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  • Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire by Liang Cai
  • Thomas Michael (bio)
Liang Cai. Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014. xii, 276 pp. Hardcover $85.00, isbn 978-1-4384-4849-7. Paperback $27.95, isbn 978-1-4384-4850-3.

Traditional Chinese accounts concerning the social and political history of group formation and group identity in early China typically paint pictures of emergent group solidarities structured around idealized conceptions of revolutionary founders. This is particularly so with respect to two of its dominant traditions, Confucianism and Daoism, at the very origins of which are placed Confucius and Laozi, respectively. Such accounts then depict their fledgling traditions as developing into multiple master-disciple lineages that went on to achieve ultimate institutional permanence within Chinese society.

Over the course of the last many decades, a growing number of contemporary sinological scholars have demonstrated tangibly iconoclastic tendencies in their efforts to deconstruct these traditional accounts and their presentation of seamless genealogical continuity. Their work does this by exposing the formidable holes in those genealogies, compelling us to rethink everything we thought we knew about such histories (again, primarily with respect to the traditions of Daoism and Confucianism). While other scholars in the field hesitate to too easily accept their arguments, often with very good reasons, this iconoclastic trend is particularly exhibited in the works of historical anthropologists who tend to argue their views primarily based on theoretical and logical grounds. Some of their strongest evidence devolves on nothing more than the extremely fragmentary nature, if not the glaring absence, of early Chinese historical accounts that could substantiate such seamless genealogical continuities.

Liang Cai’s book is an excellent representative of this trend, although it significantly differs from all previous scholarly efforts to understand the origins and developments of such traditions. Heavily relying on quantitative and statistical analyses, it will stand as a singular and exemplary model that establishes a very high standard to be emulated by future studies of the origins and development of these and other such early Chinese traditions. At the same time, the standards that her methodology (primarily based, again, on quantitative and statistical analyses) sets will reckon with future scholarly works that intend to examine the historical origins of other important and recognizable cultural traditions (philosophical, religious, political, or otherwise) throughout world history.

Cai’s book is, from its first page to the last, squarely committed to the analysis of the historical establishment of what she aptly calls the “Confucian Empire.” It exclusively attends to when and how Confucian scholar-officials came to be institutionalized as a dominant force in government administration for the first time in Chinese history, namely during the later parts of the Western Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.–9 c.e.). It pays particular attention to the early Chinese historiographical [End Page 122] tradition, based most of all on the Shiji (The grand scribe’s records) written around 100 b.c.e. by Sima Qian, and the Han shu (The history of the Western Han) written around 90 c.e. by Ban Gu, and to what these and other such historical accounts, official or otherwise, tell us about this momentous historical phenomenon.

The story that they provide begins with Confucius, who is taken to have founded a fledgling tradition that always and ever had its eyes set on administrative domination. It continues by assuming that tradition’s gradual yet inexorable expansion outside or underneath the early Chinese political theaters of kingly rulership, right up to the moment when Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 b.c.e.) was persuaded to adopt a governmental administration structured around Confucian scholar-officials who triumphantly emerged into the light of day at just that time to take their rightful place, so long awaited, at the center of traditional Chinese government. This story goes on to say that Emperor Wu immediately established the Imperial Academy (the famous institution of Confucian scholarship that lasted until the end of the Qing dynasty) and set up a recruitment system whereby stellar graduates were appointed to administrative positions at all...


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