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  • The Politics of the Past in Early China by Vincent S. Leung
  • Lothar von Falkenhausen
The Politics of the Past in Early China. Vincent S. Leung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xii + 202 pp. Hardcover US $100, ISBN 9781108425728; Paperback US $30, ISBN 9781108443241; E-book US $80, ISBN 9781108619196.

In his introductory chapter, Leung forcefully dismantles the essentializing notion, pervasive in older Sinological writings, that references to the past in early Chinese texts were overwhelmingly didactic in their motivation. He instead proposes to focus on the “deliberate mobilization of the field of the past as ideological capital toward the construction or deconstruction of various political arguments and ethical ideas” (p. 13). So far, so good, but can anyone come up with a new and truly superior understanding? As one reads on, such initial doubts are quickly dispelled. Chapter by chapter, Leung carefully builds a compelling and, as far as I am able to judge, quite original argument that does justice both to the diversity of the texts and the agency of their authors in their historical and sociopolitical circumstances. The textual loci adduced in support of this new narrative are judiciously chosen and conscientiously translated. Rather than attempting to cover every pertinent text, Leung deliberately restricts himself to a limited range. The result is a slim but intelligent volume that is eminently worth reading.

Chapter 1, by far the longest in the book, ranges from the Western Zhou bronze inscriptions to the Confucian Analects and the Mozi. In contradistinction to the protagonists of the Bronze Inscriptions, who dwelled upon their genealogical links to illustrious ancestors in ritual settings, Confucius—in what strikes one as an astonishingly modern gesture—was the first to treat the past as a veritable smørgåsbord of precedents available to all comers, regardless of background, to help them determine their course of action as autonomous moral agents in the present age. The authors of the Mozi, while sharing a similar outlook on the past, flipped Confucius’s vision by treating the past as a series of negative examples illustrating the chaos that would ensue if individuals were to exert their autonomy instead of submitting under the discipline of an orderly régime imposed by a sage ruler.

Chapter 2 juxtaposes the Laozi (as represented in the manuscript text excavated at Guodian, Jingmen [Hubei]) and the Mengzi. According to Leung, these two approximately contemporaneous texts both implicitly deny the relevance of any historical reference: the Laozi by initiating a “cosmogonic turn” and tracing the origins of the world way back to a patently mythical female figure; and the Mengzi by insisting that it is only one’s inborn moral nature, rather than any precedent from history, that will determine human action in concrete situations of the present.

Chapter 3 treats the attitudes to the past espoused in the writings of the Warring States-period Legalist thinkers and the imperial Qin ideologues. While the former constantly referred to the past as a way of emphasizing that times had changed and historical precedent was useless in dealing with new circumstances, the latter proclaimed [End Page 485] the end of all history. The Qin world order was intended to work like mechanical clock-work, creating a never-varying pattern that accommodated all conceivable situations and events, and that, if successfully imposed, would have removed all need to account for individual cases; in other words, it would have assimilated human life to natural history.

In chapter 4, Leung describes how the early Western Han thinkers Jia Yi and Lu Jia reacted to the failure of Qin by reviving, in Jia’s case, a Confucian vision of autonomous agency guided by historical precedents (which now included the failures of the Qin), or anchoring, in Lu’s case, a new view of the world in the study of the Confucian classics, which were now reinterpreted as revealed knowledge transmitted from the sages of the past.

Chapter 5 zeroes in on two chapters in the Shi ji that deal with economic issues. Leung juxtaposes the anarchist model of a natural economy that works best without any institutional interference presented in the “Huozhi liezhuan [Biographies of the money-makers]” chapter against...


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pp. 485-487
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