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  • Writing and Authority in Early China
  • Lothar von Falkenhausen
Writing and Authority in Early China. By Mark Edward Lewis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Pp. vii + 544. Hardcover $92.50. Paper $31.95.

Writing and Authority in Early China is a forceful and sparklingly original work in which Mark Edward Lewis explores the role of writing and texts in the transformation of political authority during the Warring States, Qin, and Western Han periods. Following in the footsteps of the author's well-received first book1 and his magisterial contribution to the Cambridge History of Ancient China,2Writing and Authority establishes Lewis as the premier Western historian of the crucial centuries surrounding the unification of China under a centrally administered empire in 221 B.C. The book's complex, comprehensive, and coherent argument is informed by a variety of Western theoretical approaches, but it principally emanates from a close reading of the full record of transmitted texts and recently excavated manuscripts on [End Page 127] bamboo or wooden slips. The inclusion of the latter class of sources, beset with treacherous problems of decipherment, is still unusual in mainstream sinological scholarship and indicates the author's supreme confidence in his philological skills. With a firm hand, undaunted by the multifarious nature of his materials, Lewis guides the reader to some fundamental themes in recent sinology, opening manifold novel perspectives along the way. Even when dealing with well-known texts, he often proposes striking reinterpretations.

In his Introduction, Lewis enumerates six main functions of writing in ancient China: enforcing state authority; creating text-based communities and "public spheres"; transcending the confines of space, time, and human mortality; fashioning figures of authority in the past; standardizing specialized technical terminology; and encrypting secret meanings. In Lewis' own words, "the culminating role of writing in the period, and the key to its importance in imperial China, was the creation of parallel realities within texts that claimed to depict the entire world" (p. 4). This ultimately led to the formation of the Confucian canon as a "textual double of the polity" that could survive cataclysmic changes of regimes.

In chapter 1, "Writing the State," Lewis points out that before the Warring States period Chinese writing occurred exclusively in religious contexts. After circa 500 B.C., written documents gradually came to be used in the administration of government and trade. Both in their details of formulation and in the implication that anything committed to writing was thereby supernaturally validated, these new types of documents exhibit pervasive continuity with the earlier kinds of texts used in ritual communication with the ancestral spirits. Such continuity is also reflected in the rise of religious beliefs in a netherworld governed by a bureaucratic hierarchy and administrative processes parallel to those of the world of the living. According to Lewis, "the most important modification in the shift to an administrative polity [in the Warring States] was the extension of writing to new elements of the population. The attributes of the Zhou nobility ... were transferred to the common people in the administrative documents of the new state. This widening range of inscription into the state order altered the social meaning of being recorded from a sign of power to one of subjection" (p. 13).

Warring States rulers were cast in the role not of the authors of texts but of the authority behind them. Administrative and legal texts were concerned, ultimately, with the proper naming of phenomena, a process that had to adapt itself continually to the changes of the times. The authority of rulers came to encompass both human society and the natural world. "Whereas local and central administration were largely created through reworking and rewriting the ritual bases of the old Zhou order by means of a rationalizing cosmology, the re-invention of rulership drew on the contemporary religious realm and what is sometimes described as shamanism to provide images of cosmic power" (p. 42). Lewis illustrates the mechanics for applying these universal principles of rulership by a comprehensive analysis of the Zhou li (or Zhou guan), emphasizing the cosmological arrangement of the ideal government described therein and the dual administrative and religious dimensions of...