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        Review of Zhao Dingxin . The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, xx + 447 pp.
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This ambitious book promises to re-chart “overarching patterns of China's past,” trying to show that “although [China's] history is nonteleological and significantly contingent, it is also directional and patterned” (p. 5). The author's principal goals are “to explain how and why China was unified and developed into a bureaucratic empire under the state of Qin” and “how it was that … the political-cultural structure of China that was institutionalized during the Western Han showed such resilience despite great changes in demography, socioeconomic structure, ethnic composition, market relations, religious landscapes, technology, and in other respects brought about by rebellions or nomadic conquests” (p. 6). These macro-historical questions are intertwined with many “meso/micro questions” that span almost three millennia: from “What was the nature of the city-states that emerged during the Western Zhou dynasty” to “Why did the Zunghars fail in their geopolitical competition with the Manchu Qing dynasty” (pp. 8–9).

The book is divided into four uneven parts. Part I (45 pp.) comprises an introduction and theoretical chapter (“A Theory of Historical Change”). Part II, “The Historical Background of the Eastern Zhou Era” (56 pp.) presents a summary of Western Zhou 西周 (1046–771 b.c.e.) history and the author's introduction to some basic trends of the subsequent Eastern Zhou 東周 (770–256 b.c.e.) age. Part III (“War-Driven Dynamism in the Eastern Zhou Era”) (183 pp.) is the core of the book. It deals, despite the Eastern Zhou-focused title, with China's history well toward the end of the Former Han 前漢 dynasty (206/202 b.c.e–9 c.e.). Finally, Part IV (“The Confucian-Legalist State and Patterns of Chinese History”) summarizes the history of the subsequent two imperial millennia in just 84 pp. Clearly, the author considers the so-called Eastern Zhou period the crux of Chinese history, which therefore attracts his utmost attention. It is also the period in dealing with which Zhao-sociologist tries to become Zhao-historian, with somewhat mixed results (see below).

Zhao's theoretical framework is based on amalgamation of Michael Mann's identification of four sources of social power (economic, military, ideological, and political) with a “Spencerian element,” which allows him to identify “the dialectic interactions between competition and institutionalization as the most important driving force of social change” (p. 47). Zhao asserts that intense “competition and institutionalization” in the Eastern Zhou period—the formative age of China's political structures—brought about “the Confucian-Legalist” state that matured by the Former Han period. This state is identified as “a system of government that merged political and ideological power, harnessed military power and marginalized economic power.” This peculiar system that employed Legalist techniques of rule under the overarching guidance of Confucian ethics was “so resilient and adaptive that it survived numerous challenges and persisted up to the Republican Revolution in 1911” (p. 14). Once it collapsed, though, the demise was comprehensive; hence, efforts of cultural conservatives in today's China notwithstanding, “Confucianism became rootless and its influence shrank,” weakening the conservative forces to the extent that “Westernization … finds its most unreserved expression in today's China” (p. 373).

I admire Zhao's intellectual audacity, which allowed him to bring about novel theoretical perspectives on some of the meta-questions concerning traditional (and not only traditional) Chinese history. I admire his efforts to overcome disciplinary boundaries, shifting from his familiar field of sociology to that of history. The book's extensive footnotes and over fifty-page bibliography suffice to evaluate the degree of the author's commitment to what he may have envisioned as his magnum opus. Yet this admiration aside, one cannot but feel that Zhao missed an opportunity to create a more engaging book. The fault lies neither with his theoretical constructs nor with the inevitable problem of flattening historical accounts so as to fit the author's grand thesis. Zhao's real problem was allowing his fascination with a historical narrative to hijack his book, turning it from what could have become an inspiring exploration of the inner logic of China's history into something more akin to a draft of a historical textbook. Overburdening his text with unnecessary details and with—at times quite dubious—interpretations of historical events, Zhao missed a great chance to engage a broader audience both within and outside the field of Sinology. To this problem of excessive historicity, one should add Zhao's somewhat superficial treatment of early Chinese political philosophy. For the present reviewer these flaws are most regrettable, because I believe that Zhao's theories deserve much more attention than the book will generate.

