- Information, Territory, and Networks: The Crisis and Maintenance of Empire in Song China by Hilde De Weerdt
Hilde De Weerdt’s new book will attract at least three groups of readers. Song-dynasty specialists will find an integrated series of richly detailed studies on the major genres that Song literati used, and in many cases invented, to discourse upon borders and the foreign other that lived beyond them. Second, those who contemplate issues of the longue durée in China will find a provocative thesis on the historical origin of the concept of a “Chinese empire,” a thesis with profound implications for subsequent history, including the present. What is “China”? When did the idea of “China” emerge? Who conceived it and why? Third, De Weerdt is a pioneer in the application of the digital humanities to Chinese history. Her book’s twenty-four figures, twelve maps, fourteen tables, eleven supplementary tables, and online “extra materials” display the results of social network analysis, prosopography, digital text analysis, and corpus linguistics. Her work offers sinological techies a master class in the present state of the science and art of turning texts into quantifiable data. Despite the book’s profusion of detail, strategically placed prologues and summaries keep the reader oriented and on track. The book’s organization also showcases De Weerdt as a thoughtful and conscientious practitioner of intellectual history. Never content to merely catalog disparate concepts, she is always keen to examine the actual consequences of ideas—not only to document that a given book or a map existed, but also to explore who read it and how it was understood.
The book comprises eight chapters divided unequally into four parts, bookended by an introduction and a combined conclusion and prospects. Part 1, “Contemporary Dimensions of Empire: The Court,” contains two chapters. “The Dissemination of the Archives and the Formation of the Later Imperial Archival Mentality” (pp. 35–75) describes the official Song-dynasty historiographical compilation process and how its textual productions, which were legally secret, nevertheless became available over the course of the Southern Song in a variety of [End Page 210] modified formats for wider consumption. This development marked the first time in Chinese history that readers outside court circles could access, after a fashion, its archival record. This access, in turn, fostered a late Song “archival mentality” that enabled readers not only to criticize the court but also to fashion from these archives a discourse on “dynastic legitimation.”
The next chapter, “Court Gazettes and Short Reports” (pp. 76– 104), traces a similar process whereby court-generated gazettes (chaobao 朝報, dibao 邸報), distributed empire-wide to selected offices and agencies, were then unofficially excerpted and illegally distributed as short reports (xiaobao 小報). Issued regularly (how and how often remain uncertain), they contained current information on court policy decisions, reprinting major edicts and memorials and announcing personnel actions and recent appointments. An examination of poems written in response to reading gazettes allows De Weerdt to reconstruct readership reaction to these publications. She concludes that, by the Southern Song, these gazettes had become “a site for the construction of a class-based empire-wide imagined community” that, in contrast to the Northern Song concept of governance as emanating from the emperor and his senior court officials alone, now encompassed “local officials, retirees, exiles, and scholars [who] represented a new vision of the imperial body politic” (pp. 100–101).1
Part 2, “Transhistorical Dimensions of Empire: The Chinese Territories,” contains only one chapter. “The Reconstitution of Empire in Empire Maps” (pp. 107–64) uses contemporaneous maps to explore Song notions about the geographic and physical expanse of their empire and its relation to previous “Chinese” regimes. Song empire maps—“graphic representations of the entirety of the Chinese territories” (p. 107)—came in two forms: “maps of the tribute (or traces) of Yu” (Yugong tu 禹貢圖, Yuji tu 禹跡圖) and “maps of the Chinese and non-Chinese [lands]” (Hua Yi tu 華夷圖) (p. 112). As with the written sources described in part 1, De Weerdt concludes...