Compared to the involutionary polities of the Ming and Qing, the New Policies (xinfa 新法) of Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021–86) and his reformist successors in the late Northern Song represented the high-water mark of state penetration into early-modern Chinese society. An entire industry of sinology has been devoted to this subject, which has acted as a powerful magnet upon the research inclinations of three generations of North American Song specialists, going back to James T.C. Liu's 1959 now-superseded monograph Reform in Sung China. Since the early 1990s, Peter Bol has been explicating and contextualizing the ideology behind the New Policies in book chapters and articles, maintaining that Wang's classical hermeneutics constituted a unifying system that authorized his state activist programme, designed to revive the perfect order of antiquity. Within the past decade, both Paul Smith and I have also published long-form research into the political economy, court intrigues, and factional rhetoric of the late Northern Song.
With Traces of Grand Peace, an exegesis of the classical commentaries that provided the intellectual firepower behind the New Policies, Jaeyoon Song has produced the first monograph that takes reformist ideology seriously on its own terms as a coherent and classically-inspired theory of governance. Despite its subtitle, which purports to address Classics and State Activism in Imperial China, this book is tightly focused upon the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, with a final detour into the Southern Song. Song's findings expand upon, but do not dramatically improve upon, Bol's research, most recently his article “Wang Anshi and the Zhouli,” published in Statecraft and Classical Learning: The Rituals of Zhou in East Asian History, edited by Benjamin Elman and Martin Kern (Leiden: Brill, 2010). Song's central argument posits that reformist statesmen and scholars of the late Northern Song “thought with the Classics and expressed their political visions through the traditional meaning of classical learning,” by reinterpreting the Rituals of Zhou (Zhouli 周禮) “into a constitutional document” for the New Policies (4). Belying its murky origins in the late Warring States period, the Zhouli was attributed to the Duke of Zhou 周公, and purported to describe the governing institutions that this ancient lawgiver created within the Western Zhou royal domain. When Song exegetes read the Zhouli as a prescriptive blueprint for state and society, its archaic terminology and structural vagueness left the relationship between the royal domain (wangji 王畿) and regional states (bangguo 邦國) undefined. This permitted it to be invoked as a classical precedent for maximalist bureaucratic centralism (junxian 郡縣) or minimalist feudal federalism (fengjian 封建).
Song's most valuable contribution is to translate and explicate three Northern Song exegeses of the Zhouli. He devotes Chapter 3 to explicating Li Gou's 李覯 (1009–59) long-neglected essay collection, which deployed the Zhouli “as a unified frame of reference with canonical authority” that depicted a really-existing “ancient bureaucratic state.” (pp. 76–77). Li's interpretation of the Zhouli, which promoted state activist institutions that would secure widespread well-being, prefigured Wang Anshi's redistributionist interventions that combatted wealthy engrossers’ manipulative domination of the agricultural and commercial economy.
In the book's core chapters, Song explores Wang Anshi's most significant surviving work of classical commentary, his New Meanings of the Rituals of Zhou (Zhouli xinyi 周禮新義), supplementing its gaps with Wang Zhaoyu's 王昭禹 Detailed Explanations of the Rituals of Zhou (Zhouli xiangjie 周禮詳解), an early twelfth-century explication of the former. Wang Anshi's interpretation maximized the extent of royal authority over the Zhou realm, beyond the wildest imaginations of Han and Tang commentators. Wang magnified the role of the “grand steward” (taizai 太宰), whom he envisioned as the executive manager of an all-encompassing and hierarchical bureaucracy, which had promoted a uniform morality in antiquity. This closely matched Wang's own conception of his role as Emperor Shenzong's 神宗 (r. 1067–85) Grand Councillor: assisting a powerful activist monarch in implementing the New Policies. In his gloss on Wang Anshi's commentary on the “Ministry of Education” (dasitu 大司徒) section of the Zhouli, now lost, Wang Zhaoyu found a model for organizing the empire's commoner subjects into local mutual-aid and self-defense organizations that would intensively manage rural society and uplift popular mores. Wang Anshi elided the Zhouli’s descriptions of the fengjian system, seeing it as an institutional failure that did not reflect the true spirit of the Duke of Zhou's centralism.
