Routledge Handbook of Imperial Chinese History

Ying-kit Chan

China historians are fortunate to choose from an increasing selection of fine textbooks for their undergraduate courses; Routledge Handbook of Imperial Chinese History is one such textbook. Chronologically divided into two parts (Early Imperial China and Late Imperial China) and arranged in 20 chapters, this handbook provides a general, comprehensive history that presents imperial Chinese history from the Qin (221–206 BCE) to Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. Edited by Victor Cunrui Xiong, an expert on early imperial China, and Kenneth Hammond, a late imperial China specialist, the book is generally up-to-date in content, having incorporated the latest historical scholarship in Chinese, English, and Japanese. It is also well organized for use in classroom settings. Six sections comprise the 20 chapters: The Qin-Han Empire; The Six Dynasties; The Sui-Tang Empire and the Five Dynasties; Late Imperial China (Song-Qing); The Yuan and Ming Empires; and The Qing Empire. Each section begins with a brief introduction of the dynasties discussed and a timeline of major events in those dynasties, then ends with a bibliography for further reading. The book as a whole has excellent maps and a helpful glossary-index, with a focus on China’s elite and political history rather than the cultural and social forces that shaped the dynasties covered. Such a focus is particularly evident in Part I, where some chapters, perhaps due to a paucity of archaeological and textual sources, almost exclusively discuss rulers, top leaders, and the major political institutions that characterized their subject periods.

To highlight the key features of this book, it might be useful to compare it with other textbooks in the Chinese history genre. Unlike Patricia Buckley Ebrey’s The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge University Press), Xiong and Hammond’s volume has only maps and (unfortunately) no images of monuments, paintings, sculptures, or literary works that enriched Chinese culture. Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (W. W. Norton) emphasizes the demographics and economic and social aspects of Chinese modernity from the late Ming period (c. 1600) on, while the Xiong and Hammond volume covers the entire period of China’s imperial past (221 BCE–1912 CE) and suggests that politics and dynastic transitions were the driving forces of change. Contrary to John Fairbank’s condemnation and pessimistic view of imperial and especially modern China’s authoritarian politics in his China: A New History (Belknap Press), Xiong, Hammond, and their contributors offer few subjective opinions and appear more interested in letting the past speak for itself than in illuminating the present with the past. Finally, Valerie Hansen, one of the contributors to the volume reviewed here, stresses in her own The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800 (W. W. Norton) the cultural dynamism, exchanges, and porousness that challenge narratives of premodern China as a closed, insular, and exceptional empire, though Xiong and Hammond place more agency in the indigenous, ideological origins and development of China’s transformations.

A major feature of Routledge Handbook of Imperial Chinese History is the debunking of myths or common mischaracterizations about Chinese history; insights into ongoing historiographical debates are thus offered. The handbook has a knack for drawing attention to certain conceptions of imperial China and then explaining why they are false. The Han-dynasty caricature of the First Emperor of Qin as an unnecessarily violent despot, for instance, which Chinese historiography has passed on to the present, has to change because new archaeological and textual evidence shows that the Qin Empire simply did not have the administrative or technological means to burn supposedly heretical books and execute all Confucian scholars. Artistically, given the stability of most separatist regimes and the sustained output of calligraphy, paintings, poems, and prose, China’s ‘Dark Age’ during the Six Dynasties is a misnomer. Rather than asking why the Tang dynasty declined, Xiong and Hammond’s volume proposes it might be more productive to ask how it survived the An Lushan rebellion and its aftermath, which was characterized by regional warlordism and eunuch politics. Past scholar-officials and current People’s Republic of China (PRC) historians regard Song China’s military and foreign policy as a failure because it ‘disgracefully’ paid tribute to ‘barbaric’ steppe states in violation of the universal Sinocentric order, but this ‘humiliation’ against the wisdom of nationalistic historiography cost little to the prosperous Song economy, helped the court avoid expensive wars, and brought a century of peace for the artistic, cultural, and literary attainments that the dynasty is now famous for. Unlike what adherents of Sinocentrism and cultural or racial nationalists might suggest, cultural and ethnic identities until the Song period were extremely fluid – the Chinese and non-Chinese adopted one another’s culture, food, language, and rituals depending on their own political or social needs. Twentieth-century Chinese historians might claim that Chinese civilization was continuous and had ‘Sinicized’ the nomadic groups who conquered China, but for much of imperial Chinese history, especially in northern China, non-Chinese rule was the norm. Meanwhile, for its brevity, the Yuan dynasty laid the foundations of Ming and Qing political institutions and was not as insignificant as some historians have suggested. Ming-Qing China was as much a maritime empire as a continental one, and Qing China was long an ‘open empire’ before the coming of the West in the mid-19th century. Informed by the scholarship of New Qing History, the chapters on the Qing dynasty identify the cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism fostered by Manchu rule, whose success depended on cultural links with the Inner Asian peoples and on differentiating the administration of non-Han regions from that of the formerly Ming territories (‘China Proper’) in terms of culture, ethnicity, politics, and religion. Although China specialists might find little new in these purportedly revisionist arguments, college undergraduates and educated laymen – the target audience of this volume – can still find some of the points enlightening or refreshing.

