Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittag (edd.), Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. x + 481. ISBN 978-0-19-921464-8. UK£85.00, US$175.00.
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
The twenty-first century seems to bring us a growing interest in the phenomenon of empire-building and specifically in studying parallels and contrasts to be observed between China and the West. This might be a result of the new 'global' thinking. In 1999 already Shigehisa Kuriyama's The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine appeared in New York. In 2002 we got G. E. R. Lloyd's book on The Ambitions of Curiosity: Understanding the World in Ancient Greece and China. In 2006 there was Harold James's study on The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire, with a fascinating discussion in Chapter 5 of whether in the near future China or perhaps India might be able to destroy America's dominance. In 2009 Hyun Jin Kim presented his Ethnicity and Foreigners in Ancient Greece and China.[] Also in 2009 Walter Scheidel edited Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires.
And now in 2008 we also have Mutschler & Mittag's Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared, a thorough, intensive study by seventeen leading international scholars on the rise and fall of the two greatest empires in human history. This is a really international undertaking: it was typset in India, printed in Great Britain, and the contributors to this noble enterprise are located not only in Germany, where most of them come from, but also in Shanghai and Jerusalem, in Berkeley and Tianjin. Thus they represent three of the present four global powers: the EU, the USA, and China.
There is even a closer, more profound cooperation across the continents: Huang Yang (Shanghai) and Fritz-Heiner Mutschler (Dresden) are the joint authors of the chapter 'The Emergence of Empire: Rome and the Surrounding World in Historical Narratives from the Late Third Century BC to the First Century AD' (pp. 91-114); Ye Min (Tianjin) and Hans Arnim Gärtner (Heidelberg) co-authored 'The Impact of the Empire's Crisis on Historiography and Historical Thinking in Late Antiquity' (pp. 323-45); Ye Min and Achim Mittag (Tübingen) together contributed 'Empire on the Brink: Chinese Historiography in the Post-Han-Period' (pp. 347-69).
In his rich and solid RAC article 'Imperium Romanum' Hans Arnim Gärtner has -- already in 1996 -- pointed to the originally religious aspects of 'Imperium Romanum' (RAC 17, 1145); accordingly the present book, as its subject index makes it abundantly clear (p. 479), discusses in various contexts the role of religious thinking and feeling in the eastern and in the western empire during their various phases. Especially the two final contributions by Gerard O'Dale(London) and Thomas Jansen (Cambridge) discuss the final stages of the two respective empires 'under religious auspices' (pp. 373ff.).
However, the sceptical side is not overlooked: the role of the 'Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove' (3rd century AD) and their 'concept of 'freedom' and 'individualism' hitherto unknown in China' (p. 404), is brilliantly explained. This group of independent spirits -- they were artists, thinkers, pursuing an unconventional lifestyle -- has in the past been seen more or less critical in the West; it is now put here into a much more favourable light.
A word about the structure of the whole enterprise: There are, in chronological order, eight pairs of papers (p. 421) forming the book's three parts: Part I, 'The Birth of the Imperial Order', Part II, 'The Firmly established Empire', and Part III, 'The Waning of the Imperial Order'. There is also a certain substructure: in the opening part, the text is orientated partially towards the 'idea' of Empire, and partially towards the role of Historiography; in the middle section (p. 119ff.) the aspect of 'greatness' is stressed ('Imperial Grandeur and Historiography à la Grande'); at the end (pp. 323 sq.) the 'disintegration' process appears prominently.
The two editors underline in their 'Epilogue' (pp. 421-27) the concatenation of the single chapters in their book. They review the results according to certain topics and also review 'Similarities and Differences from a Chronological Perspective' (pp. 439-44). The most important text, however, seems to me to be the very last one: 'Suggestions for Future Research' (p. 445-47). Here the editors position their own work: 'We hasten to point out that our observations are not meant as conclusive results, but rather as inspirations for further research.' Consequently, they go on to outline six fields for future research: religion in general, rituals and their role, laws and legislation, sources of moral and political authority, poetry demarcating the limits of empire, and finally the ancient Chinese and Roman discourse on 'humankind' and 'universal norms and values' (p. 446).
This appears as a gigantic program, challenging the next generation (or even generations) of scholars worldwide. One might feel tempted to add one or two more directions for scientific work to come: for instance the role of languages and their forms (offical language, popular idiom, religious rhema, poetic visions, tribal specialities, professional terminology, military, sociological, political and other jargons) could elucidate sharply the power play of the respective societies. On the other hand, the topics and mechanisms of empire building and waning would also shine up in a closer look at the history of the Aztecs, Incas, Mayas; this could offer helpful parallels.
Mutschler/Mittag conclude the epilogue to their book (p. 446) with a remarkable anecdote: 'In the year 60 AD there occurred an eclipse of the sun, which was observed and registered both in China and in Rome. Interestingly the reactions to this single phenomenon were very different. Yet important is that both empires already shared a common cosmos even though they did non know much about each other.' For those among us who are curious concerning this event and its impact: the annotation ad locum points to B. J. Mansvelt Beck, The Treatises of Later Han: Their Author, Sources, Contents and Place in Chinese Historiography (Leiden 1990) 173f. For those interested, the idea of the 'One World' is underlined strongly in the history of this singular fact.
It remains to be seen, how far and how fast the door, opened here tentatively for a really 'global' view, will be fully opened in the future towards the total panorama of Terra. For me, there is no doubt, that the practice of global thinking, strongly alive in economics and in politics in our days, is about to grow and to develop rapidly also in the research on Ancient Western Classics. And Mutschler's and Mittag's oeuvre will be the basic information on this field in the early twenty-first century.
[] See the analysis by Naoise Mac Sweeny in Scholia Reviews 19.7, April 2010.