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  • Principles and Practices of Chinese Governance a Millennium Ago
  • R. Bin Wong (bio)
Patricia Buckley Ebrey and Paul J. Smith, eds. State Power in China, 900-1325. University of Washington Press. 2016. ix, 363 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 978-0-295-99810-7.

This book is a welcome addition to the scholarship available to readers interested in understanding important features of Chinese politics and culture between the tenth and early fourteenth centuries through research well grounded in both cultural practices relevant to the exercise of politics that reach back over previous centuries and political implications of the exercise of state power in this era for subsequent Chinese history. The essays are crafted by sinologists bringing to bear the tools of close reading of historical texts as well as the more diverse skills of specialists covering architectural history to social network analysis. The multiple virtues of this volume make it both challenging and satisfying reading for readers approaching this period of Chinese history from different points of entry and fields of interest.

The exercise of state power generally can be conceived within three broad categories—moral, material, and coercive—as Tracy Miller helps prepare us to see as she introduces her topic in chapter 1 on the quest for imperial legitimacy through architectural monuments and their visual impact. "Along with military unification and establishment of imperial bureaucracy in premodern China, the building of highly visible structures was critical to solidifying the authority of the new regimes" (p. 33). Moral authority rests on acts of persuasion anchored in shared beliefs, performed through multiple forms of ritual, and expressed symbolically through cultural practices. Material means of state power can revolve around explicit recognition of interests that can be expressed through state negotiation with subjects (represented by the kinds of agreements made between European kings and their elites like the thirteenth-century English Magna Carta and the many more modest agreements concerning taxation in subsequent centuries) or Chinese ideas about governance which recognized a basic relationship between political success and the material welfare of subjects. Coercive means of state power center on the familiar exercise of military force and state-sanctioned violence directed toward domestic populations. This [End Page 323] volume on state power in China gives us insight into all three kinds of state power, beginning with moral and ending with coercive. I will first consider the essays of this volume addressing these two forms of state power before tackling material means of state power addressed by the remaining essays. Together the ways in which moral, material, and coercive sources of power are used define the principles and practice of governance present in a society during a particular historical era.

Exercising Moral Power

Moral power is based on the performance of political duties according to expectations created through shared beliefs in what the exercise of power should involve, as well as what it should look and sound like through its monuments, its rituals, and its writings. For power to be persuasive morally, it has to be presented in ways that connect its legitimacy to traditions and present its efficacy in terms of principles pursued faithfully amidst shifting personnel and policies. Moral power is the deep source of regime ability to survive shifting challenges and achieve a kind of permanence beyond the limits of its actual rule, to fall into a line of regimes that had come before and those that would come after. It is indeed difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the durability of dynastic rule in Chinese imperial history through centuries of division and periods of dramatic economic and social change without the exercise of state power including a robust repertoire of techniques for moral persuasion.

The legitimacy of imperial rule was expressed through multiple media. Chapter 1 already introduced above considers the towering pagoda at Kaibao monastery, an imperial Buddhist monastery completed in 989 for which Song Taizong used an architect from newly conquered Wuyue to design a commanding structure very different in style from that favored by his brother and previous emperor Song Taizu who favored a traditional northern Yellow River valley style of architecture. Miller argues that the Yangzi Delta origins of Song...


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