DINGXIN ZHAO. The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History.
Dingxin Zhao. The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History. (Oxford Studies in Early Empires.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xv, 447. $85.00.Peter K. BolThe American Historical Review, Volume 122, Issue 2, 1 April 2017, Pages 499–500,https://doi-org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/10.1093/ahr/122.2.499Published: 30 March 2017
Dingxin Zhao has written a work of Weberian historical sociology that combines original quantitative research on early China (antiquity into the first century B.C.E.) and a synthesis of the secondary literature on later periods. Zhao says (xi) that he was inspired by but ultimately rejected Jin Guantao and Liu Qingfeng’s theory of China as an “ultra-stable structure” (Xingsheng yu weiji: Lun Zhongguo fengjian shehui de chaowending jiegou ). His alternative is to present China as a Confucian-Legalist state that first took shape with the establishment of the imperial bureaucratic system in the Qin-Han period (221 B.C.E–220 C.E.). Despite the Han and later Tang empires’ breakups into multiple states, and despite the conquest of all Han-Tang territory by the Mongols (1234 and 1279–1367) and the Manchus (1644–1911), Zhao argues that the Confucian-Legalist state was resurrected, in particular by the Song dynasty (Northern, 960–1127, and Southern, 1127–1279), through the dynasty’s control over the military and expansion of the civil service examination system. This made modernization simply impossible without the destruction of the traditional system. Zhao thus sides with those historians who view “modern China” as a fundamental and necessary rupture with a “pre-modern” culture, and against those who see the recent past as one of a number of fundamental transitions in China’s history.
Zhao’s resurrection of this view is important. In my opinion, no earlier historians of the modernization school have attempted to make their case with such a thorough discussion of all of history (with the exception of Mark Elvin, who saw a revolution on all fronts in the middle period and stagnation thereafter); have done so in a manner that casts new light on the interpretation of early history; or have taken early modern Europe as a comparative frame for all of China’s history. It is a strong defense of the liberal position in China today against those scholars and politicians who claim that China’s future can be positively related to its past. The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History can be read as a warning, although not stated so explicitly, against the restoration of the Confucian-Legalist state whose values the author implies still linger in the Chinese mentality but contravene human nature.
Two-thirds of the book is devoted to early China. In Zhao’s analysis, warfare was the engine of early history, beginning with Eastern Zhou in 770 B.C.E. and continuing through what he calls the “age of hegemons” (770–546 B.C.E.) and a transitional period into what he calls an “age of total war” (419–221 B.C.E.). Winning wars required resources, and ultimately this led to the triumph of instrumental rationalism over other ways of thinking, and thus to the “legalist state” as the most effective means of harnessing resources in support of total war. The analysis of warfare from Eastern Zhou to the Qin unification of the warring states in 221 B.C.E. is compelling. Zhao tracks changes: in the distance that states traveled to battles in a series of maps, in the clustering of battles, in the distribution of war over the four seasons (laying to rest the claim that war was fought mainly in fall and winter), and in the reasons for war (showing that only later was war mainly aimed at expanding territory). Success in war inevitably brought new territory. At first re-feudalization promised a solution to holding new territory, but feudal aristocrats increased the succession hazard for rulers. Ultimately, centralized bureaucratic governance was more effective in securing the ruler’s position and extracting resources from the population, making possible total war and territorial expansion. In this, rulers were aided by the emergence of the shi, offspring of aristocratic families who provided a class of educated administrators, and the Confucian, Daoist, and Legalist thinkers among them, who he argues were, in contrast to the Greeks, oriented toward the state rather than individual rights. But why, Zhao asks, did this period of total war lead to a total conquest by the legalist state of Qin rather than a balance of powers and a multistate system as in early modern Europe? For Zhao this is explained by the lack of the constraints on centralized power present in Europe: the feudal aristocracy, the church, and the independence of merchants. It was inevitable.
Although he is interested in ideology, Zhao passes lightly over the contemporary justifications for a single-state system. In fact there were two, one historical and one natural-philosophical. The historical idea was the ideal of universal kingship, which provided an ancient justification for unification. The natural-philosophical idea was the theory of cosmic resonance, which explained why returning the natural world to its constant and proper course depended upon fully organizing the human world, an idea that was expounded by the Lüshi chunqiu, the only monumental work of scholarship to come from the Qin court. It was this theory, amended to make the orchestration of human society dependent on the ruler’s behavior rather than coercive social organization, that would, in the form of “Huang Lao” thought, guide the early Han dynasty.
Did a Confucian-Legalist state really emerge in Western Han? There was a revitalization of bureaucratic governance, but bureaucratic rule and even the state activism and territorial expansion of Emperor Wu (141–87 B.C.E.) did not follow the Qin legalist model of organizing society for total war. It is hard to agree that Emperor Wu promoted “Confucianism.” Rather, as the “Discourses on Salt and Iron” from 81 B.C.E. show, there was a division in the bureaucracy between defenders of Wu’s activist state and advocates of a morally and economically self-sufficient rural order. In fact, Zhao allows that Confucianism did not fully develop until the Song dynasty, one thousand years later (275), yet the discussion of the last millennium of Chinese history is overly brief. The claim that the centralized bureaucratic state ruled through legalism and was legitimated by Confucianism (292) distracts from Zhao’s larger conclusion that the most enduring dynastic states in China’s history found ways of institutionalizing the collaboration of central power and semi-autonomous elites through bureaucratic governance.