> And importantly, it’s enjoyable. You can think of the Zuozhuan as the Gene Wolfe of ancient historical works.

You sold me.

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> I have heard that ‘when a domain is about to fall, its regulations are sure to proliferate.'

Wow. This is so ridiculously easy to apply to today's EU and USA.

What I don't understand though is, how could the Zheng bureaucracy function so long *without* written regulations? Or is it just that the regulations existed but were purely internal and opaque to outsiders?

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"Lord Shang, the Legalist reformer, might’ve been the first to go deeper, theorizing that the pressures of growing population create new problems and require the development of new forms of governance."

This reminded me a lot of the struggles in Mesopotamia, where ritualistic village chieftans somewhat abruptly become regional kings, and controlled a vast territory that demanded an entirely different tech tree to keep it.


There is one set of skills required to rally a bunch of hungry men to go rob neighboring people. There is another set of skills required to ensure a proper tax base and allocate effective portions to pay security and military forces while maintaining living standards to prevent rebellions of desperation.

It's like you have some guns butter curve, with "pillage" on one end and "complex accounting" on the other, and you have to ride that perfect angle between those to achieve liftoff into empire.

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This is a very interesting review, and I found it highly entertaining. Unfortunately, I know so little of Chinese history that I don't know what to make of it beyond that. For example - who is this king? Does that mean the emperor of China?

I feel like I've just watched a Tudor drama, while never having heard of the Reformation, Parliament, primogeniture, or the Dissolution - but I have heard of Wolsey! And while I'm frantically trying to look these things up on Wikipedia, the offhand references to the Medici and the French Wars of Religion are too much.

What is a good starting point on Chinese history for someone completely unfamiliar?

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This is my favorite kind of review: a review which introduces me to a whole set of ideas I would never have encountered without reading this blog. Excellent work, anonymous contributor!

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"When the people know that there is a code, they will not be in awe of their superiors. Together they bicker, appeal to the code, and seek to achieve their goals by trying their luck. They cannot be governed."

This gets to what I feel is the most important divide between Western thought and Eastern thought (roughly, between Western Enlightenment and Chinese). This quote aspires to the rule by law. The west aspires to rule of law.

I'm glad to now have some basis for what the Warring States Period was preceded by. You're right, it is definitely more pedestrian. Enough that I skipped much of the block quotes after a while. I'm not at a point in my life where I have a taste for quotidian accountings of the hours. I'll have to keep this in mind for when I am old and ragged, and not now when I am ragged and young.

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Lovely to see Chinese history getting the kind of serious attention that it deserves.

And if the reviewer's reading is right, it's still much more relevant today than it might seem. Remember, one of the leading contenders for being the cause of the Great Divergence (Western Europe + USA gets rich, rest of the world doesn't) is the resources shock of colonialism (this is contested, but I cautiously endorse this theory). Like the Zhou, taking control of a large empire offers such bounty that they can create a golden age. In Zhou, that meant a populace at peace (internally); in the modern west it meant the rise of science & new tech.

When the resources shock wore off, the golden age came to an end and the grind of competition reduced the space for big new innovations again.

I dunno how that will play out in the modern world. Despite the gloomy progress studies commentary in the last couple of decades, I never really bought the idea that progress has slowed. Certainly it feels like we're on the verge of some pretty big changes now. Though I have to say, the friction and alleged decoupling between China and America seems to support the idea of decline. The USA plus China would be an unstoppable partnership of brains and industrial might; divided, they might well achieve much less. That looks a bit like the mechanism of decline that the Zuozhuan/our reviewer are mapping out.

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Sep 2, 2023·edited Sep 2, 2023

> Fan Hui is alternately referred to as Shi Hui, Shi Ji, Sui Wuzi, Sui Ji, Wu Ji, Wuzi, Jishi, ...

Reminds me of:


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A few thoughts on making this more accessible to ignorant Westerners:

A map would be helpful.

Also an estimate of the scale of the population of the empire: are we talking about one million, ten million, or one hundred million people?

I might mention up front that we'll eventually get around to the most famous individual of this era, Confucius.

Maybe a comparison to one or two old Western works of history like a book of the Old Testament or an Anglo-Saxon chronicle.

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Sep 2, 2023·edited Sep 2, 2023

> the new translation standardizes names used wherever possible, so Fan Hui is always called Fan Hui, with a superscript index so you can look up what name was used in the original text in the back.

I have the Moss Roberts translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and I was immensely disappointed to see the introduction brag about doing the same thing. Well, almost the same thing; there is not even a reference left in the back of the book to the original name used. (Not that it would help much; for some ungodly reason the notes to both volumes are printed together at the back of volume 2.)

I can't understand why someone would want this. Let the translation reflect what the text said. Put footnotes explaining which person the name refers to; don't pretend each person has just the one name and make people interrupt their reading -- 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘺 𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘭𝘦 𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦 𝘢 𝘯𝘢𝘮𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘦𝘥 -- to hunt down the name that was actually used in a hidden reference somewhere else.

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>Legend has it that the king was bewitched by his new consort, a melancholy beauty born from a virgin impregnated by the touch of a black salamander.

Hmm, a Virgin birth huh... how many more of these were there in days of yore?

