- Chang'an 26 BCE: An Augustan Age in China, ed. by Michael Nylan, Griet Vankeerberghen
To the scant English studies of late Western Han (202 bce-9 ce), this book is a much needed contribution. This impressive scholarly collection, consisting of nineteen chapters and 642 pages, and written by seventeen scholars from China, Taiwan, the US, UK, and Russia, provides thorough surveys on Han emperor Chengdi's reign (33–7 bce), a late Western Han period that is [End Page 639] either overlooked by scholars or marked as an era of declining Han imperial power. By arguing the first century bce was an Augustan age, Nylan and her colleagues change the conventional view of late Western Han politics and shed light on the studies of Han history in general.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I focuses on the environment and archaeology of the Han capital Chang'an. Several issues concerning the capital city are examined by scholars based largely on archaeological findings. Examples of their investigations include the transformation of Chang'an from an imperial residence to the symbol of the empire, the outline of residential wards within the city wall, the tomb murals and funeral cultures of Chang'an, highlighting their differences from that of other regions of the empire, and a comparison between the Han capital with ancient Rome in terms of their structural parallels and logic of urban form.
Part II concentrates on the sociopolitical transformations in late Western Han. Chapters in this section draw readers' attention to changes in the political structure, power struggles among different groups at the court, the evolution of imperial sacrifices in late Western Han and the transformation of calendrical computation into omenology, a powerful political instrument that fundamentally shaped political thought and strategy of the late Western Han and early Eastern Han.
Part III moves to evaluations of the leading figures in late Western Han, focusing primarily on the famous father and son scholars Liu Xiang (77–6 bce), Liu Xin (50 bce–23 ce), as well as the poet Yang Yun (d. 54 bce), the historian Chu Shaosun (fl. 50 bce), and medical authors and experts on Confucian classics who were active during that time. The selection of these leading figures seems to be determined by what the editor Michael Nylan defines as "classicists." The title of this book is also interesting, as the year 26 bce marks the start of the reorganization of the imperial library headed by Liu Xin, the year that Nylan calls the beginning of a "classical turn" in her 2013 article ("Han Views of the Qin Legacy and the Late Western Han 'Classical Turn."' Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 79, Dec. 2013).
This idea of a "classical turn" is indicated in Nylan's introduction to the book, which builds the theoretical framework for the following nineteen chapters. This point is reassessed in the afterword, in which Nylan offers both a criticism of current Han scholarship and a long list of "new hypotheses" that scholars of the Han Dynasty should pay attention to.
Nylan and Vankeerberghen truly deserve applause for their effort in enabling a collaboration between Chinese and Western scholars across such a wide range of fields: Han and Roman historians, archeologists, and students of Han literature and medicine. What is more praiseworthy is that the contributors belong to different generations, including senior scholars in Han studies as well as recent PhD graduates. The methodologies and [End Page 640] approaches these authors apply in their study are unsurprisingly rich and diverse, and together they present to readers a sumptuous scholarly feast. The many maps, photos, charts, and tables are also nice treats to readers. Each chapter also provides a conclusion, which is very reader friendly for such a thick book. This book should be highly recommended for scholars and graduate students working in Han studies. I did feel, however, that some of the articles raised questions in the conclusions far more tantalizing than anything said in the body...