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  • Urbanization in Early and Medieval China: Gazetteers for the City of Suzhou trans. by Olivia Milburn
  • Linda Rui Feng (bio)
Olivia Milburn, translator and author. Urbanization in Early and Medieval China: Gazetteers for the City of Suzhou. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. xx, 400 pp., 17 maps, 10 tables. Hardcover $50.00, isbn 978-0-295-99460-4.

Suzhou is a city particularly good to “think with” for historians at large. Except for its inception as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Wu 吳 centuries before China’s first unification, Suzhou has been a non-capital city throughout the imperial era, remaining at some distance from the seat of empires and the portals of power; this distance distinguishes Suzhou from the more politically prominent yet far more frangible imperial capitals, such as Kaifeng, Luoyang, and Chang’an, and makes it an extremely valuable case study.

Given Suzhou’s 2,500-year history and the continuity of information available, it has been the second half of this history that has received the most sustained attention from scholars. This is not surprising; after all, records from the late imperial era constitute the most abundant of our available evidence regarding how Suzhou was built, maintained, governed, and perceived. In his essay “A Millennium of Chinese Urban History,” F. W. Mote holds up Suzhou as an example of a Chinese city that, having taken on a different trajectory of urbanization from European counterparts, embodies instead a past “of words, not of stones.”1 Other studies of Suzhou have continued to emerge, focusing on topics ranging from the longue-durée transformation of its urban form to Suzhou’s vibrancy in the late imperial era as a nexus of material goods.2

Urbanization in Early and Medieval China sheds light on a period of Suzhou’s history that tends to be reduced to a kind preamble to later eras during which more material survives for scrutiny. It showcases three early texts indispensable to this discussion of the history of Chinese urbanization in general and Suzhou in particular. Highlighting the range and richness of information in the first millennium of Suzhou’s history, it seeks to make it possible “for the reader to trace important trends in the history, architecture, design, and development of a single city” (p. xii), but, at the same time, it states early on that it does not wish to consider Suzhou as a “typical” Chinese city (p. xiv). The texts treated here are from the Han, Tang, and Northern Song; the author calls them “important landmarks in the history of gazetteer writing in early imperial China” (p. xi). The rationale for selecting these texts for translation and analysis is largely determined by their (fortuitous) survival, as we have limited access to geographical writing prior to the Song. As the author notes, a large number of geographical writings about the Wu region between the Han and the Tang dynasties have not survived or have come down to us only in fragments and as catalogue entries (p. 59). The texts included in the volume predate the “millennium” of urban history referred to in Mote’s essay; they also predate the stele map of the city in 1229 (Pingjiang tu平江圖), the earliest illustration of Suzhou that survives. [End Page 185]

The book consists of an introduction, three chapters of annotated translations, a commentary section, and a short conclusion. The introduction begins with a brief discussion of the gazetteer, or difangzhi, as a genre, here defined broadly to accommodate geographical texts from the Han-Northern Song dynasties (even if they were not called difangzhi at the time); it then lays out a general history of Suzhou (under the subsections “political history” and “administrative history”) in terms of successions of rulers and persons of note as recorded in official histories. The third subsection of the introduction (“social history”) is a brief discussion of the ethnic identity of early ruling houses, aristocratic families, and notable writers.

Each of the chapters of translation begins with a brief description of the text, including its authorship and date. Each translation is accompanied by (modern) maps showing the region surrounding Suzhou during the historical period in question, along...


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