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Reviewed by:
  • Military Culture in Imperial China
  • Garret Olberding (bio)
Nicola di Cosmo, editor. Military Culture in Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. vii, 445 pp. Hardcover $46.50, ISBN 978-0-674-03109-8.

In current scholarly circles, the perceived influence of premodern military culture is often eclipsed by the manifold contributions of contemporary literati, those who composed the civilian corps of bureaucrats and court advisors. In comprehensive assessments of Chinese cultural history, military culture has sometimes been given such short shrift that one might conclude that issues of warfare were almost irrelevant. Di Cosmo’s masterful compilation of essays will go far in rectifying any such impressions, for it reveals, among other things, the indelible coloration of militaristic sensibilities in court culture, a keen understanding among civil administrators of the complex problems involved in military administration, and an enduring commitment to the intermingling of literate and military cultures within various strata of society.

As di Cosmo explains in his introduction, the concept of culture can incorporate numerous irregularly overlapping social features, from the pragmatic to the theoretical, the concrete to the strategic. Di Cosmo explicitly acknowledges several: systems of conduct and behavior, strategic decision making, a set of values determining a society’s propensity for warfare and the organization of its military, and the aspects of aesthetic and literary traditions that valorize military events (pp. 3–4). Correspondingly, the essays range widely in topic and period. Some, such as Michael Loewe’s, Robin D. S. Yates’s, Jonathan Karam Skaff’s, Yingcong Dai’s, and Peter Perdue’s, detail carefully the composition and structure of armies, the laws that govern them, the economics that sustained them, and the external influences bearing on their evolution. Others engage with historiographical representation, whether of military battles and campaigns, of important figures, or of the personal records of war, such as the essays by the late Edward Dreyer, Rafe de Crespigny, David Graff, Don Wyatt, and Grace Fong. And still others by Ralph Sawyer, Kathleen Ryor, S. R. Gilbert, and Joanna Waley-Cohen address more intellectual issues, such as the interpretation and use of literary texts in the education of military men, the increased militarization of an era’s total culture, or the recondite application of theoretical notions to the pursuit of war. In sum, there is something for scholars and educated readers of almost every stripe. One hopes that the topics addressed will broaden perspectives and the conceptualization of the structure and influence of the military in premodern China. In the remainder of this review, I raise several perspectives introduced by the essays that, while by no means comprehensive of what the volume provides, should allow readers a sense of its distinction. Instead of depicting briefly each contribution, I will instead more extensively limn a single essay illustrative of each topic represented above. My selection is not tied to any evaluative metric but to what the pieces of each of my constructed groupings can highlight of the volume’s merits. I recommend that [End Page 430] interested readers use these representative synopses only as an incomplete guide; each piece presents matters of consequence and general interest.

Heading the collection is Robin Yates’s engrossing essay on the imposition of religious ritual norms in military codes, and, just as significantly, the profound influence of early military codes on civilian organization and conduct, even in much later eras (p. 23). Indeed, the fusion of legal and military culture in early China was so close that, “in the view of Han intellectuals, criminal law originated in military law. . . . There was, practically speaking, no distinction between warfare and punishment (bing and xing)” (p. 25). This fusion meant both that military norms were deeply embedded even in civilian law and, conversely, that civil bureaucrats were the masters, at least in law, of military power. Because of the demands enforced by penal and administrative codes, “soldiers were obliged to achieve a minimal degree of literacy,” primarily for daily recordkeeping, but also for keeping cognizant of the prohibitions that could lead to certain punishment, or even death (p. 40). However, the laws pertaining to military life were not merely punitive. Success in military ventures could have...


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