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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C.
  • Carine Defoort (bio)
Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy, editors. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xxix, 1,148 pp. Hardcover $130.00, ISBN 0-521-47030-7.

It was with reluctance that the editors of the Cambridge History of China in 1986 produced a volume on The Ch'in and Han Empires without being able to summarize the existing knowledge on early China from the first millennium B.C., because that earlier period had "laid the foundations for the Chinese society and its ideas and institutions" that they were about to describe. They then speculated that it "may well be another decade before it will prove practical to undertake a synthesis of all these new discoveries that is likely to have some enduring value."1

It is now a decade and a half later, and the long-awaited volume lies on our desk. The newborn weighs 1.65 kilograms and consists of an introduction and fourteen chapters in 1,148 pages, with many maps and illustrations. It is conceived as an independent part of the Cambridge History of China because of two major differences from the other volumes in the series. It covers a much longer period than any of the others, from the Shang dynasty to unification under the Qin, and it is also a conscious attempt to redress the current imbalance in research between textual and material sources by paying due attention to the wealth of recent archaeological finds.

The core of this volume therefore consists of eight chapters that follow a dual approach to the four periods into which China's ancient history is traditionally divided: one approach based on written sources and the other on material culture or archaeological findings. These eight core chapters, on the Shang (ca. 1570-1045 B.C.), Western Zhou (ca. 1045-771 B.C.), Spring and Autumn (ca. 770-481 B.C.), and Warring States (ca. 480-221 B.C.) periods, are complemented by four separate essays on related topics: language and writing, classical philosophy, natural philosophy and occult thought, and the northern frontier. These are preceded by a discussion of the prehistoric era and conclude with an essay that provides a bridge to the imperial age.

This review will first briefly elaborate on the dominant themes of the volume, then discuss the chapters separately, and finally view the entire volume from the standpoint of its most remarkable characteristic: the integration of material and textual sources. The two last parts of the review cannot be strictly separated, for the latter is implicitly present in the former: most readers have a dominant interest or foundation in either art and archaeology or in more text-based fields such as history or philosophy. One's interest inevitably influences one's interpretation and appreciation of the information encountered. Overlaps and occasional contradictions [End Page 496] among the various chapters—inevitable in a multidisciplinary volume like this one—are not the concern of this review.

The editors emphasize two dominant themes throughout Chinese history, including the period covered by this volume: the interplay between unity and disunity and the conflict between the ties of kinship and the demands of administrative control. Not only do these themes recur throughout most of the chapters, but they do so in such an intertwined and complex way that they could well constitute the vantage points from which to read the whole volume.

The pre-imperial period is often seen in terms of an evolution from some sort of political unity under the Shang and early Zhou to the disunity of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods to a more stable unity in the form of a centralized empire during the Qin and Han. The various chapters in this book allow the reader to question, modify, and more precisely articulate this view, without totally rejecting it. The question is asked: to what extent are the perceived unity and uniqueness of the Xia and Shang dynasties the result of traditional versus modern and political versus academic interpretations of the...


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