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  • Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in Third-Century a.d. China
  • Meow Hui Goh (bio)
Howard L. Goodman. Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in Third-Century a.d. China. Leiden: Brill, 2010. xii, 414 pp. Hardcover $185.00, isbn 978-90-04-18337-7.

Howard L. Goodman's Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in Third-Century a.d. China is a detailed study of the political life and career of Xun Xu (d. 289), a powerful scholar-official in the court of Western Jin Emperor Wu (r. 266–290). In seven chapters arranged chronologically through Xun Xu's life, the book deals [End Page 501] broadly and deeply with his family background, his entrance into court service and rise in power, his various court projects, and his factional politics. These chapters are accompanied by a total of eleven figures, five tables, one list, and one map, which provide a graphical overview and visual aids to the rich narrative in the book.

First, a few words need to be said about what Goodman means by "precision." He is highlighting "an organizing principle found in Xun Xu's life of technical, ritual scholarship" (p. 22), which he also terms "prisca Zhou" (p. 22). He argues that "[t]o every aspect of his scholarship—physical dimensions, lyric forms, pitch and harmonics, and universal chronological systems—Xun applied what he deduced were Zhou standards" (p. 23), which he achieved through technical learning and methods. This biographical study, in other words, is of a scholar-official who had a strong technical bent.

A large portion of the introduction is devoted to bibliographic review, which serves to familiarize the readers with earlier studies on related topics as well as situate the current study in relation to them. The author's extensive review of sources and studies of early medieval China, especially the Wei and Jin periods, is a great contribution to the field. However, when such reviews appear beyond the introduction, they often disrupt the coherence of a chapter. Having this kind of review in the main chapters relegated to footnotes might better serve the overall cohesiveness of the book. Throughout the book, the bibliographic information given in the footnotes is often (perhaps intentionally?) repetitive, contrary to widely accepted academic style. There are also typos in Chinese characters in a few places. These editorial imperfections, however, do not affect the overall rigor of this study.

Chapter 1 takes the reader back to the early beginnings of the Xuns during Eastern Han (25–220) times and then forward through major episodes in the Xuns' history, all the way to early Western Jin (265–316). We are told the Xuns were influential and well connected in and around their hometown of Yingyin in Yingchuan commandery, devoted to cultivating skills (e.g., Yijing scholarship, musicology, expertise in legal and official codes) that would help fashion their political careers, and committed to commemorative, mourning, and burial practices. Two commemorative epitaphs—one for Xun Yu (163–212) and one for Xun Yue (246–295) and his wife Lady Liu (d. 304)—are discussed in detail and given translation. The suggestion made in this chapter about the connection between the Xuns' devotion to commemorating, mourning, and burying their dead and their sociopolitical influence in the Wei (220–265) and Western Jin context is particularly insightful and interesting. Some attention given to Western Jin Emperor Wu's practice of "three-years' mourning" might help further contextualize the sociopolitical significance of acts of filial piety during the time.

Chapter 2, treating the years from 248 to 265, deals with the beginning of Xun Xu's career. It traces how Xun Xu successfully made the transition from serving Cao Shuang (d. 249), who was in control of Wei rulership from around 239 to 249, [End Page 502] to serving the Simas, who took control from 249 onward. Even though Cao Shuang's takeover and the Simas' rebellion against him are familiar to historians and have been depicted in many historical narratives, the summary of these events in this chapter could have been more comprehensive, setting the stage for unraveling the details of Xun Xu's political shift...