The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China) Review

The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China)
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The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China) ReviewA solid introduction to Chinese Imperial history. This is the first volume of a projected survey of Imperial history being brought out by Harvard University Press. Lewis presents the first Chinese Empires, the Chin and the Han, as developing several of the basic institutions that would characterize the Chinese state for centuries. These include the overarching goal of a unified state transcending regions, a political system based on the Emperor as source of all authority and focal point of loyalty, the development of a unified intellectual culture serving the state, the demilitarization of the interior and development of professional and client armies defending the frontiers against nomadic peoples, and the emergence of the gentry that would be the mediator between the Imperial center and the countryside.
Lewis describes the Chin/Han as akin to the Classical period of Western history. This is true in both the sense of these societies establishing basic features of their descendant cultures but also in the sense of the problems of reconstructing their histories. As with Classical history, Lewis draws on literary accounts, contemporary histories, a modest amount of surviving primary documents, epigraphy, and archaeological evidence. One thing that appears to be different is the greater degree of continuity between the Chin/Han and later states.
Lewis covers the emergence of the initial Chin empire from the preceding Warring States. This seems to be the story of the development of a relatively centralized and militarized state emerging from a welter of feudatories, and then able to conquer rival states to produce a unified Empire. The history of the succeeding Han is presented as a partial dismantling of Chin institutions to produce the basic features of the Chinese state. Lewis does not present a typical narrative but rather more of a structural analysis. Much of the book consists of thematic chapters on family life, religion, intellectual culture, and law. This may be due in part to the limitations of the narrative record. Perhaps for the same reason, some very intriguing aspects, such as the apparent considerable monetarization of the Chinese economy are not explored. There is a particularly interesting discussion of the military strategies adopted by the Han to deal with Central Asian nomads and how their failure apparently precipitated the fall of the Han.
Lewis is a competent, as opposed to very good, writer. Perhaps because of the survey format, there are some limitations for the general reader. A brief discussion of the nature of the Zhou feudal state would have been useful. Similarly, Lewis has a good discussion of the emergence of an official intellectual canon but little discussion of the actual content of its different components. Having raised the comparison with Classical history, Lewis provides no comparative discussion. For example, the use of Central Asian nomads as client armies invites comparison with the later Roman Empire.
There are a number of maps but they are not of very good quality. Overall, this is a good start for this series.

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