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  • Eternal Questions
  • Dennis Grafflin (bio)
Yuri Pines . Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. viii, 310 pp. Hardcover $57.00, ISBN 978-0-8248-3275-9.

If historians may be simplistically divided into those who see conflict and transformation everywhere, on the one hand, and those who see pervasive continuity, on the other hand, Yuri Pines is a continuity man. As a self-proclaimed disciple of Liu Zehua of Nankai University, Tianjin, he sees that the thread of coherence that ties Chinese civilization together is "monarchism as the essential feature of Chinese political culture" (p. 7). Too sophisticated to argue for China as an immortal dynastic system, Pines proposes that "the most durable political structure in human history" (p. 9) derived its unique strength from its ability to accomplish "almost miraculous resurrection after years of disorder" (p. 1). This vitality grew out of a shared political discourse, forged in the Zhanguo/Warring States period (defined here as 453-221 B.C.E.), that preceded any instantiation of empire, but made it "the only conceivable polity for the inhabitants of the Chinese world" (p. 2). Hence, the careful wording of the book's title—the vision, rather than the empire, endures forever.

To the possible criticism that this is merely a restatement of the old idea of an endless cycling between wen and wu in Chinese history—that stable pattern and chaotic violence inevitably evoke each other in alternation—Pines opposes a careful intellectual program, precisely articulated in his introduction. His goal is to place in the broadest possible "sociopolitical context" (p. 8) "both the transmitted and the archeologically discovered texts" (p. 5) of the pre-imperial era, in order to demonstrate a discourse of "peace and stability, which the majority identified as attainable only within a universal empire" (p. 8).

This wide-ranging material is organized under the three headings of rulership, officialdom ("the intellectually active members of the shi stratum"), and the common people, conceived as "potential political actors" (p. 3). That potential is seen as thwarted in times of peace by "tolerable living conditions and a minimal degree of upward mobility" (pp. 3-4).

In Part 1 ("The Ruler"), Pines takes up the challenge facing Warring States thinkers as a result of the evolution of the preceding Western Zhou (c. 1046-771 B.C.E.) and Chunqiu/Springs & Autumns period (here defined as 770-453 B.C.E.)—a "legacy of ritually all-powerful, but politically weak, sovereigns" (p. 14). One approach was to characterize a utopian, ideal ruler, whose absolute power would be unchallengeable (chapter 2). More realistically, methods of ensuring kingly competence were addressed (chapter 3). Finally, the writings of Xunzi and Han Feizi at the end of the period conclude that the ruler should be both absolute and divorced from political activity (chapter 4). This tension, between [End Page 13] omnipotence and detachment, forms the first essential contradiction that Pines sees as shaping Chinese political life.

The author makes the interesting argument that the notorious long-term political and military incapacity of the heads of the Zhou house after the collapse of the Western Zhou was actually a great gift to the later empire—that "by their sheer existence as the single locus of cultic authority, the Sons of Heaven symbolized the possibility of restoration of a politically unified and stable realm" (p. 19) in a way that a series of effective usurpers and conquerors would not have. Chunqiu thinkers were caught in a trap: "[N]ot a single known thinker or statesman considered the multistate world to be either legitimate or desirable" (p. 26). Beneficiaries of an era of chaotic aristocratic oligarchy, their only imaginable route to stability, through centralization, demanded their political suicide. This deadlock was resolved in the Zhanguo era through the emergence of philosophers from the lower shi stratum, who were prepared to profit from stronger rulership.

Throughout, Pines argues that a broad political consensus is to be found in the texts, whether canonical or archaeological (e.g., found in the tombs at Mawangdui or Guodian): "[N]ot a single known text challenges the concept of the ruler's monopolization...


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