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Divided by a Common Language

Factional Conflict in Late Northern Song China

Ari Daniel Levine

Publication Year: 2008

Between 1044 and 1104, ideological disputes divided China’s sociopolitical elite, who organized into factions battling for control of the imperial government. Advocates and adversaries of state reform forged bureaucratic coalitions to implement their policy agendas and to promote like-minded colleagues. During this period, three emperors and two regents in turn patronized a new bureaucratic coalition that overturned the preceding ministerial regime and its policies. This ideological and political conflict escalated with every monarchical transition in a widening circle of retribution that began with limited purges and ended with extensive blacklists of the opposition.

Divided by a Common Language is the first English-language study to approach the political history of the late Northern Song in its entirety and the first to engage the issue of factionalism in Song political culture. Ari Daniel Levine explores the complex intersection of Chinese political, cultural, and intellectual history by examining the language that ministers and monarchs used to articulate conceptions of political authority. Despite their rancorous disputes over state policy, factionalists shared a common repertoire of political discourses and practices, which they used to promote their comrades and purge their adversaries. Conceiving of factions in similar ways, ministers sought monarchical approval of their schemes, employing rhetoric that imagined the imperial court as the ultimate source of ethical and political authority.

Factionalists used the same polarizing rhetoric to vilify their opponents—who rejected their exclusive claims to authority as well as their ideological program—as treacherous and disloyal. They pressured emperors and regents to identify the malign factions that were spreading at court and expel them from the metropolitan bureaucracy before they undermined the dynastic polity. By analyzing theoretical essays, court memorials, and political debates from the period, Levine interrogates the intellectual assumptions and linguistic limitations that prevented Northern Song politicians from defending or even acknowledging the existence of factions. From the Northern Song to the Ming and Qing dynasties, this dominant discourse of authority continued to restrain members of China’s sociopolitical elite from articulating interests that acted independently from, or in opposition to, the dynastic polity.

Deeply grounded in both primary and secondary sources, Levine’s study is important for the clarity and fluidity with which it presents a critical period in the development of Chinese imperial history and government.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii


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pp. ix-xi

A Note on Conventions

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pp. xiii-xiv


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pp. xv-xvi

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1. The Rhetoric of Politics and the Politics of Rhetoric

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pp. 1-23

During the late Northern Song dynasty, factional infighting divided the empire’s sociopolitical elite into ministerial coalitions that battled for executive authority over the central government bureaucracy. At the imperial court in Kaifeng, officials formed factional...

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2. Frames of Reference: Classical Hermeneutics and Historical Analogism

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pp. 24-41

Political theorists and rhetoricians of the Northern Song were not free to define and redefine faction and factionalism as they saw fit, for they chose their terms according to pre-existing linguistic rules and built their claims upon established intellectual foundations. Trained as classical...

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3. Categorical Propositions: Faction Theory and the Political Imagination of the Northern Song

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pp. 42-71

In 4.1044, the state councilor Fan Zhongyan (989–1052) stood accused of factionalism, confronting the unreceptive Emperor Renzong (r. 1022–1063), who had a proclivity toward issuing admonitory edicts to his officials about the dangers of factionalism and toward purging ministers...

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4. Unified Theories of Division: Factional Rhetoric in the Reform Era, 1069–1085

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pp. 72-98

Well into the third year of his councilorship in 9.1072, Wang Anshi securely controlled the reins of government, with the earned trust of Emperor Shenzong and a coalition of loyal subordinates. When he debated the connections between border tensions and court factions...

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5. The Closed Circle: Factional Rhetoric in the Antireform Era, 1085–1093

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pp. 99-125

In the fifth month of 1089, former Grand Councilor Cai Que (1037–1093) confronted a predetermined verdict as the target of a poetic inquisition.1 Ever since his fall from power during the antireformist takeover of 1085–1086, Cai had been relegated to prefectural administration...

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6. Retributive Justice: Factional Rhetoric in the Post-Reform Era, 1094–1104

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pp. 126-160

Repeating the poetic inquisition against Cai Que measure for measure, the Korean Relations Institute (Tongwen guan) investigation of 1097 was designed to entrap the banished leaders of the antireform opposition.1 As in 1089, a Censorial cabal trumped up charges against former...

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7. Discourses of Authority and the Authority of Discourse

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pp. 161-180

This study has reconstructed a missing chapter from Song political and intellectual history by illuminating the linguistic rules that governed the writings of faction theorists and factional rhetoricians and by explaining the ideological and institutional causes and effects of the late Northern Song...


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pp. 181-234


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pp. 235-245


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pp. 247-261


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pp. 263-273

About the Author

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pp. 274

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862206
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832667

Publication Year: 2008