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Not my cup of tea. Though interesting. (Are those quotes the best bits one could find?! - I am still underwhelmed). I actually had trouble to make out what the 'book' or the review was about. See, I do have a minor in history and another in theology - and the concept of 'understanding history' (esp. pre-Greek) by reading ol' texts ... is not a straightforward thing at all. There was no actual kingdom of David or Solomon - you can research early (but post-gospel) Christian history without knowing the gospels - reading Gilgamesh will not tell you much about how power worked in Uruk, mostly it will mislead laypeople. - When one knows some of the period, that knowledge shall illuminate those texts, to some extent (one recognizes the misconceptions, then). Not the other way round (reading Tertullian about angels teaches zero about angels - knowing the church hierarchy of his time makes you see where his drivel comes from). Drawing parallels (which?) from a mythic concept of 'China' to present USofA - lost me.

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Just a quick note to say that this seems a very responsible review. The sources cited towards the close--the translation by Durrant et al. and the secondary works by Li Feng, Loewe & Shaughnessy, and Pines--are all very solid scholarship, and the Watson selection is indeed readable and generally reliable. (It's worth adding that the now dated Legge version is probably the most impressive, as it was completed 150 years ago with no prior work to rely on.) I think the reviewer has done a very good job of introducing this rich and enormous historical source.

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The writer of this review takes for granted that there is a special amount of upheaval in the current world order. What hard evidence of this is there? My prior is to distrust any regard of the modern day as especially bad, both because people are inclined to find their personal circumstances as special and because this attitude sometimes arises from the presence of 24 hour news in our national and international narratives.

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> The existing foundations of our world are damaged but not broken. For all the upheavals in recent years, I struggle to believe that the pace of change will slow, or that the ideas to truly make sense of these changes already exist. This is only the beginning, and the Zuozhuan gives a visceral sense of what that really means. Our culture wars will seem like people getting mad over ancestral tablet placements.

I mostly do not share this perspective. Tales of decline and decay have been in fashion for times immemorable. Sometimes they are obviously point on (e.g. Hari Seldon's predictions, or the fall of Rome) but ever so often they are not, IIRC the Romans have bemoaned the moral decay of their contemporaries since the early republic. By many metrics, we are doing pretty okay. Yes, there are new challenges, the gap between capital and wages widens, global warming, housing prices, population dynamics, increase in migration, you name it. But the past seven decades were also globally more peaceful than anything which happened before, and people are generally getting wealthier in some ways (if not others). US politics may be more partisan than they were 20 years ago, and the culture war may intensify, but US politics are still rather tame compared to Weimar politics and I will take the culture war over the shooting wars which littered the past any day of the week.

So personally, I don't feel very fin du siècle. Perhaps we create ASI in the next decade and it either kills us or leads us into a singularity, but that is far from certain. I don't think it is preposterous to assume that in 2100 CE, we will still have market based economies, Coca Cola, the internet, and cars, or that the US will still be a big player internationally.

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Strong contender for the most illuminating book review this year. I actually felt I understood the world (very) slightly better after reading it than before. Definitely worth the 20 or so minutes.

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I'm struck by how big a deal proper respect via allotment of food was ... short someone on some meal they thought they were due, and it's time for assassination, betrayal and blood feud...

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Sep 5, 2023·edited Sep 5, 2023

>In 536 BC, toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period, the state of Zheng cast a penal code in bronze. By the standards of the time, this was absolutely shocking, an upending of the existing order


Gosh, that must be awful. Imagine ruling over a people who know what the law is and are able to avoid being punished unjustly. Imagine being able to be held to your own standards instead of having yourself *be* the standard so you can do no wrong. Can't imagine what it must be like. Such chaos and anarchy.

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> And none of the thinking beings in the Zuozhuan, for all their debates and worrying about the world, could’ve understood the additional forces of change beginning to awaken in their own era. This period is also the beginning of China’s Iron Age, a prerequisite for the tools for increased agricultural production and the weapons for mass infantry that would enable the dynamics of the Warring States.

> I’ve seen one reader exclaim that the people of the Spring and Autumn era read like demonic spirits. Figures from even a century or two later argue from nice rational self-interest in ways that are comprehensible to us today, but for the people in the Zuozhuan, especially the early figures, the world spun on different axes. That’s not to say they didn’t understand self-interest, or that their high-flown speeches couldn’t disguise ruthless calculation, but they interfaced with the world through concepts like Heaven’s Mandate and ritual propriety, truly believed in them the way medieval Europe believed in Hell and heresy. Only, while medieval thinkers at least had ideas from the Classical world to draw on, the thinkers of the Spring and Autumn had no predecessors from more advanced societies than theirs.

These 2 sections remind me of the Bronze Age Collapse, around 1200 BC, and of Scott's review https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/06/01/book-review-origin-of-consciousness-in-the-breakdown-of-the-bicameral-mind/ about the alleged development of consciousness around the same time. One of the proposed causes for the Mediterannean Bronze Age collapse was the development of iron, which, as was presumably also the case in China, was much more accessible to small, isolated states than bronze was (bronze is an alloy of multiple metals from different places, and thus access to it requires a substantial trading network).

Heaven's mandate and rituals seem to map roughly onto Greek gods or personal spirits (summoned by rituals). Maybe the same thing happened in this period in China as happened in the Mediterranean world a few centuries prior?

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