Why was Wang Anshi's revisionist interpretation of the Zhouli categorically rejected by Southern Song and later commentators? In the early twelfth century, Emperor Huizong's 徽宗 (r. 1100–26) reformist regime used an empire-wide network of state schools, the Three Halls policy (sanshe fa 三舍法) to indoctrinate a generation of prospective officials in his reformulated classical canon. A textbook used in state schools compiled under Wang Anshi's aegis, the New Meanings of the Three Classics (Sanjing xinyi 三經新義) included commentaries on the Book of Poetry (Shijing 詩經) and the Book of Documents (Shangshu 尚書) as well as the Zhouli. Despite its widespread use in the late Northern Song, all copies of this collection had vanished by the Ming dynasty. (The surviving text of the Zhouli xinyi was reassembled by Qing court scholars from fragments embedded within the Ming encyclopedia Yongle dadian.) Song ventures a convincing hypothesis for the collective forgetting of Wang's classical commentaries: thirteenth-century scholars turned against Wang's statist interpretation of the Zhouli, denouncing the New Policies as a Legalist deviation from classical statecraft. Reading the Zhouli as a description of limited and decentralized governance, Southern Song exegetes retained its status as a core canonical text, but used it to promote an alternative vision in which local society comprised the most significant arena for political action; in short, they “could even dream a fengjian dream in a junxian world” (345). But I would speculate that these thirteenth-century scholars were reacting to the ministerial despotism of Southern Song grand councillors like Qin Gui 秦檜 (1090–1155) or Han Tuozhou 韩侂胄 (1152–1207) more than, or in addition to, the institutional overreach of the New Policies. In Chapter Fourteen, Song's summary of Southern Song Zhouli commentaries is too compressed to explain the basic substance of how five generations of exegetes actually interpreted the Zhouli, let alone their authorizing frames of reference. I would argue that this shift in the interpretation of the Zhouli from Northern to Southern Song was more representative of an epistemic shift than an ideological one, and represented a reconceptualization of knowledge systems, whose locus of authority shifted from the imperial court to local scholarly communities, rather than the formulation of new political concepts.
While Traces of Grand Peace deserves to be carefully read by an audience of specialists, I would be remiss not to catalogue its conceptual, structural, and formal problems. First, Song's invocation of parallels from Western political thought obscures rather than illuminates. Song's central argument is that the Zhouli was the “constitution” for the New Policies, “an overarching frame of reference for the explicit purpose of legitimating a comprehensive set of plans for government” (19). My reading of Wang Anshi's commentaries on the Zhouli supports another interpretation: that this was a descriptive text about ancient governance that detailed institutions that were analogous to the New Policies, rather than a set of abstract legitimizing principles that Wang reverse-engineered into the New Policies. To cite another example, Song argues that Li Gou found the “enduring values” of “equity, affluence, justice, transparency, meritocracy, and moral suasion” in the Zhouli (52), or that the New Policies were intended to rejuvenate a “class-ridden” society (153), without explaining how these modern social-science concepts could have been articulated in Song-era Chinese (52). Moreover, Song characterizes the “public deliberation” (gongyi 公義) of anti-reformist remonstrators as “similar to Habermas’ notion of communicative action or dialogic rationality in the private sphere” (85), and characterizing the Duke of Zhou's aims as promoting “constitutional monarchy” (147), without explaining how and why these analogies are apropos rather than strained. Song's application of terminology can be similarly infelicitous: using the adjective “royalist” when he probably means “monarchist” (145), or mislabeling the Grand Steward as the “head of state” rather than the “head of government” (147).
Gradually, I began to wonder whether Traces of Grand Peace had benefited from a thorough editing process. Song could have organized his ideas more clearly, by explaining how its fourteen short chapters interrelated, refraining from abruptly shifting back and forth from the original text of the Zhouli to late Northern Song commentaries, excising two chapters (5 and 11) whose content was tangential to the book's thesis, and pruning away redundant translated passages from the Zhouli that propagated themselves from one chapter to another. Frequent typographic errors and bursts of non-idiomatic English could have been caught and corrected with more judicious copy-editing and page-proofing. All books contain errors, but in the bibliography and endnotes, the number of misspelled authors’ names and inaccurate transcriptions of book titles begins to challenge a reader's confidence in the integrity of this book. Neither the author nor the Harvard University Asia Center is well-served by such editorial inattention.