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LIANG CAI, Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014. xii, 276 pp. US$ 85 (hb). ISBN 978-1-43 84-4849-7 This is a book by a scholar who lacks historical imagination (or possibly training?), who is not widely read in her field, judging from her bibliography, and who tends to play fast and loose with her terminology and her sources. As non-specialists are citing this book as if it were an accurate reflection of the first stable empire in China, the Western Han (202 BCE–9 CE),1 a fair reviewer must outline the reasons for such a negative assessment. This puzzling book is slippery in its claims, but the argument boils down to this: that the rise of the ru 儒 (my “classicists,” her “Confucians”) after Han Wudi 漢武帝 (r. 141–87 BCE) is due to a single cause: a power vacuum created in the capital bureaucracy in the wake of the witchcraft trials of 91–90 BCE, shortly before Wudi’s death. Any reader might ask how Huo Guang 霍光, a close relative of the very Wei 衛 heir apparent whose supporters were targeted during those trials, not only survived the witchcraft scare, but also went on to assume supreme powers within five years. Also, how did these ru come into their court positions before 91 BCE, so that they might express support for Huo? A specialist might push: what sorts of people generally enjoyed power at Wudi’s court who were not classically trained, given Wudi’s fondness for literary flourishes? Somehow the Imperial Academy (taixue 太學) figures in Cai’s story, but I am hard put to explain how. Good historians are taught early on that monocausal theories cannot explain a complex phenomenon, and indeed US historians have not engaged in such monocausal theories since the Turner thesis (1893) swept the field of American history.2 To prove her monocausal hypothesis, Cai must engage in a series of questionable moves. First, the regent Huo Guang must somehow become a special patron of the ru, because they “helped bang the drum for Huo” (p. 162). Second, Xuandi 宣帝 (r. 79–48 BCE) must be recast as a fervent ru supporter, when he was actively hostile toward some classicists and concerned, above all, with demonstrated administrative ability (as admitted on p. 165). Third, Cai must style the ru an exclusive group with a monopoly on (a) knowledge of the Classics and particularly (b) adept wielding of “correlative cosmology,” though she contradicts herself regarding their group membership (see below); and something so ill-defined as her version of correlative cosmology appears in every single text from Zhanguo through Western Han so that it can hardly be the exclusive monopoly of Confucians.3 Fourth, Cai must mischaracterize recent trends in “modern” scholarship (as on p. 178).4 Then, 1 But see the careful review by Michael Loewe, “Review Article: Officials of Western Han and Their Background,” Archiv Orientální 82, no. 2 (2014): 381–388. 2 Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), argued that American democracy was formed by the experience of pioneers on the American frontier. 3 For “correlative cosmology,” see Appendix to Nylan, “Yin/yang, Five Phases, and qi,” in China’s Early Empires: A Re-Appraisal, ed. Michael Nylan and Michael Loewe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 409. Cai asserts that correlative cosmology won “open acknowledgment of the government” only in Xuandi’s time (p. 173), which is nonsense. 4 Here she states that “modern scholars” assume that under Emperor Wu the Gongyang 公羊 tradition had become a philosophical orthodoxy, but many modern scholars have argued the inappropriateness of importing such loaded terms as “orthodoxy” (derived from Judaeo-Christianity) into discussions of Han-era beliefs. 196 REVIEWS whenever it suits her purposes, Cai must collapse different historical periods into “Qin and Han,” despite the established fact that the courts in Qin, in early Western Han, in late Western Han, and in Eastern Han operated on quite different bases propped up by different rationales and institutions.5 A significant problem with the book is Cai’s failure to provide a clear definition of her key term...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2050-8999
Print ISSN
0737-769X
Pages
pp. 196-199
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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