[Review] 赵冬梅《法度与人心:帝制时期人与制度的互动》 (Zhao Dongmei: Norms and Agency. Interactions between Institutions and Actors in Imperial China)

Zhao Dongmei 赵冬梅, Fadu yu renxin: dizhi shiqi ren yu zhidu de hudong 法度与人心:帝制时期人与制度的互动 (Norms and Agency: Interactions between Institutions and Actors in Imperial China), Zhongxin Chuban Jituan 中信出版集团, 2021. ISBN 978-7-5217-2398-4, 460 pages, 128 RMB.

reviewed by Rong Hengying 戎恒颖 (Fudan University)

Author Zhao Dongmei, born in 1971, is currently a professor of history at Peking University. A specialist in Song institutional history, she has largely focused her research on the military selection system under the Song dynasty (Wudao panghuang: Zhongguo gudai de wuju yu wuxue 武道彷徨:中国古代的武举与武学, The Irresolute Military Way: Competitive Examinations and Military Teachings in Ancient China, 2000; Wenwu zhijian: Bei Song wuxuanguan yanjiu 文武之间:北宋武选官研究, The Civilian and the Military: A Study of the Military under the Northern Song, 2010). She has also worked in depth on Sima Guang and analysed Wang Anshi’s New Policies in her latest work (Da Song zhi bian 大宋之变1063–1086, The Great Political Change under the Song 10631086, 2020).

This latest book – a rare general history publication penned by a prominent Chinese scholar – puts forward a course of imperial trajectory, spanning two thousand years from the Qin Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (221 B.C.–1912 A.D.). This work serves as a companion to another recently published volume, Renjian yanhuo: yanmaizai lishi li de richang yu rensheng 人间烟火:掩埋在历史里的日常与人生 (Ordinary Life: The Everyday Buried in History), which is devoted to the social and material history of ancient China. The two books can be said to form a diptych, delving respectively into history written by and for the elite, and into “everyday” history kept on the margins of classical historiography.

In Fadu yu renxin, Zhao considers the general history of ancient China from the perspective of institutional history and the political culture unfolding within it. She highlights institutional continuities often lasting beyond dynastic change (p. 4). While giving space to political actors (with an emphasis on the way they interact), she underscores how a recurring shared mentality could be viewed as the country’s institutional and political heritage from the old regime to contemporary China.

The first half of the book is devoted to political rules and institutions, analysing the way they are shaped and changed by the political actors empowered to impact them. In this part, on which I will strongly focus here, four major themes are of particular interest.

First, countering the narrative of an imperial power often seen as unlimited, Zhao Dongmei analyses the real and symbolic constraints on its exercise, including in the learning stage, in the making of political decisions, in the interaction with the authority of the prime minister, or in instances of conflict between ritual and emotion. The author assesses the abolition of the prime ministership during the reign of Zhu Yuanzhang in 1380 as an institutional and political regression, an incident of history that led to immeasurable consequences. Second, Zhao re-examines the control over localities and border regions, particularly how the administration proceeded to coordinate central and local authorities in order to wield effective control over the empire’s borders. In light of these issues, she rethinks the classic topic that is the transition between the Tang and the Song (p. 36). Third, Zhao delves into the selection of officials and their career paths. She places at the heart of this issue a divergence between two types of selection, by recommendation and by competition – in other words, between a government at the hands of a narrow circle on one side, and a system in which powerful positions were open to people from nearly all strata of society. She offers a nuanced assessment of the two concepts. While recommendations tended to benefit the most privileged and carried the risk of selecting mediocre men, the requirements of the aristocracy could nevertheless exert a degree of moral control over its members through stakes such as family and individual honour. Conversely, while the examination system widened the circle of power, opening it to the lifeblood of society and its myriad of skills, an anonymous recruitment process carried its own dangers, as the moral quality of candidates was difficult to gauge.

Last in this part, Zhao discusses the division of the administration into categories and the distribution of rewards. She points out that distinctions made between civil and military officials (wen/wu) and between civil servants and scribes all tend to transform the separation of functions (aimed at improving administrative efficiency) into a hierarchy of occupations (which could exacerbate towards discrimination). She looks into the historical context underlying this transformation – which cannot be summarised into a series of individual decisions – and its consequences.

This part concludes by raising three general issues: (a) on how to draw comparisons between imperial times as they were experienced in China and in the West, (b) on the patterns of cooperation between emperor and officials, and (c) on the recurring question of how institutions were established and abolished.

The second half of the book is devoted to the political culture in ancient China and the concepts usually associated with it, such as the “Mandate of Heaven”, the correspondence between heaven and man, the importance of filial piety and loyalty, and the key role played by historiography. Based on the observation that these familiar notions have routinely become misused in everyday discourse in China, the author first highlights the gap between how these concepts were perceived in ancient times and what we tend to make of them in modern times. She also points out the enduring nature of two major heritages from this traditional political culture: the Confucian school and the Legist school.

The book concludes by assessing the historical path taken by this political culture. Zhao argues its golden age occurred under the Song, before it entered a long period of regression under the Yuan, Ming, and Qing. What characterises a regression, in the author’s view? Essentially, it comes with the sabotage of the following fundamental principles: First, the concept of a political entity (江山社稷, a somewhat metaphorical term in Chinese, “rivers and mountains, soil and grain”), which not only entails common interests between the emperor, the government, and the people, but also acknowledges the possibility of the government being overthrown by the people; Second, a kind of equality in dignity between the emperor and his officials, with the emperor acknowledging that the scholar-officials have the authority to interpret the Confucian classics and refraining from superimposing his own political power.

Combining technical content and fluid writing, this work is foremost intended for a readership of knowledgeable non-specialists. While some simplifications can be found, they are counterbalanced by an abundance of notes and appear above all as the reverse of a quality that is all too rare in contemporary Chinese historiography: the ability to draw, from a wealth of painstakingly collected material, a general overview capable of shedding light on both the constants and the changes of Chinese history, while keeping away from any ideological capture.


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