A History of Chinese Civilization

by Jacques Gernet.

From one of the amazon reviews: “If you compare this book to its obvious competitors (e.g. Valerie Hansen’s Open Empire, Schirokauer’s Brief History of Chinese Civilization), you have to be amazed at the relatively low list price–especially considering that the publisher, Cambridge University Press, is not famous for selling cheap books. If you can buy only one textbook history of China, this one is worth considering for that reason alone.”

Cambridge University Press is also not famous for selling crappy books, and combine that observation with the remarks above and you have a big part of the reason why I bought it. Judging from what I’ve read so far it’s a good book with a reasonable amount of details, all things considered (there’s a lot of ground to cover here…). Some stuff from the book:

i. “The cart with a pole and two horses harnessed with a neck-yoke gave way at the time of the Warring States to the cart with two shafts. And it seems that at the same time the neck-yoke – which was to remain for a very long time the only method of harnessing known in the rest of the world – was replaced by the breast harness. This new device, and also the horse-collar, which was to appear between the fifth and ninth centuries A.D., were important pieces of progress in the field of animal traction. By freeing the horses from the pressure of the yoke, which tended to choke them, they made driving easier and rendered it possible to pull heavier loads. One single horse would suffice where formerly two or sometimes even four were required. It is noteworthy that the casting of iron and more rational methods of harnessing, attested in the Chinese world at the time of the Warring States, both appear in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.”

ii. “Although the Han founder considerably softened the extreme harshness of the penal laws of the first empire, the political and administrative organization that Liu Pang put in place differed little from that of the Ch’in. We find the same division of the territory into commanderies (chün) and prefectures (hsien), and the same tripartite division of functions both in the capital and in the provinces: civil affairs, military affairs, and inspection and supervision of the administration. In short the same ‘Legalist’ empire was perpetuated not only in the territories directly dependent on the central power, but also in the ‘fiefs’ (feng-kuo) granted first to the founder’s companions-in-arms and later to relatives of the imperial family. Its power was based on the direct control of the peoples and individuals by the state. This implies recourse to accurate censuses, and in fact those which have been preserved from the Han period are reckoned to be among the most precise in history. Every subject was liable to a personal tax payable in coin (this tax was levied even on children of tender years), to annual stints of forced labour and to military service. In addition, the Legalist system of rewards and punishments […] made it possible to classify the whole population in the continuous hierachy of the twenty-four degrees of dignity (chüeh). […] The use of the passport, the antecendents of which go back to the age of the Warring States, is well attested in the Han period [206 BCE – 220 CE], as is the use of police dogs.”

iii. “the hold of the central power was firmest where the settlement was most recent; in the long-settled regions the imperial administration had to come to terms with the great families. […] This sheds light on one of the main reasons for transfers of population: it was in the state’s interest to move influential families, to shift them from their surroundings, in order to rob them of all power. Similarly, it was also in the state’s interest to extend the areas of land clearance and colonization, for it is easier to keep in hand a population consisting of displaced persons – convicts, freedmen, soldiers, and bankrupt peasants. […] a big effort was made to colonize the north-western regions, and the number of people settled there in the reign of the emperor Wu Ti [141-87] may be estimated at two million. A few figures will suffice to bring home the scale of these transfers of population. In 127, 100,000 peasants were settled in Shuo-fang […] in 102, 180,000 soldier-farmers went off to people the Chiu-ch’üan and Chang-yeh commanderies; and in 120,after big floods in western Shantung, 700,000 victims of the disaster were transferred to Shensi. These transfers of population were numerous enough to affect the distribution of the population in North China…”

iv. “Like the Ch’in, the first Han rulers pursued a policy of undertaking big public works, the majority of which were strategic or economic in character. In 192 and 190 B.C. peasants and their womenfolk from the valley of the Wei were conscripted for the construction of the walls of the new capital, Ch’ang-an. In each of these two years there were nearly 150,000 people at work. […] In 132 B.C. 100,000 soldiers were drafted to repair a breach in the dykes of the Yellow Rver. […] Besides ramparts and forts, canals and roads were also built. These reinforced the hold of the central power on the regions but also corresponded to economic needs. In 129 B.C. ninety miles of canal were dug between Honan and Shensi to connect the basin of the Wei with the Yellow River; 95 B.C. saw the opening of a canal some sixty miles long linking the course of the Wei to that of the Chiang further north. But innumerable irrigation works were carried out in the whole of North China during the reigns of Wu Ti and his immediate successors.”

