or four times in world history. According to Jack Goody, book-keeping and calendars – not least springing from the need to predict floods and droughts – was crucial to the invention of writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Central America.69 He does not write explicitly about China, but he does note that “[w]riting was not essential to the development of the state but of a certain type of state, the bureaucratic one.”70 That divinatory needs in other cultures have been satisfied with yarrow stalks, haruspicy and other means without leading to the invention of writing is, needless to say, no proof that it did not do so in China. But if comparative history is anything to go by, it is certainly worth bearing in mind. All this leads to an important query, here in the words of Michael Nylan, “what changes must be made to Lewis’s hypothesis if writing had not a single origin in early religious activities?”71 The answer, left hanging in the air by Nylan, is that Lewis intertwines writing and religion so thoroughly that important seams would unravel if we were to pull out a single thread. In brief, I think there is just cause for doubting Lewis’s depiction of a Warring States reality where all elements can be somehow inferred from a religious master trope. The best case in point is probably Lewis’s assertion that, “[f]ar from being tools of rational administration or of brutal realpolitik, the Warring States administrative codes remained embedded within the religious and ritual practices of the society from which they emerged.”72 This is, I would argue, a false dichotomy. The rules by which a society is run will necessarily have an intimate relation to that society’s religious sphere – otherwise the religion would hold out no meaning for that society’s members (and we would find societies in which rulers are indifferent to the religion of their subjects). By the same token, official rules are by their very nature tools of rational administration – if the rules did not seem on the whole rational to citizens as well as to administrators, the society would crumple into Kafkaesque confusion. And last but not least, if the rules did not function as effectual – and brutal when need be – realpolitik, the society would sooner rather than later descend into a free-for-all.


70 71 72

Robert Bagley, “Shang Archeology,” in The Cambridge History of Ancient China from the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. Eds. Edward L. Shaughnessy and Michael Loewe (Cambridge 1999), p. 182. Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society. Studies in Literacy, the Family, Culture and the State (Cambridge 1986), pp. 45ff. Ibid., p. 92. Michael Nylan, “Textual Authority in Pre-Han and Han,” in Early China 25 (2000), p. 222. Lewis, Writing and Authority, p. 18.



Questionable Assumptions and Implications in Lewis’s Use of the Written Sources So far we have centered on issues arising from what may be an excessive focus on the role played by religion in the development of writing. In this section I want to point to some of the unspoken assumptions underlying Lewis’s conception of the relationship between extant written evidence and the world of Iron Age China. I will make the case that problems inherent in his treatment of the written sources leads him to make several dubious propositions. In a book on the subject of writing and authority there is, needless to say, nothing queer about paying close attention to documentary evidence; however, an over-zealous preoccupation with writing will often lead to certain identifiable oversights. According to Goody, historians focusing on extant texts tend to severely marginalize all the population segments and geographic localities failing to produce surviving written records.73 Now, it would certainly be no exaggeration to say that historians of Bronze Age China have lavished the lion’s share of their efforts on the sites from which we have inscribed shells, bones and bronzes. There does seem, however, to be developing rather a broad consensus, at least among archaeologists, about the necessity for widening the scope of investigation. Falkenhausen seems to express the growing majority opinion when he states that “[r]ecent work on earlier chronological segments of the Chinese Bronze Age suggests that the extent of centralized political control exercised by the early royal dynasties in the Yellow River valley may have been greatly exaggerated in traditional historiography.”74 That Lewis, who makes very extensive use of recent archeology, so ardently disregards the possibility of influence on the Zhou culture from anywhere beyond the rather confined Chinese heartland (such as “barbarian” influence on Qin), may be seen as bearing out Goody’s observation. A corollary of focusing to the detriment of everything else on religion and on the extant texts, is that the historian comes to narrate exclusively the history of the upper classes. Again, there is nothing wrong with a history of the upper classes (it is difficult to attempt anything else given the nature of our surviving sources), but it is a problem if this focus – as it seems to with Lewis – leads to uncorroborated proclamations. Let us take a few examples. First, “The Warring States were created through the extension of tax and service obligations to lower elements in society and to rural hinterlands.”75 Second, about the use of surnames Lewis speculates that they were probably extended to the masses for purposes of governmental registration.76 Furthermore, “The granting of surnames and titles to registered individuals who gave military service probably also entailed an extension of ancestral cult to the lower reaches of the population.”77 In a word, Lewis assumes that the use of surnames, the extraction of tribute, and the practice of ancestor worship all developed with the upper stratum of the capital and were then, due to expediencies of state, extended to envelope the swelling masses. This imagined trickling-down of all inventions and practices bespeaks quite a curious developmental model for society. Usually peasants are the first, rather than the last, target of taxation for three obvious reasons: they cannot abscond since their limited assets are usually tied to the soil; they have very little power to physically dispute taxation; and in a Bronze Age economy they are nigh on the only surplus producers. As for the idea that surnames were also imposed by the central authorities, this probably is much too neat a description of a heterogeneous reality where some people assumed surnames and others did not; a practice that probably varied with time, place, within families, and conceivably even within the life-span of some individuals. Only someone looking through the eyes of centralized authority would assume that surnames were granted rather than adopted.78 Additionally, it al73


