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For More Comparative Conversations (Review)

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Ying-shi Yü. 2016.
Chinese History and Culture: Sixth Century B.C.E. to Seventeenth Century
New York: Columbia University Press
ISBN 9780231178587

This ‘complex tapestry’ of articles by Ying-shu Yü, one of the world’s leading historian on China, is evidently an outcome of a lifetime research engagement with issues central to the evolution of the Chinese culture. The 14 articles, included in this volume, deal with man’s relationship with the other worlds, the meaning of food and feasts, morality-knowledge nexus, ethics and business culture, and the intellectual practices over the period of two millennia. They display the author’s close familiarity with a phenomenal range of state and private textual and archaeological sources and could easily be an achievement envious to many fellow historians. If one were to recommend a single book for providing an excellent introduction to the historical foundations the culture of the Chinese people, this book is easily the one. The book is collectible for its illuminating quotes and citations, enjoyable strings of interconnected narratives, and the clarity of purpose in establishing the significance of a moral world order Dao in the making of the Chinese civilization.

The collected articles were written first in Chinese and then were ‘reformatted’ in English. In rendering the text, the style was shifted to, what the author calls as, ‘the Western style of argumentation’ and away from the allegedly Chinese ‘historical method of full documentation of the original sources’ (author’s preface, p. x). The need for such stylistic transformation indicates orientation of the volume collaborators. They were perhaps clear about the book’s specific target audience and particular academic tastes it was to satisfy. The edition has turned the volume into a delightful engagement for readers well conversant in the ‘Western style’. For someone struggling to discover common trends in the landscape of historiography in and around South Asia, the redaction leaves, however, a sense of wonder about the impassable barriers of the Himalayas. Indeed, it is striking to note that the mountain range seems to induce one of the best historians on China to ignore the evolution of ideas and meanings in the Indic sphere and instead to look for comparative developments in Greece.

The most notable absence in the book is, indeed, a fuller comparative perspective on the evolution of the Chinese culture, despite brief allusions to that effect in several places. Pointing at the ‘breakthroughs’ that occurred during the first millennium BC in several ‘high’ cultures across the world, the author endorses the view that the Chinese split of the primeval Dao into the twin notions of actual and ethereal world was the ‘least radical’. He contrasts the development with both Christian and Buddhist (chiefly the Mahayana school) positions to arrive at such a thesis. It is not clear if the argument on the conservative change would remain valid if the Upanisadic innovations to the Vedic cosmology were included. The author’s characterization of the Chinese ‘inward transcendence’ (p. 7), especially in the Mencian school (p. 14), seems to have more resonance in the Hinayana Buddhist emphasis on the compassion and moderation. Reading the author’s history of ideas in Han China, one wonders if there are many parallels to what the author states to be typical developments. Some comparable points are found in Govind Chandra Pande’s elucidation of the changes during the Vedic-Upanishadic-Sutra period in the southern slopes and plains of the Himalayas, from the Aghan-Iran plateaus to the river-ravaged Bengal delta in the first millennium BC.[i] These include the strengthening of the tradition of renunciation, in the shape of the sramana (श्रमण, one who performs acts of mortification or austerity) and non-ritualistic Vratya attitudes, and their moderating influence on the Vedic fire rituals, as well as the critical role of the Brahmin ritual experts who mediated between the king and the heaven, and were the royal preceptors in the period.

Several transformations in the Han China and the Indic sphere in the middle of the first millennium BC are amenable to comparison, particularly in the emergence of the concept of immortality. A close reading of the Vedic-Upanishadic-Sutra texts shows that the wish for a life one hundred autumns long soon evolved into an unbound longevity, into an immortality of the soul beyond the body, and then to the immortality of the body, roughly when the ancient Chinese were changing theirs (p. 24). The cult of immortality was widely observed in the Atharva, the youngest of the Vedas. The Indic kings also wanted to ascend to the heaven while breathing and later with their dogs, and were as greatly exercised in their pursuit of immortality as their counterparts in China. They too took sacrifices to the gods and spirits as means to achieve immortality as the Emperor Wudi did. The story of Yayati is equally a story of political entanglement and has a close parallel with that of the Yellow Emperor. The descent of the Indic immortal sages residing in the celestial bodies to being an instrument of the palace intrigues mirrors the evolution of the xian (immortal). Similarly, the specifics of the ‘Summons’ ritual of calling the recently departed soul (pp. 58-62), the idea of a gradual dissociation of the two souls, hun and po, at death (pp. 64-6), and the notion of shrinking size of departed soul with the passing time, the political economy of limiting the number of generations called in an ancestor worship (pp. 67-8), the practice of putting a piece of jade in the mouth of the dead to preserve the body from decay (p. 71), and the imagination of the bureaucracy of the underworld reflecting the administrative structure of the kingdom (p. 74), all have clear parallels in the changes in the Indic region, as attested in the post-mortuary rituals recommended by the Sutras for the Householders, and their later recensions. These similarities owe possibly to the intensification of the contact between these two people in Central Asia. After Emperor Zhang Qian opened a passage to the West (p. 30), the seekers of immortality could have found a new hope therefore in the shape of advices and recipes brought into those quarters by the Indic traders and ascetics.

The book’s fine empirical grounding anticipates an explication of the import of the Chinese data. One is left wondering if the abundant exhibit of data with less or no exposition of their theoretical implications is characteristically a Chinese methodological style. One notable exception is the author’s discussion on the question of ‘the problem of the market vis-a-vis the state’ in China (p. 223). He engages with Max Weber in the chapter on the relationships between the Confucian ethics and capitalism (Chapter 10), and with Friedrich Hayek in the chapter on the business world (Chapter 11). A more rewarding avenue would have been a thorough empirical examination of these theories than simply framing the problem in the light of the socio-economic ideas in the Chinese history. The data on increasing influence of the ‘market way’ as a general governing principle of the social life (pp. 228-36), and the anti-commercial stance of the state (pp. 237-46) also deserve a comparative thinking on the market-state-religion triad, perhaps through the economic historical literature on Indic, Turkish and Roman worlds. Even the author’s notion of Dao as a key to an unfolding drama of the Chinese civilization would compare with the Pande-isque principle of the moral order Rt (ऋत्) since both are historians’ impositions over millennia-long episodes they strive to make sense of, but the overall meaning of history that might not after all be there. The author’s generous empiricism is dazzling, but without such interpretive engagement, one is left guessing at its significance.

This criticism might be seen as unfair. The book is primarily a conversation between a mature historian on China with his Chinese readers. There is a limit to what a reviewer, locating herself in a luminal world between the two ‘high’ cultures of China and India, and a completely ignorant of the Chinese language and society, should expect. Should not we appreciate, however, a little tempering of the conversations even within a linguistic society by their readings of the worlds beyond that society?


[i] Govind Chandra Pande, A Golden Chain of Civilizations: Indic, Iranic, Semitic and Hellenic up to c. 600 BC, New Delhi: Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture, Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 2007; Govind Chandra Pande, The Dawn of Indian Civilization (Up to 600 BC. Vol. 1), New Delhi: Project of  History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture, Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 2010.

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