"Early China," for the author of this book (a Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Cambridge University), extends approximately from 722 B.C. (first year of the Tso chuan history) to A.D. 220 (last year of the Han empire). Within these almost ten centuries, he focuses major attention on the first five, ending with the Ch'in unification of 221 B.C.
The other two paired words in the title, "sanctioned violence," indicate something of the book's scope. It is not simply a military history because, although it discusses warfare, it also discusses the several other kinds of violence that were socially and politically sanctioned in early China, tracing them in their shifts and intertwinings from the age of city-states to centralized empire. Included are ritualistic sacrifices and blood covenants; oaths and vendettas; the growing importance of the military commander vis-a-vis his troops and his ruler; military games, imperial hunts, and animal combats; myths concerning the origins of civilization; cosmological beliefs and ceremonies designed to fit the human world into the norms of nature.
With great lucidity and persuasiveness, Lewis describes the collegial body of aristocrats who ruled Spring and Autumn China, and who were closely linked to one another by ties of kinship, yet fought many small wars with one another for the sake of honor. From these he proceeds to their gradual replacement by a new kind of Warring States rulers: men who achieved personal cosmic potency by devising ritualistic ties with natural forces, who controlled their subjects by segmenting them horizontally and vertically into small social units, and who employed professional generals to wage large-scale warfare. His account ends with the emergence of a universal empire, administered by a complex bureaucracy and headed by a supreme autocrat. Each chapter is divided into five or six clearly labeled sections, the last of which always provides a convenient summary of those preceding.
The great achievement of this book is its weaving together of several kinds of ideas and behavior, not ordinarily thought of as being either "violent" or interrelated, into an integrated fabric providing a plausible rationale for the dynamics of early China. In carrying out this task, the author displays a remarkable command of the entire literature of his period, often citing four or five relevant text passages in order to support a single statement.
Rather remarkably, the publisher of the book has also...