- Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire by Liang Cai
Jinhua Jia, Liang Cai, Chinese magic, witchcraft, Chinese witchcraft, Confucian magic, Confucianism, first Confucian Empire
The chief aim of Professor Liang Cai’s book is to apply an innovative approach of quantitative research to challenge the time-honored narrative of the victory of Confucianism during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE) in the Han dynasty. In so doing, it works to paint a new picture of the rise of the first Confucian empire from the aftermath of Emperor Wu’s witchcraft trials.
The book comprises five chapters. In the first chapter, Cai wastes no time in adducing statistical evidence collected from Sima Qian’s Shiji and Ban Gu’s Hanshu, providing seven charts and tables concerning high officials under Emperor Wu, including the Three Dukes, Nine Ministers, and senior officials of the metropolitan area. Among the 141 people who reached these positions, Cai is able to identify seventy-seven social origins, career patterns, intellectual orientations, and social networks. Of these seventy-seven, she finds that only six (7.8 percent) were defined as ru (Confucians) by Sima Qian. She thus concludes that they were in fact a powerless minority on the political stage of the period.
Chapter 2 is devoted to figuring out Sima Qian’s political agenda, as implied in the “The Collective Biographies of Ru.” Cai contends that Sima Qian deliberately fashioned a teacher-disciple network of ru, transformed its members into a homogeneous community as followers of Confucius, and cast them as the most legitimate candidates for official positions. In the following chapter, Cai further asserts that the genealogies of transmission of the classics recorded in “The Collective Biographies of Ru” are fragmented, and that the later well-documented genealogies were retrospectively constructed by Ban Gu.
In Chapter 4, Cai first applies the same quantitative method to analyze high officials under the reigns of Emperors Zhao (r. 87–74 BCE), Xuan (r. 74–49 BCE), and Yuan (r. 49–33 BCE), identifying twenty-four out of seventy-four (of the 140 high officials)—about one third—as ru. Then, she narrates the witchcraft scandal that occurred during the last years of Emperor Wu’s rule (92–87 BCE). Starting with rumors of black magic and treason, thousands of royal members, including the crown prince and other high officials were put to death, subsequent to being charged with conspiracy in the attempted murder of the Emperor by shamanic techniques. The final chapter describes how the aftermath of the witchcraft scandal, which wiped out competing, powerful families, enabled the Regent Huo Guang to fill the power vacuum with men from obscure backgrounds, including a group of [End Page 249] ru; how the apocryphal (Chenwei) discourses were used to legitimize Emperor Xuan’s rule; and how the group of ru were able to build their networks and come to form a new elite class.
The traditional narrative of Confucianism’s triumph as promoted by Emperor Wu has been questioned by a number of scholars over recent decades. Cai’s book makes further efforts to deepen our understanding of the period by using statistical data to analyze the changing structure of high-ranking officials during the period from Emperor Wu to Emperor Yuan. This book gives us a new perspective and presents a significant contribution to the study of the institutional history of the Western Han. The author’s broad coverage of primary and secondary sources in various languages and her sophisticated analysis of that information is admirable.
At the same time, the book invites questions for further discussion. As the author acknowledges, without a revolution or accidental change such as the witchcraft scandal, it would have been impossible to shake the powerful lineages that traced their roots to the beginning of Han. For this reason, without a quantitative analysis of low- and middle-rank officials across the board, it may not be sufficient to assess the results of Emperor Wu’s promotion of classical learning, the recommendation...