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  • Divided by a Common Language: Factional Conflict in Late Northern Song China
  • Tze-ki Hon (bio)
Ari Daniel Levine. Divided by a Common Language: Factional Conflict in Late Northern Song China. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008. xvi, 273 pp. Hardcover $57.00, ISBN 978-0-8248-3266-7.

Like other major dynasties of imperial China, the history of the Song (960–1279) is filled with controversies. In terms of chronology, the Song closes the first millennium of imperial China and opens its second millennium. This temporal characteristic has prompted some historians to declare a “Tang-Song transition” that marks the end of aristocracy in early imperial China and the rise of civil bureaucrats in late imperial China.1 The transition is said to have been driven by an unprecedented expansion of the civil service examinations in the early Song, and thereby ushered in a mobile society and an enriching urban lifestyle that were unmatched elsewhere in premodern times.2 Nevertheless, if we turn our attention from the broad picture of late imperial China and focus just on the Song, we have a completely different perspective. Compared to other major dynasties, such as the Han (206 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) and the Tang (618–907), the Song was clearly an “embattled state” that struggled to defend its borders against the Khitans, the Tanguts, and the Mongols.3 The dynasty was so overwhelmed by foreign crises that the imperial court lost control of northern China in 1127 and moved south to the [End Page 446] Yangzi River delta. To mark this disastrous event, the Song Dynasty is traditionally divided into two periods: the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1279). For some Chinese historians, particularly those who suffered from foreign invasions during the early twentieth century, the Song dynasty is a low point in Chinese history when the leaders failed to protect the territorial sovereignty of the country.4

Similar conflicting views are found in interpreting the Song factionalism. On the one hand, some historians see the chronic factionalism in the Song government as an expression of the will of the civil bureaucrats to co-rule the country with the emperor. Selected from all walks of life and thoroughly tested in the civil service examinations, the civil bureaucrats considered themselves the representatives of “the ruled” (min 民) whose interests must be protected by a responsive and responsible government.5 Hence, factional rivalry and factional rhetoric were part of the internal dynamics among various groups of the civil bureaucrats who constantly debated about the “proper national policy” (guoshi 國是) in front of the emperor.6 To other historians, however, factionalism was a major cause for the breakdown of the Song government.7 Literally dividing the government into two opposing camps — the “gentlemen” (junzi 君子) and the “petty persons” (xiaoren 小人) — factional rivalry destabilized and debilitated the administration. Not only did each side blame the other for causing problems for the country, but each also adopted measures to expunge the opponents from government. Sometimes, factional politics could become violent and vindictive, such as the decades-long rivalry during between the “reform group” led by Wang Anshi (1021–1086) and the “anti-reform group” led by Sima Guang (1019–1086).8 Constantly shifting back and forth between the two camps, the Northern Song government failed to implement an effective policy to solve the mounting fiscal and economic problems.

In Divided by a Common Language, Levine supports the second view of the Song factionalism. In this first book-length study of the history of factionalism in the Northern Song, Levine not only shows the devastating impact of factionalism, but also gives a detailed analysis of the Northern Song factional rhetoric. Levine makes three important points. First, he proves that the civil bureaucrats employed similar concepts and categories in demonizing their opponents in political debates. Despite their hostility to one another, they shared “a common intellectual inventory” that was drawn from the same set of literary and historical texts (pp. 24–41). Because of their similar backgrounds, the opposing camps of civil bureaucrats actually had more in common than they realized. Hence, Levine suggests that “[o]ver the decades from the onset...


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