Let us start with the problem of historicity. A historical sociologist, be s/he as brilliant as Max Weber (1864–1920), S. N. Eisenstadt (1923–2010), or Michael Mann, will always face challenges from historians who dislike sweeping generalizations, and who are all too eager to point out the instances in which grand theories do not work. Overcoming this historian's mistrust is not easy: a sociologist may well feel compelled to enter the field of history and to master a sufficient number of details to repel attacks on his/her theoretical constructs. This perhaps was the reason why Zhao Dingxin decided to engage Chinese history—particularly that of the Eastern Zhou to early Han—in depth. Yet it seems that Zhao become too absorbed, or rather distracted, by a variety of unresolved problems of China's past, which caused him to address a plethora of minor issues that are of minimal, if any, relevance to his grand questions. Fifteen questions on pp. 8–9—which include, e.g., “Why were hegemonic interstate relations during the Eastern Zhou period not dominated by a succession of different hegemons,” “Why was the state of Chu, dominant during the early Eastern Zhou period, unable to retain this dominance,” or “Why was Chinese popular religion able to develop at the expense of institutional religions”— are all highly interesting but do not necessarily belong to the kind of study undertaken by Zhao. By dedicating dozens of pages to these questions, Zhao not only demonstrated commendable advances in his historical knowledge, but also exposed severe—perhaps inevitable—gaps in this knowledge, weakening thereby the appeal of his book in its entirety.

To be sure, many of Zhao's historical observations—e.g., on the regional nature of hegemony in the early Springs-and-Autumns period (Chunqiu, 770–453 b.c.e.), on the exceptional power of the state of Chu during that period, or on the non-ritualistic nature of contemporaneous warfare—are highly valuable (pp. 111–42). Yet these insights aside, the historical narrative throughout the book suffers from numerous inaccuracies, from superficial treatment of primary and secondary sources, and from occasional resort to fairly outdated perspectives on early Chinese history. These problems range from wrong transliterations (i.e., Zhongxing instead of Zhonghang 中行, p. 144, n. 2), wrong names (Duke Yanruzi instead of Child Ruler Yan 晏孺子, p. 144, n. 5), wrong dates (e.g., the alleged establishment of the so-called Jixia 稷下 academy in the fifth century b.c.e., p. 233), wrong terms (“assassination” for execution, p. 148), and wrong understanding of official titles (such as identification of scribes shi 史 as “historians,” p. 188, n. 92), 1 to more substantial problems.

Take, for instance, the author's discussion of the early Warring States period (c. 460–380 b.c.e.). Here, overreliance on the Records of the Historian (Shi ji 史記) results in a highly skewed picture of the period. The Shi ji problem was not so much bias on Sima Qian's 司馬遷 (145–90 b.c.e.) part, but primarily the result of his lack of reliable sources. 2 This results in entirely wrong claims, e.g., about the swift decline of the state of Yue 越 (which, actually, remained a major power well into the early fourth century b.c.e., p. 97), or about the decline in interstate warfare after 453 b.c.e. (p. 169). 3 More annoyingly, the author perpetuates an old misinterpretation that the states of Chu 楚 and Qin 秦 originated from different cultures from that of the other major states of the Zhou 周 realm. This misunderstanding derives again from a selective reading of some of Sima Qian's remarks, yet is completely refuted by archeological and paleographical sources, as well as by careful reading of transmitted texts. If the author had paid more attention to the books listed in his own bibliography (e.g., by Lothar von Falkenhausen, Martin Kern, or Constance Cook and John Major), such erroneous interpretations could have been easily corrected. 4