By problematizing the binary of Chinese and non-Chinese, this handbook acknowledges the diversity of the Chinese empire and highlights the issues of anachronistic and teleological interpretations of ethnic identities. It discourages projecting the Chinese nation back into the past and rejects the ‘praise and blame’ paradigm in evaluating historical figures, who are often judged for what they had done for ‘China’ in PRC historiography. One of the best chapters in this volume is written by Valerie Hansen, who sprinkles her contribution on the Kitans and Jurchens with truly interesting anecdotes and lively translations of primary texts to illustrate historical episodes and trends. In the absence of pictorial or visual aids (other than maps) and a documentary collection such as that of The Search for Modern China, such anecdotes and translations are needed to pique undergraduates’ interest. Some chapters, however, adopt the statist approach and inundate readers with names of imperial associates and political leaders without adequately relating court politics to economic or social transformations. Other chapters overestimate the impact of court politics on empire-wide processes. The chapter The Qing dynasty (post-1800), for instance, apparently attributes the Chinese defeat in their war with Japan (1894–95), the failure of the 1898 reform movement and post-Boxer New Policies, and the collapse of the imperial order to the conservatism, megalomania, and xenophobia of Empress Dowager Cixi and her supporters. However, as the revisionist scholarship of recent years suggests, the Qing court under Cixi had patronized both conservative and liberal (or self-strengthening) forces in building a fairly successful fiscal-military state. While the reform movement was inspired by Kang Youwei, it would not have occurred without Cixi’s endorsement and traditional scholar-officials’ encouragement. Many of the New Policies had been proposed during the reform movement and were implemented in the 1900s, but they ended up dismantling the imperial order and toppling the Qing dynasty. The fall of the Qing, then, was “a long and complex process” (p. 315), with equally complex reasons to boot.

Unlike a monograph, a textbook does not need to present an original argument. A textbook for college undergraduates should not only provide summaries of key literature and historical developments, but also open doors to avenues of further inquiry – it should inspire topics for a senior thesis. Uninitiated non-history majors might benefit less from mere bibliographies than from brief bibliographical notes, which this volume lacks. For the many college undergraduates who enroll in Chinese history courses to make sense of and engage with contemporary China in the near future, the volume could have inserted general or sectional conclusions that explain individual dynasties’ contribution, legacy, or relevance to the present age; this would work for Part II especially. The volume’s focus on political events has also resulted in omissions and neglected fields. Notably, women are barely discussed save for bits on literature, medicine, and female regencies. Missionaries also make only cameo appearances in the chapters on the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the development of Chinese science and technology is completely ignored.

These observations, as the most minor criticisms, are not so much to point out inadequacies as to suggest improvements for subsequent editions of this highly readable volume, which has provided an appropriate mix of data and interpretations. For all its merits, however, the hardback volume might be too expensive for college undergraduates; a cheaper paperback would be welcome so that more readers can access its wealth of fascinating stories that make imperial Chinese history so appealing.