Review submitted to Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society

Donald B. Wagner
Jernbanegade 9B
DK-3600 Frederikssund

27 April 2007

The Government of the Qin and Han Empires: 221 BCE - 220 CE. By Michael Loewe. pp. xviii, 224. Indianapolis and Cambridge, Hackett, 2006.

This remarkable book gives an overall description of the structure and operation of government in the period of China's first unified empires. It is written for non-specialists, in Michael Loewe's clear and precise style, but is also a weighty contribution to the study of early China, and all scholars of the period will find it useful. There may be a few scholars in China and Japan whose knowledge of the sources of Han history is as broad and deep as Michael Loewe's, but in the West he is unrivalled. Over the years he has written both specialist and popular books, but he recently crowned his long career with two massive volumes on early Chinese government and the men who governed.[1] The present book makes that erudite scholarship available to a much wider audience.

The text varies between technical presentations of the structure of government and essayistic discussions of more general matters, such as the sources of the legitimacy of the emperors and officials, and the controversial issues of the time. Illustrative anecdotes from the Han sources enliven both types of discussion. There are no footnotes, but the "Notes for Further Reading" at the end of each chapter give sufficient information to enable readers to find the source for any statement - usually in Western-language publications (especially Loewe's own), but often in Chinese primary sources.

As is appropriate in a book of this nature, modern scholarly controversies are usually sidestepped. Historians differ, for example, on whether the Han monopoly on salt and iron production was introduced in 119 or 117 BCE, so Loewe simply writes “circa 118 BCE”. There are other, more important, controversies, however, on which Loewe takes a definite stand without making this clear to his readers. An example is the nature of the book "Discourses on Salt and Iron" (Yan tie lun, ca. 50 BCE). Most historians (and virtually all Western historians) consider this to be an actual account of a meeting held in 81 BCE. A minority of Chinese historians, however, wonder whether such a meeting actually took place, and consider that the book is a pastiche of quotations from a variety of written works. There is very good evidence, both internal and external, for this view.[2] Yan tie lun is one of our most important sources for political thought in the Han period, and the question of its nature matters very much, but Loewe states unequivocally that it is "an independent account of the deliberations" (p. 95). A brief note on the alternate interpretation would have been appropriate here. Similarly, the events surrounding the deposal of Liu He as Emperor in 74 BCE (pp. 96-7) are highly significant for our understanding of the workings of the central government and of the sources of the Emperor's legitimacy. The conventional interpretation of the sources on this event has been questioned, in my judgement very convincingly, by Liu Pak-yuen,[3] and a note on his revisionist interpretation would have been appropriate.

These are quibbles - Michael Loewe's book is a marvellous contribution to the study of early China. Readers will include scholars of the classical West interested in comparisons, students and advanced scholars of early China, students of Classical Chinese looking for the background of Han texts, and perhaps a fair number of interested laymen.

Donald B. Wagner
Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen

[1] A Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han and Xin Periods (221 BC - AD 24) (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 837 pp.; The Men Who Governed Han China (Leiden: Brill, 2004) , 666 pp.

[2] See Donald B. Wagner, The State and the Iron Industry in Han China (Copenhagen, 2001), pp. 18-20; Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 5, Part 11: Ferrous Metallurgy (Cambridge, forthcoming), ch. 4.

[3] Liu Pak-yuen [Liao Boyuan]. Les institutions politiques et la lutte pour le pouvoir au milieu de la dynasytie des Han antérieures (Paris: CollŹge de France, 1983).