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  • “Dividing the Realm in Order to Govern”: The Spatial Organization of the Song State (960–1276 CE) by Ruth Mostern
  • Robert Hymes
“Dividing the Realm in Order to Govern”: The Spatial Organization of the Song State (960–1276 CE) by Ruth Mostern. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. Pp. xxi + 370. $49.95.

Ruth Mostern’s pathbreaking book tells the story of Song-dynasty spatial administration—the dividing of a realm into circuits, prefectures, counties, and the like—and explains it as the product of several interacting longer- and shorter-term processes, national and local. It is the first book of its kind for any period of Chinese history as far as I know, and should be read by any historian interested in the perennial problem of the state-society relationship in China, to which it makes a significant new contribution. Among a broader audience the book should earn readers interested in the political and cultural handling of space in any time or place in the world. Of course no book that asks important questions answers them all equally well, and I will conclude by suggesting alternative ways to consider Mostern’s evidence and arguments.

Mostern lays out her aims in the Prologue. Put simply, she seeks “to explain how a pre-industrial regime organized itself spatially in order to exercise authority throughout the realm” (p. 2). She notes that much work on state spatial organization has focused on international borders, cartography, and “the making of states” but has neither treated “the processes by which domains encircled by borders become integrated territories that can be apprehended and ruled” nor “analyzed what the resulting landscape can reveal about politics and policy” (p. 8). This puts things abstractly, but further on she tells us concretely that her work, first, “complicates the paradigm of centralization and decentralization that has been a persistent theme of Song historiography”; second, “demonstrates that Song policies toward northern military frontiers and southern settlement frontiers were two aspects of a relatively coherent imperial approach to the general problem of administering peripheral regions with inaccessible resources and limited infrastructure”; and, third, “reframes the well-known eventful phenomena of the Song—wars and reforms—as responses to long-term spatial and demographic change as well as crises in their own right” (pp. 14–15). [End Page 361]

Mostern proves the strong relation of changes in territorial administration to all these issues. As a way in, the Prologue offers the example of one memorial, by Cai Kan 蔡戡 in the late twelfth century, vigorously attacking proposals to transfer counties from two prefectures in Hunan 湖南 to the adjacent circuit of Guangnan East 廣南 東 (pp. 2–5). Cai’s argument tellingly demonstrates a Song official’s assumption that, as Mostern puts it, “the spatial organization of civil administration could have an adverse impact on military, economic, social, and administrative affairs.” This, Mostern remarks, “was typical of Song official thought,” and her book supports that claim. Without going into the details, it is worth noting that although Cai’s points do not all appear to make very good sense, his objection succeeded. Its success may be a good example of another phenomenon that Mostern explores, the long-term force of vested interests in keeping territorial units in place once they are set.

The short first chapter, “The Political Economy of Spatial Change in Imperial China,” lays out a theoretical framework. If I may risk simplifying a complex discussion, the framework unites (1) Charles Tilly’s idea, applied in his study of European statemaking, that “the spatial distribution of state activity that serves military purposes well differs sharply from the spatial distribution that serves the production of revenues,”1 which Mostern encapsulates as “distinctive fiscal and military geographies” (p. 20), with (2) G. W. Skinner’s model of “high-level gerrymandering,” in which Chinese states steadily readjusted territorial units, usually by adding them (reducing their size) at the peripheries to serve military and coercive needs, while subtracting them (increasing their size) in stable core areas, in a “skilled husbanding and deployment of . . . limited bureaucratic power”;2 and (3) her [End Page 362] own insight, a crucial original point, that “in the Song, counties were associated with...


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