75 76 77 78

Jack Goody, The Theft of History (Cambridge 2006), p. 37. His central example is the Levantine Phoenician cities, which he claims were probably more democratic and socially advanced than Athens, but have found no place in history due to the Roman destruction of Carthage and the common use of perishable papyri in Phoenician cities. See also Robert Bagley, “Shang Archeology,” p. 135. Lothar von Falkenhausen, “The Waning of the Bronze Age,” in The Cambridge History of Ancient China from the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C.. Eds. Edward L. Shaughnessy and Michael Loewe (Cambridge 1999), pp. 542f. Lewis, Writing and Authority, p. 18. Ibid., pp. 25f. Ibid., p. 50. In the case of Denmark, the practice of using last names seems to have become common during the Middle Ages as the use of patronyms spread among the peasant population, and not until 1771 did the court concern itself with the names of the



most certainly cannot be true that the idea of ancestral cult is an export from life at court. Ancestor worship does, after all, seem to have been enormously widespread on the Asian continent. Moreover, peasants never simply toil away mindlessly without trying to make sense of life, disease, and death; even if it may seem so to the colonial administrator and the social scientist. Lewis’s confident assertions about the powerlessness of the bureaucracy can be viewed as another consequence of his privileging society’s very top. Lewis states that Some Western scholars, attacking the cliché of “oriental despotism,” have argued that the bureaucracy developed methods to check the emperor’s power by appeals to Heaven as marked by omens, thus achieving a semblance of “division of powers.” Others have gone so far as to argue that true power resided in the bureaucracy, while the emperor, like the present-day monarch of Great Britain, “reigned but did not rule.” However laudable the intent behind these arguments, they are wrong. [...] the bureaucrats of early imperial China sank into impotence, serving only to execute policies formulated by others.79 First of all, there is the obvious problem that Lewis bases his contention on writing produced by bureaucrats, and for some reason bureaucrats seldom grumble about being too influential. Second, this seems to be another instance of a claim based on an overly formal approach to society. Lewis paraphrases Shangjunshu 商君書 in stating that “[i]f the people can be made to supervise and report on one another, then the bureaucracy can be set aside and the state reduced to the ruler and his people.”80 Lewis almost seems to share Shangjunshu’s simplistic view of government. In real life, if not on paper, middle and lower level officials are responsible for the large majority of daily decisions (in today’s jargon the problem of “frontline discretion”), and power thus, willy-nilly, dissipates throughout the system. Even more important, since the rex was not the dux (leader in warfare) – nor could possibly be acquainted with the shifting circumstances in his enormous empire – he had to rely on bureaucrats to provide him with information (and, as we know, even in the age of telecommunication and satellites tendentious intelligence may lead to large-scale warfare). It is equally worth noting that Lewis writes about many bureaucrats who made fortunes by abusing their position as well as of delegations dispatched from court to check on local bureaucrats; neither phenomenon tallies very neatly with bureaucrats “serving only to execute policies.” It is furthermore interesting how Lewis’s focus on the text-producing central state leads him to take sides in certain irresolvable disputes. An example of this is the much-debated “Burning of the Books” which Lewis claims was no auto-da-fé, but “a policy of unification rather than destruction.”81 Instead, he avers, the fateful destruction of books took place “when Xiang Yu sacked the Qin capital and burned the imperial library to the ground.”82 This assertion is not based on evidence, but if you, like Lewis and Bodde, unequivocally equate centre with order, rationality, discipline, hierarchy, literacy, etc., then unscrupulous book destroyers must naturally be spawned in the margins. It may be that the “Burning of the Books” was granted too much importance by Han scholars due to its propagandistic usefulness (after all, few modern scholars believe that the conflagration started by Xiang Yu lasted three months as it says in the Shiji), but Lewis may also be misled in larger matters by his uncritical reading of the sources. In the introduction to his translation of the Zuozhuan 左傳, Watson writes that “through the ordering of their material as a whole, the compilers of the Zuozhuan seem to be urging us to recognize that it is the moral action of men, particularly the men in positions of leadership, that primarily determine the course of history.”83 That this view of causation and agency, by and large, holds true for Lewis is apparent from his treatment of the collapse of Eastern Han control over the western territories. Lewis writes: “The scale of the Qiang disasters and the collapse of Han civilization in the west and northwest were direct consequences of the eastern government’s ultimate
lower classes. This, of course, proves nothing about ancient Chinese practices, but it seems reasonable to assume that Chinese peasants may equally have felt it practical to have more than one name per person (to distinguish individuals more clearly, to signal familial and local ties, as well as to imitate social superiors). Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires, p. 63. Ibid., p. 48. Ibid., p. 53. Ibid., p. 54. Watson, The Tso Chuan, p. xxiv.

