Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire.

Author:Vankeerberghen, Griet
Position::Book review

Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire. By LIANG CAI. Albany, N.Y.: STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK PRESS, 2014. Pp. xii + 276. $85 (cloth), $27.95 (paper).

Liang Cai's book concerns the history of the classically trained officials during the Western Han period. As her title suggests, the Han empire became a "Confucian empire" only after the witchcraft affair of 91 B.C.E. In Cai's view, this event, which started when accusations of black magic were brought against the heir apparent, wiped out the hereditary groups that until then had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the highest political offices and created opportunities for classically trained scholars to claim a larger share of high political offices. Huo Guang, who had a stronghold on the central court after Wudi (r. 141-87 B.C.E.) died until his own death in 66 B.C.E., was a key figure in this process. He bolstered his own power by employing and promoting several ru willing to use their knowledge of the classics--and particularly a new kind of omenology based on classical texts--to support his cause. These ru who, due to the difficulty of their craft, formed intricate teacher-disciple networks, then used the continuously evolving recruitment system for officials to place more and more members of their group into high positions of power.

Scholars of China's early empires--Japanese, Chinese, or Western--have for some time been challenging the traditional view that Confucianism was elevated during Wudi's reign, to remain the dominant ideology for the rest of the imperial period. Several of these scholars (Michael Loewe, Michael Nylan, Hou Xudong, Fukui Shigemasa) have proposed, like Cai, that a "classical turn" occurred only after Wudi's death. So, is Cai's revisionism different from that of the other scholars, and if so, how?

The most obvious difference is methodological. Cai attempts to make numbers speak: the book is filled with various tables and graphs that seek to show that only 7.79% of the high officials during Wudi's half-century long reign were ru (6 out of 77), whereas that proportion rose to 32.43% during the half century that spanned the reigns of Zhaodi (r. 87-74 B.C.E.), Xuandi (r. 74-48 B.C.E.), and Yuandi (r. 48-33 B.C.E.); during this period 24 out of 74 identifiable high officials were ru. Whereas these numbers are persuasive, and indeed demonstrate an increase of ru among high officials, they are also highly dependent on how Cai defines her terms, on her interpretation...

To continue reading