Bryn Hammond's Reviews > War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900 1795

War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900 1795 by Peter A. Lorge
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Jan 10, 2012

really liked it
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All imperial dynasties were conquest dynasties.

You don’t hear that often. In history-writing on China, the ‘conquest dynasties’ are those of foreign origin: the Khitan Liao, the Jurchen Jin, the Mongol Yuan. But of course, the most Chinese of dynasties had to exert as much force to found themselves, and abolish independent states that had every right to exist and didn’t want to be abolished.

Song has the name of the eminently civilian Chinese era. But it remained expansionist until contained by treaty with the Khitan, who sought treaty, and it remained an aggressor at opportunity. Song’s imperial claims and ideology seem to have won out in the history books; as also its misunderstanding of its enemies. It can still be written today that Khitan Liao was hungry for Song’s territory. Because that’s what barbarians do, invade.

Peter Lorge is challenging a few entrenched ideas and he can write in a style to suit. Here’s a couple more quotes:

Imperial Chinese history has been consistently de-militarized by both Chinese and foreign historians, downplaying the inherently violent nature of dynasty founding. By contrast, the martial inclinations of the non-Han conquerors of Chinese territory have been emphasized and juxtaposed with the civil-centred and civilized Han Chinese.

Established governments sought to maintain their monopolies on violence not only by forcefully suppressing anyone else who tried to use it but also by advertising that it was not effective… A dynasty tended to reach the point at which it made sense to downplay the value of violence just as it was most intensely engaged in using violence to establish itself. Imperial ideology was inherently hypocritical, or at least tautological…

Most farmers were equally oppressed by their local elites, whether they cloaked their thuggery with higher learning or not, and the imperial government remained a predator regardless of the ethnicity of its ruling house.


I think he is most at home in the 10th and 11th centuries. I met him in a wonderful study on the resolving of Song-Khitan conflict, the treaty that achieved a hundred years of peace, in Battlefronts Real and Imagined: War, Border, and Identity in the Chinese Middle Period. The Queen Mother, as we’d call her, of the Khitan Liao, was the prime mover in that peace process, while Song was a reluctant signatory.

I can’t remember that a book has mentioned before that Song massacred the Khitan inhabitants in a captured city.

Peter Lorge is determined to look objectively, to equalise the game board, to not take as self-evident that a foreign-origin state is an interloper, while a Chinese-identified state has rights to whatever it can win by arms.

He also resists the old notion of ‘sinification’. Quote: 'sinification'...is a sop to Chinese pride...which tries to create a hegemonic narrative out of a practical choice. There were two processes of assimilation operating... on steppe peoples in contact with China: localization and imperialization. (The first for ordinary people, the second for the elite).

In the 13th century, I don’t think he lived up to his project. To my eyes, he stopped asking the questions he had been asking, when it came to the Mongols. He gives a normative account.

Then he goes on to the ‘Chinese conquest dynasty’ of Ming, and back to expansionism, in a big way, with Qing.

I’ll leave you with a thought. Most of us have heard of An Lushan, the foreign (Turk/Sogdian) general who was the ruination of Tang. He’s public enemy number one, but has the wide public heard of Huang Chao? It’s beginning to be written (so I’ve read) that the later rebellions of Huang Chao and co are where to farewell Tang. He was a foreigner-hating Chinese who massacred a port trading city for its non-Chinese residents. When his popular army captured the capital, having no other food, they lived for a year on its population at the rate of a thousand a day. It’s hard to imagine that year, within the walls. Reluctantly, the Tang called in a Turk, to oust him; but the Turk had to lodge protests with the Tang court that he and his family were always referred to pejoratively as barbarians.
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