The accumulation of historical inaccuracies makes some of Zhao's accounts highly dubious, as in his discussion of the rise of Qin and Qin's conquest of the rival states (pp. 254–59). First, the author asserts that the eventual centralization of Qin became possible because its aristocracy was intrinsically weak and because, having inherited the territories of the Rong 戎 people, the Qin rulers were eager to learn from their semipastoral neighbors, who had “simple governments, far less bound by the complicated rituals and strong aristocracies typical of the Chinese states” (p. 255). This depiction, which is based on a few anecdotes in the Records of the Historian, fails to take into account, first, that Qin inherited the heartland of the Zhou royal domain, which made it a custodian rather than a rejecter of the Zhou culture; second, that Qin's material and written culture before Shang Yang's 商鞅 (d. 338 b.c.e.) reforms display Zhou conservatism, rather than abandonment of ritual norms; and third, that by the fifth century b.c.e., the state of Qin faced similar processes of aristocratic turmoil and potential disintegration that plagued most other contemporaneous states. 5 Or take another argument: that in the aftermath of massacres of their soldiers, Qin's eastern rivals (Wei 魏, Han 韓, and Zhao 趙) faced “a demographic disaster” by 256 b.c.e., which allegedly facilitated the Qin conquest. This inference is patently wrong: suffice it to cite a chapter from the Book of Lord Shang (Shangjunshu 商君書) composed (judging from its historical information) c. 250–240 b.c.e. that specifically tells how overpopulated Wei and Han remained even in the aftermath of wars with Qin: “Their lands are narrow, but the people are numerous; hence, their houses are placed close to each other and packed together … more than half of the[ir people] have to dwell in caves dug along the river and pond banks. Evidently, their territory is not enough to provide for their people's livelihood.” 6 Ignoring this information severely undermines the discussion's overall reliability.

Moving from historical inaccuracies to more substantial problems, I want to focus on the author's somewhat lacking treatment of “Confucianism” and “Legalism,” i.e., two terms that he opted to add to the book's title. Putting aside the problematic habitual usage of “school” labels to depict early Chinese thought, putting aside the author's questionable identification of the term fa 法 with “bureaucracy” (p. 185), and putting aside the disputable claim that “Legalism” became during the Warring States period “the prevailing ideology of rule with which no other ancient Chinese philosophy could compete” (p. 193), I want to engage the core of Zhao's argument. I believe that his discussion of both Confucianism and Legalism (as well as of Daoism; for all the three see pp. 179–87) is not just shallow: actually it misses some points that could have considerably benefit Zhao's general thesis. Most regrettably, Zhao did not address the Confucian–Legalist debate about the desirability of an independent social elite. Ignoring this crucial polemic and its historical repercussions is arguably the weakest point in the book.

Both terms “Legalism” and “Confucianism,” even if inaccurate (especially the former), may be heuristically useful insofar as we employ them in the same way that they were used by the Han and later archivists: as a classification label for certain texts that share a common perspective on some of major political and social questions. 7 These texts can be compared across a great variety of parameters, but in the context of the current discussion, one in particular—an attitude toward social elites—appears singularly important. In a nutshell, Confucians believed that only morally and intellectually cultivated “superior men” (junzi 君子) deserve elite status: in an orderly state, these men should become the core of the ruling bureaucracy. The status of junzi is entirely self-made: it is attainable only by those men who are able either to refine their innate moral goodness (Mengzi 孟子) or overcome their innate badness (Xunzi 荀子). Their debates aside, Confucian thinkers were unequivocal: neither the ruler nor the state can create a superior man or rob him of this status. Membership in the elite is determined by the superior men's individual qualities alone. This perspective eventually allowed elites a considerable degree of autonomy from the state apparatus. 8

By contrast, thinkers as Shang Yang and Han Fei 韓非 (d. 233 b.c.e.) dismissed the desirability of morally cultivated autonomous elite and even the very possibility of its formation. In a society driven by competing self-interests, one may expect only an exceptional individual to overcome his greediness and selfishness, but one cannot realistically build a social order on these exceptional personalities. The rest will simply manipulate moralizing discourse to serve their selfish needs and those of their partisans. 9 An autonomous elite would endanger the ruler's power, and by extension endanger society at large. Rather than discussing who does or does not deserve the designation “superior man,” the ruler and his aides should create an order in which only those who benefit society and the state—primarily through military merit—should be promoted.

