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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Nicola di Cosmo (ed.)

Military Culture in Imperial China

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 445 pp. $45.00. ISBN 9780674031098.

Long the neglected stepchild in a field dominated by intellectual and cultural studies of those who wrote histories extolling their own supposedly exalted places in traditional Chinese society, Chinese military history is now happily experiencing a “golden age” in the West. Largely but not exclusively the product of a dynamic group of scholars who earned their doctoral degrees in the last fifteen years, new monographs and edited volumes are appearing every year, vastly adding to our knowledge of China’s military past and providing useful insights for both sinologists and comparative military historians. The volume under review here serves as another worthy contribution to this growing body of scholarship as it brings together a diverse body of essays under the able editorship of Nicola di Cosmo of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Drawn from a conference held in New Zealand in 2001, the essays in this volume span the entire scope of imperial Chinese history from the pre-Qin (221-206 BC) through the Qing (1644-1911) eras.

Nicola di Cosmo begins by offering a definition of “military culture,” which he notes is “a discrete, bounded system of conduct and behavior to which members of the military are supposed to adhere, made of written and unwritten rules and conventions, as well as distinctive beliefs and symbols.” (3) He also takes it to encompass strategic culture (zhanlue wenhua) and “the set of values that determine a society’s inclination for war and military organization” and adds that it also “may refer to the presence of an aesthetic and literary tradition that values military events and raises the status of those who accomplish martial exploits to the level of heroes and demigods in epic cycles and poetry, visual representations and communal celebrations and state rituals.” (4) Starting from this broad definition, di Cosmo and the other contributors want to look at the relationship between war, society, and thought as they shaped the nature of military institutions, theories, and culture of war in imperial China. Most importantly, di Cosmo rejects the idea that Chinese military history needs to be theorized along Western lines, but instead argues that we need to look at the culture and practice of war in China on its own terms. In addition to the obvious fact that imperial Chinese society was very different from its Western counterparts, there is also the problem of engaging an interpreting sources produced in a vastly different historiographic context, one which, as noted above, has skewed interpretations of China’s military past until relatively recent times. He also points out that virtually no one has looked at the linkages between military and social changes in China even though this is very common in studies of Western military history. The authors in the volume follow his lead for the most part, though at times it is obvious that their unfamiliarity with broader debates in military history has more to do with this than a desire to avoid its conventions and interpretations.

The book begins with chapters on the relationship between law and the military and on martial prognostication in ancient times, demonstrating the concrete material and more abstract spiritual influences of military culture and institutions (Indeed, vestiges of the martial influence in Chinese penal codes can be seen even today). The next two chapters deal with the former and later Han respectively and provide an excellent overview of both tactics and strategic culture in the Han era. Roman historians in particular should find much of interest in these studies, which address, among other things, the fact that Chinese military power and military service was not tied to citizenship, as was the case in the Mediterranean. Rafe de Crespigny’s chapter introduces the issue of how factional politics and frontier policies became intertwined, which was a recurrent theme throughout imperial China. A pair of chapters on the Tang provide great insight into the production of military history in China’s so-called Medieval era. David Graff’s essay, “Narrative Maneuvers: The Representation of Battle in Tang Historical Writing,” is one of the strongest in the entire book, and can certainly be usefully extrapolated for any course in military historiography. Jonathan Skaff rejects Iain Johnston’s textually centered emphasis for a more realistic and experiential version of realpolitik in Tang defense policies. The next two chapters bridge the gap between civil and military officials in China, showing how the classic wen-wu dichotomy was far more problematic than has commonly been assumed and that even in supposedly very civil-oriented dynasties like the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644), civil officials often had martial interests and inclinations. Kathleen Ryor’s discussion of sword collecting by Ming civil elites (as well as her amusing anecdotes about sword-wearing literati) is especially illuminating.

The last four chapters of the book deal with various military aspects of the Qing dynasty, which makes sense in terms of both the richness of its source base and the martial orientation of its culture, as shown by Joanna Waley-Cohen. Waley-Cohen cautions us against projecting late nineteenth-century Qing weakness back upon the earlier era and convincingly shows how the Qing projected a very public image of its martial prowess through ceremonies, erection of memorials and paintings. Yingcong Dai’s discussion of Qing military finance and Peter Perdue’s treatment of the relationship between commerce and frontier defense likewise demonstrate the flexibility of late imperial governments as well as their adroit understanding of the relationship between war and local economies, something historians have traditionally ignored, instead being content to assume that imperial China was locked into the rigid straightjacket of the tributary system of foreign relations.

On the whole, this is a fine contribution to the field. With the exception of Grace Fong’s essay on Ming-Qing transition diaries, the authors attempt to tie their pieces into the larger themes and issues raised by the editor in the introduction and they succeed, for the most part. It will be of much use to those studying imperial China and could be assigned in graduate level courses in Chinese history. Because of its deliberate attempt to eschew comparisons with the rest of the world, the book may be of less use to comparative historians in a teaching setting, though experts in military history should benefit from the insights herein. Technically, there are sufficient maps and bibliographic materials, though there are a few too many minor typographical errors.

Ken Swope

Ball State University <kmswope@bsu.edu>

Page Added: April 2009