79 80 81 82 83



decision to leave the frontier commanderies defenseless and to remove population from the region.”84 I would argue that Lewis is in all probability confusing cause with effect here, and that his unwavering preoccupation with the central court blinds him to the more obvious hypothesis that the shift of capital and subsequent “collapse” of the west was brought about by external events such as crop failure and enemies mustering unusual cohesiveness and military muscle. In general, Lewis’s faithfulness to the written records seems to deny agency or importance to any persons or factors unendowed with ancient textual credentials. This holds for the consequences of population growth, expanding networks of exchange, increasing market activity, technological innovation and lapse, disease patterns, ecological over-exploitation, not to mention the influx of peoples, ideas, and customs from foreign lands; in short, the great majority of factors affecting human life. One might assume that such quotidian humdrum would have impinged somehow upon the history of writing and authority, but they somehow get lost in the cracks between seemingly apodictic generalizations. One point carefully evaded by Lewis is the very real possibility that there were important differences between the Warring States. It is important to consider just how much meaningful relation we can posit between, say, on the one hand, bronze inscriptions from Anyang, and on the other, an apparently fictional story composed five hundred years later and five hundred kilometers away? In his Sanctioned Violence in Early China Lewis averred that “[b]ecause the sublineages formed lesser replicas of the central court, each of them was potentially a state in its own right.”85 One must ponder whether or not the word “replica” severely inflates the likeness between the Warring States; certainly Wagner thinks that “[t]he archaeology shows sufficient differences in material culture among the states that it can be useful to speak of several different Chinese cultures of the Eastern Zhou period.”86 Bagley, likewise arguing from an archeological standpoint, claims that Shang and Western Zhou were also marked by important cultural differences, and that the traditional Xia-Shang-Zhou dynastic history of Bronze Age China is maintained solely because of contemporary political pressures.87 However, accepting that there may have been major differences between the states casts serious doubts on the efforts to put together a political, religious, and mental unity from our various textual fragments. In short, perhaps the most significant assumption made by Lewis is that every single object dating from Shang to Han produced somewhere within the Chinese cultural sphere must fit into the same puzzle. This conviction is what makes Lewis able to make some of his grandest pronouncements, but it must also be a cause for uneasiness. Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer touched upon this problem in his review of Sanctioned Violence: I have some reservations regarding his neglecting the differences between the various sorts of the used texts. Regrettably he does not discuss the methodological problems arising from using a source as the Zuozhuan in which sanctioned and blunt violence certainly plays a major role. But is this a typical feature of everyday life of this period? And which social layers is he actually referring to? The most regrettable shortcoming of this study seems to be the lack of an introductory chapter discussing the historiographical disposition of the sources he is relying upon.88 In other words, can we treat funerary inscriptions, religious tracts, philosophical tomes, encyclopedic entries, sonorous poems, amusing stories, and all other historical evidence produced by millions of people over a millennium as somehow participating in the same story? This is perhaps the most fundamental challenge of and to Lewis’s work, and this is what we turn to next. The Relation between “Story” and “History” in Lewis’s Work Perhaps the oddest element of Lewis’s Writing and Authority is that he treats the bulk of his sources as if they were spoken in one, monotonous tone of voice. Lewis reads the Zuozhuan and other works (not least the Shiji), as if they were honest, more or less reliable efforts to depict past realities. However, ghost stories told to frighten and
84 85 86 87 88

Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires, p. 257. Mark Edward Lewis, Sanctioned Violence in Early China (Albany, NY 1990), p. 8. Wagner, Iron and Steel, p. 22f. Robert Bagley, “Shang Archeology,” pp. 230f. Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer in TP 77 (1991) 4/5, pp. 360-364, p. 361.



delight children are not necessarily a good source to people’s belief systems. This is, nonetheless, the way Lewis reads his texts and it effectively annuls their every literary aspect. Yet, it seems somehow absurd to assume that Chinese authors did not employ literary devices such as hyperbole, irony, humour, melody, metaphor, symbol, contrast, sarcasm, and – absurdity. We could, of course, read the two Homerian epics of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ homeward voyage as if they had been written by a stone-faced terracotta warrior. Then we might adduce that twelfth century Asia Minor witnessed a rapid waning of state-sponsored warfare, perhaps fueled by a greater sense of individualism brought about by the need to rein in lascivious wives, who tended to elope with foreign lovers; ultimately, however, sons woke up to their filial responsibilities and helped their fathers defend the precarious chastity of their mothers, who were beset by an overabundance of male attention. Shepherds were of inestimable help. This interpretation, however, probably bears very little resemblance to actual history, and present-day Homerian scholars stress the amalgamate, even self-contradictory nature of the works, and seldom quarry them for details used to generalize about the entire Greek speaking ecumene centuries prior to the composition of the epics. But is Lewis really on any safer ground when he posits that Qin was “[o]riginally established in 897 B.C. as a small dependency to raise horses for the Zhou royal house”?89 It certainly makes for a very neat and centrallygoverned storyline but it is worth examining Lewis’s source, namely the fifth chapter of the Shiji. From this chapter we learn that Qin descended from Emperor Zhuan Xu 顓頊 (a ruler of high antiquity), and furthermore that Zhuan Xu’s granddaughter was impregnated by consuming the egg of a swallow. A later descendant named Zhong Yan 中衍 had the body of a bird but nevertheless worked as a carriage driver for the emperor. In short, this chapter teems with mythic occurrences, and that Lewis simply picks out one detail and ignores the rest, does seem to place his narrative on a somewhat wobbly foundation. The fact that Lewis passes over mythic elements and literary inventiveness may be the greatest irony of his book. He frequently overlooks that his sources may be as much concocting a past as presenting a truthful account of it. This discounting of both imagination and nostalgia is intimately related to his model of historical development, which rests upon a three-stage theory where the initial condition (Western Zhou) suffered disintegration (the Warring States Transition (a key-term for Lewis) only to be finally recomposed (Han Synthesis). In his book Analytic Philosophy of History (Cambridge 1986), Arthur C. Danto notes that such a tripartite structure (initial stability – disruption – reestablishment of stability, or thesis-antithesis-synthesis as he points out to undercut the pomposity of Hegelian dialectics) is our most basic literary structure, and one we constantly draw on to make sense of our past, present, and favorite future. In that sense, Lewis’s confidence in the overarching importance of the court at Anyang 安陽 may suggest that he is the victim of a wistful, literary hoax, resting ultimately on the human predilection for infusing past and present with the bliss and order forever absent from contemporary conditions. Lewis’s apparent blindness to fictional elements becomes all the more ironic in the conclusion of his Writing and Authority. The only two authors Lewis mentions in his conclusion are Jorge Luis Borges and Jean Genet, both fiction writers. It seems that Lewis has chosen these two because they thematize how writing can impinge upon reality, which is his major concern in the conclusion. Or perhaps Lewis’s concern is precisely the opposite: how reality can impinge upon writing. In Lewis’s words: With the fall of the Han and the temporary disappearance of the unitary state, the empire survived only as a dream and a vision, and thus was swallowed up by its textual double. In this form it was to survive and develop till the end of imperial China. [...] by the late imperial period the theater had become one of the most important modes for the dissemination in local society of ethics, political principles, and history. People learned how to be Chinese by watching performers dressed in the costumes of fallen dynasties [...] Invented as an ideal by small bands of scholars, expanded into a detailed program in encyclopedic texts and commentaries, the Chinese empire survived 2,000 years of dynastic rise and fall as a dream preserved first in a body of texts and ultimately in theatrical performances. Now only the texts and the theater remain.90 These passages illustrate the kernel of Lewis’s understanding of history. First of all, even if one does admire Lewis’s diehard loyalty to the imperial system, one may be slightly mystified as to precisely which “Chinese empire”
89 90

Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires, p. 17. Lewis, Writing and Authority, p. 364f.



vanished with the imperial court? Certainly, a large part of the ancient mythology and stories, ancestor worship, the notionally meritocratic system, the strict centralization, the urban exploitation of the countryside, the enormous regional differences, the linguistic barriers, the patriarchal family structures, the cuisine, the religious festivals, most pastimes, and numerous other aspects retain marked continuities with earlier periods. In fact (and this speaks volumes for Lewis’s conception of society), the only thing to have faded may be the elite’s perception of legitimate authority ultimately resting within a certain family. On second thought, however, we know that a key section of the Chinese intelligentsia were arguing for different loyalties well before the Qing collapse, so even this more modest claim must be further pared down, and may, despite the rhetorical bravado, come to mean nothing more than the statement that, say, “in Western Europe the notion of absolutism was shaken by the events of 1848.” Undeniably true, even if fairly unspectacular. Second, what does it mean (and how does Lewis know) that people learned to be Chinese by going to the theater? Were the theatergoers a representative section of society? How often did they attend performances? How did they spread their newfound and newfangled Chineseness? Did they take pleasure in doing so? Third, despite the wonderfully alluring lyrical qualities of the last lines of the quote (and of Lewis’s book in general), one may be forgiven for inquiring into their meaning. In what sense was China a dream? Who fashioned the “realities” to which China presumably woke up? Did the Chinese sleep for so long because they were vaguely childlike (as Bodde would have us believe), and was this part and parcel of their inability to distinguish textual artifice from blunt reality? Does it all remind Lewis of a dream because dreams do not admit of such distinctions? One of the most striking facets of Lewis’s scholarship is that even though he staunchly refuses to recognize literary ingredients in the sources, he has no qualms about referring to modern literature as furnishing models (if not a Procrustean dormitory) for understanding Chinese history. He shares with Bodde and Hsu a belief in the exactness as well as the exhaustiveness of the sources that seems greatly exaggerated, and this causes him to write a peculiarly tidy and lifeless history of the huge “Chinese” demesne. His dogged certainty in the religious origin of writing seems largely based on a wish to grant portentous significance to the surviving texts, and, by the same token, to the premeditative powers of the state. The great irony of his work may be that his unmistakable gift for prose writing clouds his ability to spot inventiveness and fortuity in the extant written sources; in short, to recognize that story is oftentimes quite different from history.

The most salient similarity between Bodde, Hsu, and Lewis is their unwavering faith in the truthfulness of the extant texts. The flip-side of this overestimation of the written sources is, not infrequently, the Weberian selfassurance of historians explicating these texts. Of the historians examined here, Bodde certainly exhibits the most obvious tendency to assume a privileged position vis-à-vis his objects of study in his musings about the oneiric and irrational qualities of the Chinese language. One may, however, also ponder whether this elemental sense of superiority influences Lewis’s work; certainly his concluding statements about the dreamy world inhabited by the Chinese for millennia as well as, more fundamentally, his faith in his own ability to reduce the Chinese Bronze Age to a manageable and coherent story by extracting tidbits from written sources that are, after all, meager and multifarious. On the other hand, there is no science without boldness, and probably no one would fault Lewis for making grandiloquent statements if their basic approach did not appear somewhat dated. The most obvious simplification made by Bodde and Lewis is their idealistic propensity for viewing history as the creation of a few great men. In Bodde’s case Li Si, and Lewis grants no less importance to Shang Yang, whereas neither has much to say about the first emperor himself (who did after all preside over the enormous conquests and important reforms). Considering the shabby nature of our sources, the position of either historian seems equally precarious, and the demotion of the first emperor should perhaps be seen as attempts to claim new territory for the historian. What is more interesting is the shared presumption that one man determines the course of history. In Lewis’s work, this foreshortening of perspective leads to a Bildungsroman-like sense of fatalism, as in his description of how Qin was fated to collapse. Another example is his slightly comical formulation that after the Qin had defeated Zhao but also themselves suffered a major defeat, “[a]ll that remained was the destruction between 230 and 221 of the remaining six Warring States.”91 In other words, “all that remained” was regrouping and

Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires, p. 38.



conquering more or less the known world. In certain places, Bodde partakes of this idea of fated “steady state”history, as when he writes that the Chinese dislike of merchants was formed in this early period. Comparative reading would have shown Bodde that most (at least most literate) cultures have disliked merchants (and usurers), and positing that this trait was ineradicably stamped onto the Chinese mentality during this period seems to be telescoping history.92 If Bodde may be faulted for over-simplification, he is certainly not to be faulted for neglecting source criticism. In comparison to the two others, source criticism takes up a great amount of space in Bodde’s work, but invariably as attempts to unearth the pristine source rather than aim for “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist.” Cho-yun Hsu, on the other hand, is largely uncritical of his sources and makes hardly any serious attempts to weed the plausible from the implausible. On the contrary, he makes stupendous assertions based on the tables of “facts” culled from material of an obviously semi-(if-not-more-)fictional character.93 Lewis makes use of a much wider array of sources and conjures up many interesting points, but his guiding narrative nevertheless remains largely loyal to the timehonored traditions, and he never shies away from making fantastic assertions such as stating that Han labor convicts “received an adequate diet of about 3400 calories per day.”94 In some respects, there may still be a certain truth to Beasley and Pulleyblank’s comment that “Western writing has been more akin to the historiography of China and Japan than to that of the West itself, especially in interpretation and choice of subject-matter,” because, they argued, Western historians had, consciously and unconsciously, “often accepted their [the Chinese commentators’] viewpoint as well as their factual information.”95 In other words, Lewis, Hsu, and Bodde are in some regards better understood as a continuation of the dominant line of Chinese historical scholarship that has accepted textual traditions to a very great extent, than as a part of the Rankean tradition. An interesting manifestation of the fidelity to the texts can be seen in the importance attributed to the so-called “Burning of the books,” where a wide selection of books were supposedly destroyed at Li Si’s behest. Bodde postulates that far from blotting out antiquity, as Li Si had intended, it has made the Chinese inordinately conscious and interested in their past. [...] The result has been the development of what may almost be called a cult of books in China [...] the net result of the Burning of the Books has been to strengthen immeasurably the backward- rather than forward-looking psychology of the Chinese people. Thus did Li Si’s aim defeat itself!96 It is well worth noting how Bodde emphasizes that, in the end, the unscrupulous Li Si got his just deserts. Indeed, Bodde often echoes the poetic justice of the Shiji, and thus, despite his assiduous efforts to separate history from literature, ends up depicting a universe governed by morality and inhabited by stereotypified figures enduring parable-like tribulations. Lewis and Hsu appear equally oblivious – or curiously indifferent – to the charge that they likewise rely much too heavily on sources read more fruitfully as literature than as exact records. Maspero demon92


94 95


The claim by C.H. Wilson that in Europe “[t]he underlying distrust and contempt for the merchant and his business, passed down from antiquity to the Middle Ages and onwards to the Christian Socialists and Marxists, have never been wholly dispersed,” may be something of a blanket statement, but the importance of more or less fictional figures such as Jesus, Saint Dominic, Francis of Assisi, the Merchant of Venice, Oliver Twist, Karl Marx, Gatsby the Great, not to mention the formulaic depiction of the Jewish usurer, certainly demonstrate that strains of European culture has held ambivalent emotions toward merchant incarnations of the nouveau riche. C.H. Wilson, “The historical study of economic growth and decline in early modern history,” in The Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe. Eds. E.E. Rich and C.H. Wilson (Cambridge 1977), p. 18. Donald Wagner (Iron and Steel, p. 9n18) compares using Zhanguo ce as an historical source to the period in which it is supposedly set, to using Robert Graves’ I, Claudius as a source for Roman history. It is thought-provoking that social scientists continue to churn out articles using Hsu’s book as their major source. For a particularly troubling example, see Edgar Kiser and Yong Cai, “War and Bureaucratization in Qin China: Exploring an Anomalous Case,” in American Sociological Review 68 (Aug. 2003) 4, pp. 511-539. Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires, p. 251. W.G. Beasley and E.G. Pulleyblank (eds.), Historians of China and Japan, 4. impr. ed. Historical Writings on the Peoples of Asia, vol. 3 (London 1971), pp. 20f. Bodde, China’s First Unifier, p. 164.