These debates were not a pure philosophical exercise; rather, they had a direct influence on the trajectory of state–society relations throughout Chinese history. In the Warring States period, Shang Yang's ideas became exceptionally influential, particularly in the state of Qin. This state seems to be the most resolute in pursuing the course of subjugating elites to the throne. In the wake of Shang Yang's reforms, Qin abolished traditional aristocratic ranks, supplanting them with a system of ranks of merit granted primarily to valiant fighters and diligent tillers. Rank-holders were granted manifold economic, social, legal, and ritual privileges, and the upper segments were incorporated into officialdom. Moreover, as ranks were not fully inheritable, the system allowed considerable social mobility under the overarching control of the state apparatus. This system—which continued, with certain modifications, well into the Former Han dynasty, when it gradually atrophied—was the apex of the state's control over society. It epitomizes what Zhao Dingxin correctly identifies as the crux of the “Legalist” ideology. 10 It is almost inexplicable, then, that this crucial point has been entirely missed in Zhao's monograph.

Zhao not only ignores the importance of the Qin system, but also fails to address the implication of its subsequent dissolution and discontinuity. It is not clear from the current sources to what extent the Qin rulers succeeded in their attempts to abolish independent elites, but there is no doubt that, overall, these elites were remarkably weak in the state and the empire of Qin. 11 Yet in the Western Han dynasty we already discover newly formed elites consisting of landowners, merchants, and industrialists, as well as a resurrected hereditary aristocracy based on the ruling clan and the hereditary houses of Han's early supporters. 12 Under Emperor Wu (漢武帝, r. 141–87 b.c.e.), the state fluctuated between intimidating and suppressing these elites and co-opting them through the nascent recommendation-cum-examination system. The results were mixed. While the state did succeed in absorbing significant segments of new elites into the officialdom, this came at a price. New officials and aspiring officials—as became transparent immediately after Emperor Wu's death, in the course of the so-called Salt and Iron Debates (81 b.c.e.)—were less prone to defend the interests of the central authorities. Instead, some of them were inclined to consider themselves defenders of their families’ vested interests at court. The balance of power between state and society shifted decisively in the favor of the latter. 13

Zhao Dingxin largely glosses over this development, which actually could have been of primary importance for his general thesis. Nor does he notice a paradox of an ostensibly powerful state that continued to operate within an institutional framework developed under the Qin, but which lost much of its erstwhile assertiveness and abilities. Look, for instance, at the trajectory of one of the singularly significant innovations associated with Shang Yang: a precise and comprehensive census. This census allowed the rulers to fully utilize human and material resources of their states and to monitor their subjects; thus it became one of the essential means of establishing state control over society. 14 From parts of the Imperial Qin county-level archive unearthed from Liye 里耶 (Hunan) in the newly acquired Chu territory, we know of the meticulous registration of every subject. The Han archival materials unearthed from Tomb no. 1 at Songbocun 松柏村, Ji'nan 紀南 (Jingzhou 荊州, Hubei) and from Tomb no. 6 at Yinwan 尹灣, Lianyungang 連雲港 (Jiangsu) show that meticulous registration ostensibly continued, but also that it was manipulated by unscrupulous local officials, who possibly conspired with local elite members. Radical manipulation of the gender composition of the population, as reflected in the Songbocun documents, and equally radical tampering with the age records in the Yinwan documents, all suggest trickery aimed at decreasing the localities’ tax burden at the expense of the central government. 15 It was this pattern of “fuzzy” rule—rather than the effective but costly Qin system—that continued throughout most of the imperial era. 16 Although it preserved its nominal power, the so-called Confucian-Legalist state became much more “Confucian,” i.e., much more accommodative of local elites and much less able (and, normally, much less willing) to subjugate them. 17

This is only one, albeit crucial, example of an important development that Zhao Dingxin should have addressed, but which was buried under a great variety of unimportant details. Zhao's desire both to present his thesis and to re-chart the history of the Chinese empire from the Zhou origins on, did not serve him well. What could have become a singularly engaging book based on rich insights will remain a missed opportunity. Yet I do hope that the author will not be discouraged by the current criticism, but rather undertake his project anew, preserving his novel understanding in a more coherent and more convincing way than in The Confucian-Legalist State. By doing so, Zhao Dingxin will serve both the Sinological community and the field of historical sociology in general.

