28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
An Exceptional Introduction to Classical China, Best Taken With a Grain of Salt,
This review is from: The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China) (Hardcover)
THE EARLY CHINESE EMPIRES: QIN AND HAN is a book that is rather hard to review. It is not, as its title may suggest, a standard chronological history of classical China. While one will have a fair picture of the period's chronology after reading this book, providing such is not Lewis' goal. His intent is quite a bit more ambitious than this: THE EARLY CHINESE EMPIRES attempts to sketch the forces that created, sustained, and then destroyed the Qin and Han dynasties. Lewis leaves few subjects untouched in this synthesis of the classical Chinese system; foreign contacts, legal codes, state religion, and family structure are all broached upon in Lewis' effort to explain the structure of the classic Chinese empires.
There are weaknesses to this approach. While written in an engaging style easily accessible to those not living in ivory towers, those completely unfamiliar with China's classical and ancient history may have a rough time with this work. Sadly, there are few resources available to help the uninitiated - the excellent THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF CHINA Vol. 1 is prohibitory expensive, and most of the older works on the subject (such as Michele Pirazzoli-T'Sersteven's THE HAN DYNASTY) are outdated and difficult to find.
(I have been told that the Greenwood Guide to the Han Dynasty works well enough for this purpose, but I have not read it myself.)
The dearth of Western scholarship on classical Chinese history poses another problem for readers. Stylistically, THE EARLY CHINESE EMPIRES is similar to books like Bryan Ward Perkin's THE FALL OF ROME AND THE END OF CIVILIZATION - that is to say, large books that mine archeological sites and historical records in the service of a specific and controversial thesis explaining one of history's great events. In Lewis' case, the event is not the fall of the Roman Empire, but the establishment, expansion, and subsequent collapse of the Han dynasty. There is nothing inherently wrong with such books. Indeed, these tend to be the most interesting and important type of book a historian can write. However, one must be wary when approaching such a work. It must always be remembered that these types of histories are not surveys, but arguments - explanations and that may or may not be correct, one interpretation among many.* When studying Roman history this is easy to remember; there are half a dozen books attempting to explain a given event in the empire's history, and there are a great multitude of surveys, specialized studies, and translated primary sources one can turn to verify a given historian's argument. In sharp contrast, there are few English language works on classical China of any type, with the few that do exist being quite pricey. THE EARLY CHINESE EMPIRES is all the general reader has. Of course, it is unjust to blame this lack of published work on Lewis, and I do not mean to suggest as much. However, Lewis rarely stops to acknowledge or explain with any depth alternative theories to the ones he has proposed. The wise reader will keep this in mind as he reads, taking Lewis' conclusions with deserved grain of salt because of it.
One can boil down Lewis' conclusions to five main points, the critical transformations that occurred during the Qin and Han Empires. In essence, the defining features and trends of the entire classical period. These are:
1) The diversity of the early Chinese empires. The Qin brought about the first true unification of China, but (as Lewis is quick to stress) this unification was mostly political and intellectual in nature. Economic and cultural regionalism remained a constant throughout the classical period. This led to an odd contradiction that would in many ways bring down the Qin and the Former Han dynasties - the establishment of a supposed "universal, superior culture at the imperial center" in sharp opposition to a backward, "limited, particular culture of regions and localities" (2).
2) The invention and elevation of the emperor above the rest of Chinese society. Before Shi Huangdi the ruler of the Qin was simply a king among kings; after him (and just as importantly, Han Gaozu) the emperor became a deity, "not merely the supreme ruler, chief judge, and high priest, but the embodiment of the political realm" (2). Sovereignty became embedded in the person of the emperor. This fiction would influence the course of Chinese history long after the emperor ceased to wield real power; even when the imperial bureaucracy had melted away into nothingness the emperor-child remained the only way for strongmen and warlords to gain the political legitimacy needed to attract the people to their cause.
3) The creation of a universal script, language, and state-sanctioning literary canon. Before the Classical period the Chinese elite and intelligentsia were divided among half a dozen languages, writing systems, and schools of philosophy. Unification changed this, forcing all who wished to work for the empire to adopt a new tongue and writing system. Just as significant is the literary and philosophical canon that grew up around this new structure. In essence, the new written language and the works composed in it tied those aspiring to state office (mostly members of the important great families) to the imperial court and its rule.
4) The demilitarization of the Chinese peasantry and interior, and the delegation of military affairs to the margins of society - mercenaries, nomads, and prisoners living on the edge of the empire. The change from universal conscription of the peasantry to the sole use of professional troops had many causes, but Lewis focuses on two in particular: the transformation of China from a multi-state system composed of kingdoms engaged in a constant state of conquest and war to a unified empire whose greatest threats were nomadic enemies on the frontier, and developments in technology and tactics (particularly the move towards cavalry-centric armies) that favored long-term hires over citizen draftees.
5) The development of a elite upper class that maintained its elect position through a combination of trade, pursuit of political office, the establishment of expansive kinship networks, and large scale landholding. This development is charted from the early days of the Qin Empire, where Legalist policies had completely atomized Chinese society into nuclear families serving the state, to the collapse of the Han Dynasty, where the largest and most powerful of these clans had attained more economic and political power than the imperial court.
These five trends were not objects in isolation to each other. To the contrary, they were part of one large system whose developments were interdependent with the rest. These intersections are easy enough to spot: the transition from armies composed of conscripted citizen-farmers to professional soldiers and mercenaries led to the dissolution of the universal draft and the adoption of a universal capitation tax. The tax, which could only be paid in currency, prompted peasants to borrow money from richer farmers, merchants, and money-lenders, who in turn became possessors of the land when the peasants defaulted on their loans. This in turn created a sort of landed gentry eager to cement their new found wealth and power by engaging in large scale trade and political office holding. Both of these occupations required intimate familiarity with the language and canon of the imperial court, and members of these families soon immersed themselves in the imperial prestige culture. The families thus became a bridge between the emperor and the disparate regions of his empire, imposing his will across the land in a manner the Han's understaffed bureaucracy could never have achieved. This decentralization of power - towards the great families in the interior and great generals on the far frontier - allowed the Han to maintain a vast empire for the better part of three decades. However, this scope of warlordism and landlordism increased with time, and as it did, the imperial court's influence waned, eventually reaching the point where it had no functional control of the country outside of the capital. Divided between warring generals, bandits, and powerful families, the dynasty collapsed into a disunion that would last several hundred years.
This is a brief sketch of the much larger picture Lewis paints in his book. He does this with great skill, adeptly weaving this larger view into his chapter length descriptions of classical Chinese cities, rural life, kinship, and geography. Without a doubt, THE EARLY CHINESE EMPIRES is a masterpiece of historical argument, and an incredible resource for students of history. Were it not for a few sweeping statements lacking in citation, poor chronology (the one provided in the back is hardly sufficient for those unfamiliar with period), and Lewis's failure to acknowledge and give proper time to competing theories, this book would receive a guaranteed five stars. As it is, I give the book a solid four. (4 ½, if Amazon would allow me.)
*To an extent all works of history can be described as such. Good surveys tend to be *less* like this however, giving a bit more emphasis to "what" than the "why" of a chosen period.