Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 AD.

Author:Pitner, Mark G.
Position:Book review
 
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Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 AD. RAFE DE CRESPIGNY. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 134. Leiden: BRILL, 2016. Pp. xii + 580. [euro]167, $200.

Over the years of working on the history of the Han dynasty, I have regularly returned to the foundational work done by Hans Bielenstein and often wished there would be a large-scale study that would build on that work while furthering and amending it in response to the volumes of secondary research that have been done since the time of Bielenstein. With Rate de Crespigny's Fire of Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 AD, part of that desire has been fulfilled. We now have a detailed exploration of the events that animated the governance of the Later Han dynasty. The author draws on the work of Bielenstein, as well as many others, with a critical eye and a willingness to challenge longstanding arguments (such as pp. 208, 213-14 n. 138). More importantly, this study is squarely founded in a close reading of the primary source materials, especially the traditional dynastic histories. This is one of the great strengths of this study, but perhaps also one of the deeper concerns, if I had to identify one. Despite the author's regular acknowledgement that these sources are most certainly distorted by the context of their composition, there are times when we are still urged to lean on them in a fundamental way in the reconstruction of the history. This is not unique to this study; it is a conundrum we all face when dealing with history and early history in particular. So, my comments should be understood as less of a criticism of this particular author than as a general observation. It is an observation we need to keep most strongly in mind when reading and using such sweeping studies as this one. This book, due to its focus on dynastic histories, is a good example of how you balance between accounting for the suspected distortions that the dynastic histories contain and their real and perceived usefulness as historical sources. De Crespigny on occasion surfaces this tension and tries to confront it openly, for instance, in the passages found in the examination of Liang Ji. "As with more personal anecdotes, it is difficult to assess the importance of these matters" (p. 289). Then again, he confronts the contemporaneous historians themselves: "Traditional historians, who looked for a regime dominated by worthy and honorable officials, have denigrated Liang Ji because the nature of his authority did not match their expectations; but the next alternative-that the emperor would exercise power with the aid of personal favorites-would be even further from the Confucian ideal" (p. 294)...

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