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Michaël de Verteuil
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Unlike the previous reviewer, J. Nguyen, I have to express my admiration for what Dr. Sawyer has achieved with "Ancient Chinese Warfare," and look forward to the successor volume "Western Chou Warfare." In ACW, Sawyer attempts to review, test and synthesize the information available on the Hsia (Xia) and Shang periods of Chinese history from four basic sources: archeology, inscribed oracle bones, plastrons and bronze cauldrons, the Bamboo annals (which date from some 650 years after the end of the Shang), and the early part of the great historian Sima Qian's "Shiji." This is the equivalent of trying to write a history of Mycenian warfare from what can be inferred from archeology, linear B tablets, Homer and Herodotus; or of pre-Davidic Israeli warfare from the Bible and biblical archeology. These periods are only on the cusp between history and pre-history, with the more detailed narratives consisting largely of folklore first written down centuries after the "facts."
Dr. Sawyer does an effective job of describing the general socio-political and economic context in which the Xia and Shang operated. This was largely a tribal one in which more or less related and self-governing clans of varying size and power exploited the agricultural and mineral resources around them in competition with their neighbours. First the Xia clans, and after them the Shang clans, exercised a hierarchical, effective and often brutal hegemony under charismatic hereditary kings that could extend from the northern steppe lands to the middle Yangtze valley, extracting tribute and military service from smaller subject proto-states. The Xia and Shang holdings, along with those of the larger and more sophisticated of these lesser polities, centered around fortified administrative capitals that could at times be abandoned or moved in response to political or religious imperatives, population shifts, or environmental factors. The archeological remains of many of these towns testify to the local ebb and flow of Xia, Shang and aboriginal cultural dominance.
The Xia period is largely pre-historic, as it predates writing. Shang written sources consist exclusively of very focused and quite numerous, but relatively short inscriptions of often uncertain dating. Dr. Sawyer usefully navigates through the scholarly controversies regarding chronology and interpretation of these sources, offering when necessary his own reasoned take on the significance of the available evidence. The retrospective histories written centuries later in the Chou (Zhou) and Han periods offer more rounded but also historically dubious and moralistic dramatic narratives focusing largely on the dynastic transitions from the Xia to Shang to Zhou hegemonies.
The specific geographic locations of the shifting kaleidoscope of hostile and allied clans, tribes and proto-states are often undetermined. Nevertheless, lists of Shang military campaigns against specified targets, sometimes including simplified orders of battle, can be inferred from inscribed oracle bones and turtle plastrons; but Shang sources offer no detailed treatment of tactics, troop engagements or compositions. Sawyer is thus forced to conjecture based on the types, styles, and metallic composition of weapons found in elite graves, on the surprising brevity yet apparent brutality of most campaigns (often resulting in the ritual sacrifice of captured chiefs/kings), and on the strength of the limited number of large-scale fortifications built at the time as revealed by the archeological record.
The overall picture that emerges from ACW remains thus obscure and fragmentary, but this reflects more the thinness of the evidentiary base than any lack of scholarship or diligence on Sawyer's part. In fact, the lay non-Chinese reader can only marvel at Sawyer's ability to draw together these disparate strands into a convincing and intelligible narrative.
For readers with no more than a passing knowledge of major Chinese rivers and modern provincial boundaries,
the lack of maps is probably the main drawback of the book. The frequency with which counties and minor towns (often with similar sounding names) are referred to in the text leads to a considerable amount of confusion. The reader is torn between breaking with the narrative to sketch his own reference map with the help of online references, or simply going along with the flow in the usually vain hope that some later known geographic reference point will provide some context. Sawyer's orthographic preference for Wade-Giles over the now more frequently used Pinyin is also unhelpful.
In addition, some critical issues remained disappointingly unaddressed in the book. These include why carbon 14 dating has not resolved chronological obscurities stemming from the oracle bones and plastrons to general satisfaction; what relative populations for the various clans and proto-states can be inferred from the troop call-ups described in the Shang sources; and what forms of land tenure, use, and legal forms underpinned the varied proto-states and polities with which the Xia, Shang and Zhou interacted. Hopefully such issues and the lack of maps might be addressed in the forthcoming "Western Chou Warfare."
Despite these limitations, for Westerners interested in the early beginnings of Chinese history, but without the linguistic skills to access most of the secondary literature, ACW provides an excellent, scholarly and yet readable synthesis.