strated as early as 1925 that parts of the Shiji and Zhanguo ce may very well have had fictional origins, yet Hsu and Lewis utterly fail to recognize fiction (and, more or less, misunderstanding, propaganda, lying, wishful thinking, etc.) in the Chinese Bronze Age texts.97 This is all the more conspicuous because both authors adhere to a tripartite division of early Chinese history that smacks of the literary. The fundamental schema of Order (Western Zhou) => Disorder (Warring States) => Order reestablished (Han) is, as Hayden White pointed out, the most basic mode of narrative emplotment, and may very well be based on a common human propensity for believing that we by our actions are always reinstating a decomposing orderliness in the world.98 The readiness with which early Chinese writers accepted this Han-perspective on events (that has remained a mainstay ever since), probably only underscores how effectively it satisfies deep human cravings.99 Furthermore, as Goody pointed out, the credulous reading of the sources coupled with the historian’s extreme dependence on them, often lead him or her to the fallacious belief that the centers of writing were both political centers of singular importance and inventors of everything under heaven. It is certainly true that Bodde, Hsu, and Lewis attribute nearly all important developments to the central state, and this is also how Chinese historians have told their history at least since Sima Qian. A corollary of this view is that history comes to be seen as a process of corruption (for Hsu and Lewis mostly societal, for Bodde rather a corruption of the immaculate text) that must be undone. This may explain the widespread belief in the story of how Li Si standardized the Chinese script, which had supposedly been falling into disunity ever since Zhou times. This event – known from a description in the Shiji – had hardly ever been seriously challenged until Imre Galambos through archeological evidence demonstrated that the standardization was “the result of a gradual historical process that began before the establishment of the Qin dynasty and lasted far into the Han, possibly even longer.”100 Galambos continues: One cannot fail to note, however, that this view of a once existing, then lost and later restored, state of orthographic integrity parallels the traditional view of history according to which the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties followed each other in implementing the Heavenly mandate in the world. Once the rulers of one dynasty lost their Virtue, Heaven conferred the mandate on a new dynasty who overthrew the corrupt system. The victory of the new dynasty was seen not just as an expansion of dominance but as the victory of good over evil, the reinstatement of order in the subcelestial world. [...] The traditional view of history [...] is gradually changing as new archeological evidence comes to daylight. We begin to realize that the Shang at Anyang were neither the central nor the dominant civilisation on the Chinese continent and that there were other thriving civilisations not mentioned in historical sources. Similarly, the evolution of Chinese writing cannot be viewed as a process moving from the state of perfection towards disunity and then back to a standard either.101 If there, as Bodde suggests, exists a “cult of books” in China, its most passionate worshippers seem to be Western historians working on early Chinese history. And if history is to keep up with archeology in the significant reframing of ancient Chinese history, we historians must stop treating the textual sources as holy writ, widen our outlook to comparative anthropology, and take seriously the effects of changing trade patterns, disease flows, meteorology, as well as technological invention and lapse. Then, and only then, we may be able to integrate the written remains as fascinating puzzle pieces in the picture of a vibrant Chinese Bronze Age.

97 98 99

100 101

Maspero, “Le roman de Sou Ts’in.” Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore 1973), p. 5ff. Examples include Arnold van Gennep who pointed out that a similar tripartite structure lies at the root of rites of passage cross-culturally; Sigmund Freud’s postulate that we long for reintegration into the motherly womb; and of course the Biblical emplotment of the human condition as “Paradise lost but-soon-to-be-found.” Imre Galambos, “The myth of Qin unification of writing in Han sources,” in Acta Orientalia, LVII (2004) 2, p. 192. Ibid., p. 202.