/updated June 2022/
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 second research focus is on early Chinese historiography. Historical and quasi-historical texts created during the Springs-and-Autumns and the Warring States periods provide important clues to the political, social, economic, and military realities that shaped ideological choices of that age. But how reliable our sources are? To answer these questions we should ask: how were historical records produced, by whom, and for which audience? What were the goals of recording history and how were historical records used and abused in political controversies of that age? My exploration of these topics started with the study of the Zuo zhuan 左傳—the largest and by far the most important historical text of pre-imperial era—and continues through analysis of other historical and quasi-historical texts, including some of the recently unearthed manuscripts that reshape our understanding of early Chinese historiography.
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.
Most recently I shift my focus back to sociopolitical history of early China. I am particularly interested in the topic of continuities and changes in China’s dominant modes of social and political conduct. In particular, am planning to systematically revisit the Springs-and-Autumns period with the exploration of which my scholarly career started. This time am less interested in intellectual history but rather in the strongly pronounced dissimilarities between the aristocratic society of the Springs-and-Autumns period and what will eventually become the dominant cultural orientations of the Warring States period and later imperial China. I hope that this study will become a first step toward in-depth understanding the role of historical ruptures rather than pure continuities in China’s long 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 the difficulties faced by modern Chinese intellectuals in their attempts to come to terms with the country’s past.
Recent, 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 the resultant publication here) and on empires and religions (see here). The next leg, planned for March 2023, 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.
- China in the Aristocratic Age: The Springs-and-Autumns Period Revisited MoreThe Springs-and-Autumns period (Chunqiu 春秋, 770-453 BCE) is often paired with the subsequent Warring States period (Zhanguo 戰國, 453-221 BCE) as the formative age of Chinese civilization. At a closer look, however, the Springs-and-Autumns period appears dramatically different from what is often associated with normative orientations of Chinese social and political life. It was the age when political fragmentation was considered a norm and not an aberration, when many states were moving from monarchic to de-facto oligarchic form of rule, when political participation of the lower strata was acceptable and even partly institutionalized, when pedigree mattered much more than abilities in determining the individual’s career, and when the lineage cohesiveness was subversive of rather than conducive to preserving the sociopolitical order. In many respects, therefore, the Springs-and-Autumns period appears as an inversion of traditional Chinese political values rather than their affirmation. Reevaluating this age and its place in the larger picture of China’s history is the goal of the proposed research. By integrating the existent secondary studies with the new perspectives on traditional textual sources and their reliability, and with the newly available material and paleographic data I hope to be able not only to re-chart the Springs-and-Autumns-period social, political, and cultural history, but also provide a new understanding of this period’s place within the longue durée of China’s sociopolitical development. (The research is supported by ISF grant 568/19)
- Rethinking early Chinese historiography in light of newly discovered historical texts MoreFor generations scholars have been puzzled by the stark contrast between the overarching importance of history-writing in imperial China and the meagerness of historical texts from the centuries preceding the imperial unification of 221 BCE. Recently, however, a series of newly discovered bamboo manuscripts from the Warring States period (453-221 BCE) have allowed us to reappraise the history of early Chinese historiography. These manuscripts, the most notable of which is the historical text Xinian (String of Years) from the state of Chu, shed new light on the questions related to the production, circulation, and audience of historical texts in early China, their different political, ritual, and ideological usages, and their roles in the cultural and intellectual dynamics of China’s extraordinarily vibrant pre-imperial age. My studies of the text culminated with its translation cum study published in 2020. The major byproduct was a new engagement with Zuozhuan 左傳, the major—and hugely controversial—historical text that covers the Springs-and-Autumns period. Zuozhuan stood at the center of the international workshop “Rethinking Early Chinese Historiography” (May 2019; ISF grant 978/18). The workshop resulted in two forthcoming publications—a volume Zuozhuan and Early Chinese Historiography co-edited by myself, Martin Kern, and Nino Luraghi, and a special issue of the Hebrew journal Historia focused on comparative early historiography (due to be published in 2022; co-edited by myself and Alexander Yakobson). The research was supported by ISF grant 240/15.
- The Book of Lord Shang and Han Feizi: the ideologues of the total state MoreAround 2011, I started exploring the ideology of the Book of Lord Shang (Shangjunshu 商君書), a hugely controversial attributed to Shang Yang 商鞅 (d. 338 BCE) but penned partly by Shang Yang’s later followers. The abundance of appalling statements in this text, as well as its bad state of preservation and relatively low literary qualities hindered in-depth study of its content, particularly in Western Sinology. In my publications, crowned with my translation cum study of the text I tried to show its underlying logic, elucidate the richness of its philosophical content, contextualize it in sociopolitical realities of the Warring States period, and highlight its intellectual boldness. Currently, my attention shifts to a closely related text, Han Feizi 韓非子, attributed to Han Fei 韓非 (d. 233 BCE). Originally, I was attracted to Han Feizi primarily because of its tragic dimensions: Han Fei was fully committed to the idea of autocratic rule and was simultaneously fully aware that the autocrat himself is the weakest part of the political system. Now am moving further to explore Han Feizi’s intellectual sophistication and unusual skill with which this controversial text undermines moralizing discourse of self-serving intellectuals. Yet the brilliance with which the thinker exposes the machinations of rival intellectuals contains the seeds of another tragedy: that of an intellectual who warns that no intellectual should be trusted. One of the forthcoming outcomes of this engagement is a volume which am editing for Springer, Dao Companion to China’s fa traditions: The Philosophy of Governance by Impartial Standards.
- 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 (which is currently taught in English). 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. Among the most interesting was a course I taught together with Michal Biran, 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.