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  • Forming the Early Chinese Court: Rituals, Spaces, Roles by Luke Habberstad
  • Christopher F. Kim (bio)
Luke Habberstad. Forming the Early Chinese Court: Rituals, Spaces, Roles. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2017. xii, 240 pp. Paperback $30.00, isbn 978-0-295-74260-1.

At the close of the Warring States period, King Zheng of Qin eliminated all his rivals and in 221 b.c.e. proclaimed himself the first emperor of a unified China, in so doing establishing a new imperial institution intended to endure through the ages. The short-lived Qin empire, however, did not even last until the turn of the century, and its successor, the Han dynasty, inherited an imperial program that was in many respects still in its infancy. The early Han emperors and their officials therefore faced the challenge of having to fashion a secure political order for the empire, which first and foremost entailed defining, representing, and in turn propagating the one institution at its heart: the imperial court. How was this accomplished?

In his first book, Forming the Early Chinese Court, Luke Habberstad offers an insightful examination of this question, arguing for "an important change in [End Page 203] normative understandings of imperial order" (p. 9): whereas in the early Western Han, conceptions of the imperial hierarchy were less fixed, characterized by a tension between relatively new institutional categories and the personal dispositions of those who occupied them, by the late Western Han, members of the court and Han officialdom at large had to navigate a more rigid system in which these categories were embedded in various ways into the institutional fabric of the imperial court. Moreover, in interrogating his textual sources, Habberstad makes another important intervention: these texts do not simply reflect institutional change; they also played a key role in producing "layers of meaning" (p. 14) for the question of what exactly the imperial court was. In other words, "politics and literature in the Western Han were mutually constitutive and cannot be understood separately from each other" (p. 10).

The body of the book is subdivided into three parts: rituals (chapters 1 and 2), spaces (chapter 3), and roles (chapters 4 and 5). Chapter 1 revolves around the concept of equivalencies (bi). The parallel system of hierarchies—salary grades (zhi) and ranks (jue)—along which Han officialdom was organized were sometimes expressed in terms of equivalencies that equated one to the other, and these in turn to specific sumptuary privileges, particularly funerary allowances. This was especially true of court positions that lay outside the traditional purview of the bureaucracy, as well as to members of the imperial household (e.g., imperial princesses and consorts). Habberstad posits that this system of equivalences reflects an "accretive process of institutional comparison" (p. 45) through the second century b.c.e., as the Han court grew to encompass additional groups of people whose part in the imperial order were formulated in terms of these existing hierarchies.

This argument is supported by comparative analyses of the Shiji and Hanshu (and the Zhangjiashan manuscripts), the first of many in this book. By juxtaposing selected accounts from these texts, the author shows that while the Shiji exhibits a view of a ritual order susceptible to manipulation, the Hanshu, in contrast, presents it as more consistent if still fallible. Such comparisons of Shiji and Hanshu passages are the book's bread and butter. Overall, the author's readings are careful and largely convincing, and he is to be commended for including a generous amount of well-selected passages in translation. That being said, readers who wish to examine more closely the author's interpretative link from evidence to conclusion or consult the Chinese text should refer back to the original sources.

Chapter 2 examines the events of 51 b.c.e., when a Xiongnu leader paid court for the first time to the Han emperor at Chang'an. This unprecedented court audience sparked a debate concerning ritual protocol: should the Xiongnu leader be fully subsumed into the imperial hierarchy, or, for reasons of political exigency, should he be received as a foreign guest? The way this [End Page 204] debate was cast in our sources...