v. “It would be simplistic to see in the Great Walls a sharp divide between the world of the nomadic cattle-raisers and that of the Chinese farmers and townspeople. The northern frontiers of the Chinese world formed a zone where the opposing modes of life of the farmer and the herdsman mingled and combined. Down the centuries sometimes the pasturages would advance and the cultivated land shrink, sometimes the arid lands would be conquered and developed by the sedentary peoples. Just as certain tribes of herdsmen changed over to agriculture, so some Han adopted the nomads’ mode of life. [… an example:] A defeat incurred by the Chinese armies in 201-200 [B.C.] caused a general retreat south of the Great Walls which lasted until about 135 [B.C.]. […] The organization of the Han armies and defence system on the northern frontier is fairly well known to us thanks to the discovery of a substantial number of manuscript texts on wood and bamboo and to the excavations carried out on the Chinese limes in the Han period since the beginning of the century. […] About 10,000 in number, they consist of reports, communiqués, inventories, soldiers’ letters, fragments of legal texts, and so on. […] The dates mentioned in them run from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 100. […]

Look-out duty, patrols, and training occupied a considerable part of the time of the troops serving in the first line of defence. Each post was in permanent contact with neighbouring posts and with the rear, thanks to a system of signals: red and blue flags, smoke by day and fires by night, rendered more easily visible by long pivoting poles rather like Egyptian shadoofs. This system of signals, which made possible, thanks to a fairly complex code, the swift transmission of relatively precise information about troop movements and attacks, is mentioned in the texts as early as 166 B.C. All messages sent and received were recorded in writing. The head of each post was obliged by a very formalistic administrative routine to write a large number of letters and to keep extensive records which deal not only with military activities but also with victualling and the weapons kept in magazine – bows, arrows, crossbows, and catapults.”

vi. “one of the most frequent practices in the Han age was that of sending hostages (chih) to the imperial court. As a token of their loyalty, princes of central Asian kingdoms and leaders of tribal confederations would offer their own sons, who were lavishly entertained in the capital at the emperor’s expense, received a Chinese education and were often appointed to posts in the imperial guards or in the domestic administration of the palace. Having been converted to the mode of life and culture of the Chinese, when they returned to their own countries they acted as agents of Han influence. Besides forming a guarantee against the breaking of alliances, the hostage system also provided a means of interfering more easily in the dynastic affairs of the countries allied with China.”

vii. “The progress in iron metallurgy continued under the Han. One has to wait until the sixth century A.D. to find a description of an open hearth process, the ancestor of the Modern Siemens-Martin process, but the Chinese could produce steel as early as the second century A.D. by heating and working together irons with different carbon contents. […] The reign of Wang Mang (9-23) saw the appearance of the water mill. […] We have written evidence of wheelbarrow in Szechwan in the third century A.D., but figurative representations of it go back to the first and second centuries. […]

“When the state monopoly in iron and salt was instituted in 117 B.C., forty-eight foundries were established by the government, each of which employed a labour force of some hundreds to a thousand workers. […] Outside the two big sectors of salt and iron, where in any case the state monopoly was strictly enforced for less than a century, private and public enterprises existed side by side. The same is true of silk weaving. […] One of the social peculiarities of the Han period as a whole was in fact the existence of very rich families who combined agricultural enterprises […] with industrial undertakings (cloth mills, foundries, lacquer factories) and commercial businesses, and who had at their disposal a very large labour force. […] The Cho family, one of the richest in Ch’eng-tu, owned huge expanses of cultivated land, fish-ponds, and game parks. It possessed ironworks and steelworks in which it employed 800 slave workers and grew rich through the iron trade…”


December 10, 2011 - Posted by | Books, Data, History

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