The Cambridge History of Ancient China:
From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C.

Michael Loewe + Edward L. Shaughnessy (editors)

Cambridge University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
Seeking to extend my knowledge of Chinese history, I found a solid foundation in The Cambridge History of Ancient China, which covers China from prehistory down to the First Empire. With fourteen chapters by specialists, it presents a diversity of viewpoints and approaches, but without changes so frequent as to be disorienting. And it is not just a collection of disparate essays: a consistent style and spelling are maintained throughout, there is an integrated bibliography, and what overlap there is has obviously been coordinated. The Cambridge History of Ancient China does a good job of capturing regional variation and temporal depth (keeping in mind that an equivalent period in Mediterranean history would stretch from the Egyptian New Kingdom down to the Roman Empire) and the following summary does little justice to it.

An introduction touches briefly on historiography, the physical environment of ancient China, and calendar systems. A chapter by William Boltz provides background on language and writing (this was quite technical, but I found it comprehensible without much background in Chinese linguistics). And Kwang-chih Chang covers the prehistory of China, concentrating on the archaeological evidence but looking also at the debates over the historicity of the Xia dynasty.

The core of The Cambridge History of Ancient China uses the traditional Shang / Western Zhou / Spring and Autumn / Warring States chronological framework, with paired chapters on each of the periods, one covering material culture (archaeology and art) and the other more historical in approach. This provides an important historiographical and methodological balance. A chapter by Robert Bagley on "Shang archaeology", for example, tries to avoid the biases of traditional history, presenting a fascinating twenty page introduction to the archaeology of bronze metallurgy and using that to highlight the breadth of Chinese culture outside the Shang areas, in the Yangzi valley, Sichuan, and the north. In contrast to this, David Keightley's chapter on the Shang focuses on written inscriptions (bronzes and oracle bones) and what they tell us about politics, religion, and society in the nascent dynastic state.

The historical chapters generally avoid becoming enmeshed in the details of particular wars, successions, and the like, addressing instead larger scale social and administrative changes. Edward Shaughnessy probes the origins of the Western Zhou and their conquest of the Shang, then describes their subsequent history. Though cautious about the use of historical detail from later texts, he highlights the significance of Western Zhou political theory for subsequent Chinese historiography. Cho-yun Hsu describes the multi-state system that evolved in the Spring and Autumn period (with recognition of a shifting Ba or "senior state") and sketches its social, administrative, and economic developments. And for the Warring States period Mark Lewis focuses on the institutional and military development of the various states and their consolidation into progressively larger units, laying the groundwork for the imperial unification.

The chapters on material culture are longer than their historical counterparts, largely due to the space taken up by illustrations. Jessica Rawson begins with a general introduction to Western Zhou archaeology, then proceeds from pre-Conquest Shaanxi (and the uncertainty about Zhou origins) down to the Ritual Revolution, providing details of key sites. Lothar von Falkenhausen covers late Bronze Age archaeology, describing finds from cemeteries and tombs in the different states and regional cultures. With more detailed information available, Wu Hung deals with Warring States art and architecture in a more systematic survey.

Four chapters supplement these eight. Nicola Di Cosmo surveys the northern frontier area from Manchuria across to Xinjiang, covering the archaeological and historical record down to the development of pastoral nomadism and the first contacts between the Chinese core and a nomadic kingdom (the Xiongu empire) towards the end of the Warring States period. David Nivison presents a historical account of the classical philosophical schools and texts, in an approach which makes the relationships between the great philosophers clearer than more abstract presentations. Donald Harper uses excavated manuscripts to present a balanced view of Warring States occult thought and natural philosophy (astrology, divination, magic, medicine, and so forth), too often veiled behind the much better-known philosophical tradition and the later orthodoxy of Han yin-yang and five phases correlative cosmology. And Michael Loewe describes the legacy left to the Qin and Former Han empires: views of the past, religious and philosophical traditions, institutional and administrative systems, and other unifying strands (he also provides a general sketch of law and legal history, something not covered in other chapters).

I have only two minor complaints about The Cambridge History of Ancient China. It is well provided with half-tones (an essential part of the chapters on archaeology and art), but it badly needs more and better quality maps: I often found myself floundering, especially with place names that don't appear in modern atlases. It is also too large and expensive a volume to be as widely read as it deserves. There are arguments for a single volume — I'm glad I had the chance to read it cover to cover — but if The Cambridge History of Ancient China were published as four or five separate paperback volumes it would be a better proposition for students interested in (say) Warring States occult thought but not Shang archaeology.

April 2000

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%T The Cambridge History of Ancient China
%S From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C.
%E Loewe, Michael
%E Shaughnessy, Edward L.
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1999
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521470307
%P xxix,1148pp