I came across Mark Edward Lewis' new book, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (Cambridge, 2007) last week and read it over the break. This book is the first in a new series on the history of imperial China. As the first in the series and a general survey of the period, Lewis does an adequate job: the book is divided into sections such as "the Geography of Empire", "Imperial Cities", "Rural Society", "the Outer World", "Kinship", and "Law", to present an impressionistic picture of the socio-political life at the time. An overall situation of early imperial China is demonstrated through description of imperial rule, organization of rural society and its taxation, kinship consisted of nuclear families, and the geographical difference between the guanzhong area and guandong area.
However, contrary to classical Chinese historiography, Lewis centers around system, institutions, and overall situation at the time without putting much emphasis on man and event. Hence, the book presents settings without specific characters: instead, one only feels the existence of a collective as the Qin and Han empire. Even opponents, such as Xiongnu and other nomadic groups, and internal elements of unrest such as late Han's problem with permanent generals and religious uprisings, are presented to be a part of the holistic situation. Extraordinary characters and their influence on the course of history are largely deemphasized . In addition, the experimental interruption of Xin dynasty lacks emphasis in the book as well: despite its short presence, it exposed the weakness of a system, a transformation of power, and a re-evaluation of statecraft centered on a certain ideology. Hence, the overall impression of Lewis' book is elusive at best: we are given the situation of the time without vivid characters. Even if they are presented--surely one cannot completely ignore Qin Shihuangdi, Li Si, Xiang Yu, Han Gaozu, Han Wudi, Wang Mang, and Han Guangwudi--they are vague and without dimensions at best, quite contrary to Sima Qian and Ban Gu's vivid accounts of their lives.
Regardless of the book's inadequacy in presenting character and events, its account of institutions for survey purposes is excellent. For example, the discourse on law is especially elucidating, emphasizing the important relation between language and law, the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. Drawing insights upon Han scholar's emphasis on Chunqiu Gongyangzhuan, Lewis states, "law, in this tradition of commentary, was the quintessential expression of the social powers of language" (238). Further analysis of the relationship between law and lanugae is evident in through Lewis' explanation of Sima Qian's criticism on those who follow too rigidly the letter of the law:
In short, one of the bases of [Sima Qian]'s critique was that law was a rigorous language which gave power to those who mastered its sutleties and permutations but did not always achieve justice as he or others perceived it.... Sima Qian's negative view nevertheless defines law as a distinct form of technically regulated and hence powerful language (240).
Thus, an early question of legality and language is raised: law is a powerful language, and at the same time it is derived through utilization of language.
Regardless, Lewis argues: the understanding of later history of China is impossible without understanding its classical foundation in its social, political, legal, economic, geographical, and philosophical foundations. This book, despite its elusive nature on events at the time, nonetheless completes this task adequately.