The influence of clouds, wind and reign

Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China
June 2, 1995

The 13 essays assembled in this volume are loosely organised around three themes "that recur in most aspects of China's early imperial history, and that drew the attention of many of the leading men of the day - the ever-present call of mythology, the prevalence of divination in public and private life and the development of concepts of imperial sovereignty". The presentation is at times technical, the information not always fully digested, but Michael Loewe's learned contribution will educate all scholars seriously interested in traditional Chinese history and in the operations of divination and magic during the Han dynasty (206bc-220ad).

A variety of manuscript materials, written on bamboo and silk and recently excavated from Ch'in and Han tombs, has deepened our understanding of the degree to which divination and the consultation of oracles played a significant role in Ch'in and Han rule. Loewe, who has been in the forefront of those who have incorporated the results of these discoveries in their work, here uses these new materials to elucidate the nature of the Ch'in-Han legacy and to argue that Han history must now be seen in a richer context.

Covering a broad spectrum of topics - including art motifs, cosmology, invocations for rain, mythological themes of strife, and the failure of the Confucian ethic in Later Han - the book's chapters, originally published between 1978 and 1992 (and reprinted here with some addenda), provide a "thick description" of the degree to which Han divination (the focus of at least five chapters) and religion (which might well have been included in the book's title) intersected with the operations of the emerging imperial institution.

Loewe demonstrates the degree to which the choice of lucky and unlucky days, the influence of comets, divination by turtle shell and yarrow stalk, and the significance of cloud formations and wind directions were all likely to shape the life of Ch'in-Han elites as they functioned within China's first imperial bureaucracy. With regard to the topic of monarchy, Loewe's demonstration of the way Emperor Han Wu-ti's reputation varied with time and with the ideological motives of his various admirers and critics is highly instructive.

His description of the daily, monthly, and other services of worship and commemoration at the burial sites of former rulers effectively documents the burden that these obligations imposed on the state. And his discussion of the way that, at various times in Former Han, public execution was the penalty for unauthorised discussion of the fate of the imperial shrines - should they be retained or abandoned? - further reveals the importance attached to these issues.

It is also of value that Loewe situates his themes in the broader context of Han culture. In suggesting, for example, that Tung Chung-shu's criticisms of Ch'in may have "rendered a profound disservice to the study of Chinese history, by drawing attention away from the faults of Han and exaggerating those of Ch'in" Loewe raises significant questions about the character of early Chinese historiography. His account of how unresponsive gods might be disciplined by their worshippers, to take another example, is of considerable anthropological interest.

Furnished with extensive bibliographical discussions and an excellent index, the book provides a rich and masterful survey of new, difficult and strategic historical terrain. All readers interested in the formation of Chinese political culture will benefit from reading Loewe's essays.

David N. Keightley is a professor of history, University of California, Berkeley.

Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China

Author - Michael Loewe
ISBN - 0 521 4566 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 353

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