The Heir and the Sage: Dynastic Legend in Early China by Sarah Allan (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Sarah Allan. The Heir and the Sage: Dynastic Legend in Early China. Revised and expanded edition. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016. xvi, 202 pp. Hardcover $80.00, isbn978-1-4384-6225-7.

The original edition of Sarah Allan’s The Heir and the Sagewas published in 1981 by the Chinese Materials Center (San Francisco), and has since become scarce and expensive on the used-book market. If you wanted to add it to your collection but could not find a copy, this reissue gives you another chance.

As Allan explains in her new preface (p. ix), the revisions for this volume consist of corrections of unspecified minor errors, a new introduction, and the addition of her previously published article “The Identities of Taigong Wang in Zhou and Han Literature” (1972–1973) as an appendix. The occasion is the publication of her book Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Early Chinese Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts(SUNY, 2015), which contains extensive new material. The reasons for reissuing The Heir and the Sage, however, are not clear.

The under-annotated and self-referential 1 introduction (pp. 1–12) adds little in the way of justification. Allan not only declines to respond to any reviews of the original edition, but also ignores the considerable relevant scholarship that has appeared since 1981. Particularly dismaying is her failure to refer to Yuri Pines, who has offered trenchant analyses of many of the same sources. 2 The introduction includes a brief reconsideration of structural anthropology, which was her predominant methodology in 1981 (pp. 2–4), but consists mostly of reminiscences of her research in graduate school and some of her publications thereafter.

The text itself is virtually unchanged. Allan’s thesis is that Chinese dynastic legend reveals a tension between inheritance by birthright (“the Heir”) and inheritance on account of virtue (“the Sage”), which she correlates with a general social tension between obligations to one’s kinship group and obligations to the larger collective. (What is good for the Kennedy, Clinton, Bush, or Trump families is not necessarily what is good for the United States of America.) Examples of the former mode of succession are the Xia 夏, Shang 商, and Zhou 周 dynasties; examples of the latter include not only the two cardinal examples of abdication, namely Yao 堯 to Shun 舜 and Shun to Yu 禹, but also the ruptures that take place when one dynasty replaces another. (Remember that we are in the world of [End Page 99]legend.) The core of the book consists of analyses of five “legend sets” associated with these transitions (chapters 2–5).

This was a useful contribution in 1981, but thirty-five years later, the details often appear inadequately defended. For example, the original study noted that the disapproving accounts of abdication in Han Feizi韓非子 are congruent with the assertion in the Bamboo Annals( Guben Zhushu jinian古本竹書紀年) that Shun imprisoned Yao—in opposition, that is, to the orthodox view that Yao freely and wisely abdicated (p. 133). In her new introduction, Allan has inflated this observation to declare that “the Annalswas a Legalist history” (p. 7), without devoting any space to considering the self-evident problems with this thesis (notably, that the Bamboo Annalsdo not advance a political philosophy even remotely resembling that of Han Feizi).

Nor have all of the errors in the original edition been corrected. One painful example: Herbert Franke pointed out over thirty years ago 3 that Allan misconstrued the name Liuxia Hui 柳下惠 4 as “Liu Xiahui”—which one still finds in the present version at the same spot (p. 111 in the new pagination), as well as in the index. At a minimum, an academic author afforded the rare luxury of republishing her work ought to make the most of the opportunity by correcting errors cited by previous reviewers; ideally, the author would also revise the exposition by accounting for recent scholarship. As a nearly verbatim reprint of the original, however, this book goes down as a missed opportunity.

Paul R. Goldin

Paul R. Goldin is a professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at the University...