Nicola Di Cosmo, Editor. Military Culture in Imperial China
Olberding, Garret, China Review International
Nicola di Cosmo, editor. Military Culture in Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. vii, 445 pp. Hardcover $46.50, ISBN 978-0-674-03109-8.
In current scholarly circles, the perceived influence of premodern military culture is often eclipsed by the manifold contributions of contemporary literati, those who composed the civilian corps of bureaucrats and court advisors. In comprehensive assessments of Chinese cultural history, military culture has sometimes been given such short shrift that one might conclude that issues of warfare were almost irrelevant. Di Cosmo's masterful compilation of essays will go far in rectifying any such impressions, for it reveals, among other things, the indelible coloration of militaristic sensibilities in court culture, a keen understanding among civil administrators of the complex problems involved in military administration, and an enduring commitment to the intermingling of literate and military cultures within various strata of society.
As di Cosmo explains in his introduction, the concept of culture can incorporate numerous irregularly overlapping social features, from the pragmatic to the theoretical, the concrete to the strategic. Di Cosmo explicitly acknowledges several: systems of conduct and behavior, strategic decision making, a set of values determining a society's propensity for warfare and the organization of its military, and the aspects of aesthetic and literary traditions that valorize military events (pp. 3-4). Correspondingly, the essays range widely in topic and period. Some, such as Michael Loewe's, Robin D. S. Yates's, Jonathan Karam Skaff's, Yingcong Dai's, and Peter Perdue's, detail carefully the composition and structure of armies, the laws that govern them, the economics that sustained them, and the external influences bearing on their evolution. Others engage with historiographical representation, whether of military battles and campaigns, of important figures, or of the personal records of war, such as the essays by the late Edward Dreyer, Rafe de Crespigny, David Graff, Don Wyatt, and Grace Fong. And still others by Ralph Sawyer, Kathleen Ryor, S. R. Gilbert, and Joanna Waley-Cohen address more intellectual issues, such as the interpretation and use of literary texts in the education of military men, the increased militarization of an era's total culture, or the recondite application of theoretical notions to the pursuit of war. In sum, there is something for scholars and educated readers of almost every stripe. One hopes that the topics addressed will broaden perspectives and the conceptualization of the structure and influence of the military in premodern China. In the remainder of this review, I raise several perspectives introduced by the essays that, while by no means comprehensive of what the volume provides, should allow readers a sense of its distinction. Instead of depicting briefly each contribution, I will instead more extensively limn a single essay illustrative of each topic represented above. My selection is not tied to any evaluative metric but to what the pieces of each of my constructed groupings can highlight of the volume's merits. I recommend that interested readers use these representative synopses only as an incomplete guide; each piece presents matters of consequence and general interest.
Heading the collection is Robin Yates's engrossing essay on the imposition of religious ritual norms in military codes, and, just as significantly, the profound influence of early military codes on civilian organization and conduct, even in much later eras (p. 23). Indeed, the fusion of legal and military culture in early China was so close that, "in the view of Han intellectuals, criminal law originated in military law.... There was, practically speaking, no distinction between warfare and punishment (bing and xing)" (p. 25). This fusion meant both that military norms were deeply embedded even in civilian law and, conversely, that civil bureaucrats were the masters, at least in law, of military power. Because of the demands enforced by penal and administrative codes, "soldiers were obliged to achieve a minimal degree of literacy," primarily for daily recordkeeping, but also for keeping cognizant of the prohibitions that could lead to certain punishment, or even death (p. 40). However, the laws pertaining to military life were not merely punitive. Success in military ventures could have positive legal consequences, for rank could be used "to modify punishments imposed on holders; alternatively, the holders themselves could use [them] to redeem punishments or raise the low status of criminal or slave by turning in a rank" (p. 33). Military legal culture even pervaded the afterlife, particularly in the Han and post-Han Daoist religion, in which quasi-military tallies were a means of subduing evil spirits. In all of this, we can clearly see that deep structures in civilian culture have their roots in military norms. What these findings highlight, as Yates so pellucidly demonstrates, is the integral relationship between the culture of violence and the culture of civility. Rather than being in tension or opposition, the various organizational aspects of the cultures of violence and civility support and reinforce one another; indeed, they are utterly interdependent.
In a variety of historiographical forms of representation, from personal accounts to official histories, military action and its consequences were of grave import, and yet court historians, and the literati culture at large, were, nevertheless, relatively disparaging of military professionals and the details of their vocations. It is perhaps partly because of this that the official histories deliver few carefully defined battlefield scenes or strategic plans, even of crucial military campaigns. Investigating this phenomenon, David Graff examines various Tang-era documents--official histories, announcements of victory, and edicts of enfeoffment and reward--to underscore the general disregard for battlefield representations. Even when specific references to deeds might plausibly have been emphasized, such as in the edicts, there are only minimal details about the exploits of the rewarded figure. Why did these documents gloss over such specifics? Graff offers several plausible explanations: that the details were too mundane to be bothered with; that their recording was the business of subalterns, not senior officials; and that the purpose of the documents was to illustrate virtue, to provide models of ethical behavior, not to contribute to tactical training. Though not every account skipped over such particulars, the lacunae reinforce a general trend in premodern historical documents of emphasizing the abstract and intellectual aspects of conflict, depicting the victorious commander as a complete master of the battlefield and the reason for the outcome all too comprehensible in his grasp of overarching principles.
In spite of any perceived hostility between the members of the civilized (wen) and martial (wu) worlds, in the aesthetic sphere, as Kathleen Ryor documents, military families in the Ming dynasty were very much attuned to, and in some notable cases actively involved in, artistic cultivation, just as influential literati involved in military matters were also often keenly engaged in related avocations, whether composing military strategy or practicing martial arts. Poetry was the primary form of artistic expression among military men, but several also collected calligraphy and paintings, wrote inscriptions on such works, or even practiced these visual arts themselves. Among the civilian literati, there is evidence of many being immersed in the hobby of sword collecting, demonstrating their attraction to the martial. Indeed, in certain texts swords were explicitly linked to values "central to the Confucian literati--loyalty, filial piety, righteousness, and benevolence" (p. 236). Clearly, martial culture could be, and frequently was, treated as positively contributing to the strengthening of moral virtue.
In sum, through the lens of these essays, scholars in Chinese studies will be moved to reevaluate any presumption of a hard and fast divide between the civilian and military worlds, in spite of the insistence by various premodern literati of their essential independence. The military world was indeed very much a part of the civilian; reciprocally, the civilian was integral to the military. Neither survived without the other, and thus neither could hope to remain aloof from the effects, for better or worse, of their inevitable and repeated contact. We would do well to give the effects of such contact greater attention and regard.
Garret Olberding is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, specializing in early Chinese cultural history and historiography. His book Dubious Facts: The Evidence of Early Chinese Historiography is forthcoming from SUNY Press.…
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Publication information: Article title: Nicola Di Cosmo, Editor. Military Culture in Imperial China. Contributors: Olberding, Garret - Author. Journal title: China Review International. Volume: 17. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2010. Page number: 430+. © 2007 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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