My primary research focus is political thought and political culture of early China. I am specifically interested in the formative age of Chinese political tradition, namely the five centuries preceding the imperial unification of 221 BCE, i.e., the Springs-and-Autumns period (Chunqiu 春秋, 770-453 BCE) and the Warring States period (Zhanguo 戰國, 453-221 BCE). Ideas, ideals, and values formed during these centuries shaped the political trajectory of the Chinese empire for millennia to come and some of them remain relevant well into our days. How these ideas were formed, debated, and modified, what was their transformative value and how they were adapted to the realities of pre-imperial and imperial ages are the questions I explore in most of my studies.More
My third and most recent research focus is understanding Chinese empire from a comparative perspective. In the first decades of my research I was most fascinated by China’s imperial longevity and the impact of the country’s early history on its modern and current trajectory. As time passed I came to the conviction that understanding this phenomenon is impossible without engagement with comparable major imperial polities elsewhere in Eurasia. This is the background for my current engagement in the project of “comparative imperiology” (of which see more below)
My third research interest is on analyzing strengths and weaknesses of Chinese empire from a comparative perspective. Manifold similarities between Chinese empire and those of other large continental empires in Eurasia both in terms of challenges faced and in replies to these challenges are undeniable. How then Chinese empire did attain much higher longevity than any comparable polity worldwide and what was the price of this achievement? In my earlier studies I emphasized the empire’s exceptional ideological prowess: its fundamental ideological orientations were shaped long before it was formed, and their hegemonic position was never challenged prior to the end of the 19th century. Currently am working on a more systematic analysis of Eurasian imperial entities, which will highlight relative advantages and disadvantages of the Chinese imperial model. This is a long-term collaborative project that involves many colleagues from other fields of world history.
In addition to these grand questions I explore from time to time issues in political history of early China; the impact of regional ethno-cultural identities on political dynamics of pre-imperial and early imperial age; topics related to early Chinese religion; the impact of early Chinese ideology on subsequent intellectual trajectory of imperial and post-imperial China; and so forth.
Current and planned research projects
- Studies in comparative imperial history MoreThis multi-participants international collaborative project aims to create a comparative framework through which we can analyze fundamental functioning parameters of pre-modern and early modern Eurasian empires. The project started in 2015 and is currently run by five colleagues: Michal Biran (Hebrew University), Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna, Karen Radner, LMU Munich, Jörg Rüpke, University of Erfurt, and myself. Our two first meetings focused on the empires’ spatial dimensions (see details here) and on empires and religions (see here). The next leg, planned for 2021, will explore the imperial elites and different ways employed to control or co-opt them. Two further meetings will focus on the role of the emperors and the place of the military in the empires’ history. We hope that our project will highlight differences, similarities, and mutual influences among different imperial models and contribute to our understanding of what is an empire and how empires functioned in different civilizational settings.
- The Book of Lord Shang: apologetics of state power in early China MoreI explore the ideology of the Book of Lord Shang (Shangjunshu 商君書), a hugely controversial text from the middle-Warring States period, which combines bold departures and sober analyses of sociopolitical life with appalling statements that hinder in-depth research of its content. Controversies aside, this is one of the foundational texts of Chinese political thought and it deserves utmost attention, as my study tries to demonstrate
- Rethinking early Chinese historiography in light of newly discovered historical texts MoreA series of newly unearthed manuscripts shed a new light on fundamental questions concerning early Chinese historiography. Exploration of these texts may bring about profound re-evaluation of the nature of some of the transmitted texts, and also expand our knowledge of early Chinese political, cultural, and intellectual history.
- State and society in pre-imperial and early imperial China MoreI plan to study the changing balance of power between bureaucracy and autonomous social elites from the Springs-and-Autumns period well into the Han dynasty (206/202 BCE-220 CE). I hope to prepare a broader collaborative project which will explain the rise, fall, and subsequent new rise of aristocratic elites during this millennium. This planned study may also contribute to the ongoing research of state-society relations in the later periods of Chinese history.
- Traditional Chinese ideology and its current value MoreI plan to engage more systematically the question of how the early Chinese ideologies and their legacy remain relevant nowadays and which of its aspects may prove usable again, as China tries to re-chart its way of ideological and political development in the 21st century.
I teach annually an introductory course to modern Chinese history (China at the Age of Revolutions, 1900-1978), which reflects my long-term fascination with the history of the Communist Party of China. Biannually I teach an undergrad seminar on early Chinese political thought, and a graduate seminar on traditional Chinese political culture. Also biannually I teach a graduate course Problems and Methods of Studying Chinese History and an advanced course based on reading classical Chinese texts. From time to time I teach on other aspects of Chinese culture and history. Recently, together with Michal Biran, I taught a course Eurasian Empires: A Comparative View.
In Beijing Normal University I usually lecture on different topics related either to Chinese history in comparative perspective or to aspects of early Chinese historiography and early Chinese political thought.
At Nankai University I taught a graduate course on Traditional Chinese Political Thought and another one on Chinese empire analyzed from a comparative perspective in the context of Eurasian empires. More courses are planned and their syllabi will be updated here.