1. For the nature of scribes in early China, see, e.g., Yates, Robin D. S., “Soldiers, Scribes, and Women: Literacy among the Lower Orders in Early China,” in Writing and Literacy in Early China, ed. Feng, Li and Banner, David Prager (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2011), 339–69 (esp. 345–60).

2. Sima Qian famously lamented the destruction of historical records from the competing Warring States (Shi ji 15, 686), as a result of which his account of the Warring States period relied primarily on the incomplete records of a single state, Qin 秦. See more in Fujita Katsuhisa 滕田勝久, Shiji Zhanguo shiliao yanjiu 《史記》戰國史料研究, trans. Cao Feng 曹峰 and Hirose Kunio 廣瀨薰雄 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji, 2008). The recent publication of the bamboo manuscript Xinian 繫年 has further highlighted gaps and inaccuracies in Sima Qian's account of the early Warring States-period history (for Xinian and its reliability, see Pines, Yuri, “Zhou History and Historiography: Introducing the Bamboo Manuscript Xinian ,” T'oung Pao 100.4–5 [2014], 287324).

3. That Sima Qian misunderstood Yue history could be deduced already on the basis of a few entries from the Bamboo Annals 竹書紀年 interspersed in the glosses on the Shi ji. The Xinian narrative (particularly sections 20 and 22) shows unequivocally that by the late fifth century b.c.e., pace Sima Qian's claims, Yue reached the apex of its power, becoming the major ally of the state of Jin. Besides, sections 20–23 of Xinian depict large-scale inter-state warfare in the second half of the fifth century b.c.e. Since most of those campaigns were not noticed in the Shi ji, Zhao Dingxin ignores them, presenting an alleged lull in military activism during that period.

4. The archeological evidence regarding regional identities of the Zhou period is summarized in Lothar von Falkenhausen, Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1050–250 BC): The Archeological Evidence (Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, 2006). The text clearly shows that during the early stages of their history, both Chu and Qin belonged to the mainstream Zhou civilization, their later estrangement notwithstanding. For Chu, see also articles collected in Constance Cook, A. and Major, John S., eds., Defining Chu: Image and Reality in Early China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999). For the analysis of Qin's paleographic evidence that again demonstrates this state's proximity to the Zhou culture, see Kern, Martin, The Stele Inscriptions of Ch'in Shih-huang: Text and Ritual in Early Chinese Imperial Representation (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 2000). All these books are listed in Zhao Dingxin's bibliography, but, as is common in his monograph, he does not seem to engage their arguments in full. For possible reasons behind Sima Qian's biased representation of Qin's cultural affinity, see Pines, Yuri, “Biases and Their Sources: Qin History in the Shiji ,” Oriens Extremus 45 (2005–2006), 1034 .

5. For Qin's cultural trajectory see, in addition to the studies cited in the previous note, the articles collected in Pines, Yuri, Shelach, Gideon, von Falkenhausen, Lothar, and Yates, Robin D. S., eds., Birth of an Empire: The State of Qin Revisited (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014). For the dispersed rather than centralized nature of the Qin government in the decades preceding the age of lords Xian 秦獻公 (384–362 b.c.e.) and Xiao 秦孝公 (361–338 b.c.e.), see Michimasa, Yoshimoto 吉本道雅, “Shin shi kenkyū josetsu” 秦史研究序說, Shirin 史林 78.3 (1995), 3467 .

6. Chapter 15, “Attracting the people” (“Lai min” 徠民) of the Book of Lord Shang; cited from Yuri Pines, trans., The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming). The same chapter also discloses rapid increase in population density throughout the Loess Plateau in the third century b.c.e.

