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Military Culture in Imperial China (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1300-1301 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0431

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Military Culture in Imperial China joins the steadily growing list of books in Western languages, Chinese, and Japanese that seek to revise our understanding of the relationship between the military (wu) and civil (wen) spheres in Chinese society. As is well known, the Confucian-minded class of literati that governed China for most of the 2000-year imperial era systematically promoted civil over military values and modes of behavior. Until recently their perspective has been adopted by modern historians of China, who have consistently underplayed the role of war and the military in Chinese history and society. But as Nicola di Cosmo argues in his well-crafted Introduction, this “undermilitarized” view of Chinese history is belied by the ubiquity of wars of all sorts in China’s past, which in turn spawned famous generals and massive armies, military writings and policy debates, and a popular literature that extolled masters of the martial arts and the ethos of violence and war they embodied. Thus students of both China and the comparative history of warfare face the dilemma that a culture “awash with military events” has largely elided the military from its official record of the past. The present volume aspires to resolve that dilemma by employing a four-fold concept of “military culture” (as a discrete system of conduct and behavior; the strategic culture underlying military decision-making; a set of values shaping society’s inclination for war; and a literary and aesthetic tradition that celebrates warriors and their deeds) to explore the ways in which military matters permeated Chinese culture and society in the two millennia up to circa 1800. The fourteen case studies that comprise the core of the volume all address one or more of these aspects of military culture, in a chronological progression clustered across four major periods: the early imperial era (five essays on the Qin, Han, and Jin dynasties, ca. 300 BCE to 300 CE); the mid-imperial era (three essays on the Tang and Song, ca. 600 to 1126); the late Ming—early Qing (three essays on the sixteenth through early eighteenth centuries); and the high-point of the Qing empire in the eighteenth century (three essays).

The imperial era was book-ended by militarized regimes that explicitly privileged wu over wen. During the Qin dynasty (221 BCE-206 BCE), a centuries-long legacy of violence and warrior rule intersected with increasing bureaucratization to produce a society subjected in almost every way to the strict principles of military organization and law (Robin Yates, Chapter 1). Almost two millennia later, the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911) buttressed the expansionist wars that created the boundaries of modern China by dislodging wen from its privileged position over wu when not explicitly privileging martial values (Joanna Waley-Cohen, Chapter 12). But in the centuries in between, as many essays in the volume reveal, although China was indeed awash in wars, the literati historians who chronicled dynastic affairs systematically stripped out military details and perspectives that clashed with their Confucian world-view (see especially the chapters by Michael Loewe, Edward Dreyer, David Graff, and Jonathan Skaff). Thus the disjunction between history and historiography that Skaff notes for the Tang is equally applicable to the Han, Song, and Ming: “an incongruent image of a society with a value system seemingly opposed to frontier aggression that nonetheless implements a strategy of military expansion” (p. 171).

The quality of the fourteen essays is generally high, but I think the contributors could have narrowed the gap between historiographic image and military reality somewhat had they attended more closely to di Cosmo’s fourth dimension, by excavating the traces of China’s martial past in the realm of popular culture. Kathleen Ryor’s essay on military aesthetes and literati sword collectors in the sixteenth century demonstrates the rewards of going beyond official chronicles (Chapter 9), but even she remains tied to the literati perspective. While it is never possible to escape that perspective entirely, I believe that careful exploration of warrior epics such as Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan), oral and popular tales, local religious traditions, and the increasing trove of sub-elite genealogies and funerary inscriptions would reveal a vibrant celebration of war, warriors...

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