7. The inadequacy of the term “Legalism” was exposed by Goldin, Paul R. in his “Persistent Misconceptions about Chinese ‘Legalism,’Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38.1 (2011), 6480 . For my own treatment of this term, see Yuri Pines, “Legalism in Chinese Philosophy,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta et al. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-legalism/).

8. I explore some of these views of elite belonging in chapters 5–7 of Pines, Yuri, Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009).

9. Han Fei's overarching concept of self-interest, the core of his ideology, is discussed by Goldin, Paul R. in his After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), 5865 , and idem, Han Fei and the Han Feizi ,” in Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei, ed. Goldin, Paul R. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013), 121 . For the Book of Lord Shang, see part I, chapter 3, in Pines, The Book of Lord Shang. For examples of both thinkers’ negative view of self-serving elites, see, e.g., chapter 25 (“Attention to Law,” [“Shen fa” 慎法]) of the Book of Lord Shang and chapter 50, “Prominent teachings” [“Xian xue” 顯學] of the Han Feizi.

10. For a brief introduction of Qin's system of ranks of merit, see Yuri Pines et al., “General Introduction: Qin History Revisited,” in Birth of an Empire, 24–26; for a detailed discussion, see Shaohou, Zhu 朱紹侯, Jungong juezhi kaolun 軍功爵制考論 (Beijing: Shangwu, 2008); see also Maxim Korolkov, “Zemel'noe zakonodatel'stvo i kontrol’ gosudarstva nad zemlej v epokhu Chzhan'go i v nachale ranneimperskoj epokhi (po dannym vnov’ obnaruzhennykh zakonodatel'nykh tekstov”) (Ph.D. thesis, Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Oriental Studies, 2010), 99–138.

11. Judging from the heretofore published Qin legal and administrative documents from Tomb 11, Shuihudi, Yunmeng 雲夢睡虎地 (Hubei), Tomb 6, Longgang, Yunmeng 雲夢龍崗 (Hubei), a local Qin archive from Liye, Longshan 龍山里耶 (Hunan), and the documents in possession of the Yuelu Academy 岳麓書院 of Hunan University, it is clear that independent local elites did not play a considerable role in the Imperial Qin society. Of course it is possible that the above sources all reflect the bias of Qin administrators, but the wealth of the evidence cannot be ignored.

12. For the formation and evolution of local elites under the Han, see Xiangdong, Cui 崔向東, Han dai haozu yanjiu 漢代豪族研究 (Wuhan: Chongwen, 2003).

13. See, e.g., Han-kuang, Mao, “The Evolution in the Nature of the Medieval Genteel Families,” in State and Society in Early Medieval China, ed. Dien, Albert (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 73109 .

14. The idea of this census is put forth most resolutely in section 4.10 of the Book of Lord Shang (see more in Pines, The Book of Lord Shang, part I, chapter 3).

15. The three sets of census materials are compared by Hsing I-t'ien 邢義田, “Qin-Han Census and Tax and Corvée Administration: Notes on Newly Discovered Materials,” in Birth of an Empire, 155–86; Hsing also notices demographic manipulations in the Yinwan materials. For similar manipulations in Songbocun materials, see Zhenhong, Yang 楊振紅, Chutu jiandu yu Qin Han shehui (xubian) 出土簡牘與秦漢社會(續編) (Guilin: Guangxi Shifan Daxue, 2015), 223–42.

16. The concept of “fuzzy” rule as an alternative to Qin's “high-performing” system was developed by Gideon Shelach in “Collapse or Transformation? Anthropological and Archaeological Perspectives on the Fall of Qin,” in Birth of an Empire, 113–40.

17. Limitations of space do not allow me to address the complex patterns of state-elites relations throughout the imperial millennia. For two representative samples from the eleventh and sixteenth–seventeenth centuries respectively, see Bol, Peter K., “Government, Society and State: On the Political Visions of Ssu-ma Kuang and Wang An-shih,” in Ordering the World: Approaches to State and Society in Sung Dynasty China, ed. Hymes, Robert R. and Schirokauer, Conrad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 128–92, and Miller, Harry, State versus Gentry in Late Ming Dynasty China, 1572–1644. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).