Sun Fin's Book Reviews

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Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Sun Fin » Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:31 pm

I suspect like many of you I'm suddenly finding that I need to spend a lot of time in the house... One way I'm trying to cope with the boredom, and being an extrovert kept away from people is that I've decided to read and review a chapter or article about the Three Kingdom's each day! I'm starting with The Cambridge History of China Volume 2, as I got it for Christmas and haven't got round to reading any of it yet. You'll also be able to find all my reviews on my tumblr.

Just a word on formatting, each review starts with a list of themes. Some of my themes might seem like odd choices. Like most Three Kingdom endeavours I undertake, I'm using this to inform my story writing, so the themes I pick out are ones that are relevant to my plot (not one to be overly ambitious I've obviously got a dozen or novels outlined in my head). The themes therefore are more for me to be able to find information I want quicker, but they might also be helpful for you too so I'm sharing them. If the way they are covered in the chapter isn't obvious and your curious feel free to drop me a message and I'll fill you in.
Last edited by Sun Fin on Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Sun Fin » Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:32 pm

Wei by Prof Rafe De Crespigny

Themes: Army, Politics of Dong Zhuo era, Han Government, Money, Wei Politics, Yellow Turbans

Overview:

The early part of the chapter gives an overview of the fall of the Later Han dynasty, beginning with the Dou family. De Crespigny gives twenty pages to the context of what comes before the founding of the Wei dynasty proper. It is as good an introduction to the period as I believe I’ve read. He clearly traces through the political history and the shift in dynamics from powerful gentry lords who are displaced by successful military commanders, eventually arguing that Cao Cao was the ideal combination of both.

As you would expect on a chapter on Wei, De Crespigny focuses on Cao Cao but introduces the other major players like Yuan Shao, Gongsun Zan and Liu Bei. Time is taken to talk through Cao Cao’s economic and political restructuring of the system, his poetry, as well as outlying his key military campaigns. De Crespigny reflects on his modern-day reputation as the villain of the Three Kingdoms, arguing that it is unfair but, in some sense, “pays perverse tribute to one China’s great men.”

The chapter then moves on to the succession and Cao Pi’s ascension to Emperor. De Crespigny highlights the ways that the Wei dynasty was vulnerable after the death of Cao Cao. Reflecting in particular on the family members of the being kept away from responsibility and its contribution to the fall of Wei. De Crespigny at this point returns to a familiar theme, considering the changing military dynamics and its ongoing relationship with the politics of the day, as the Three Kingdoms settle into a period of “balance” despite the ongoing conflict.

De Crespigny takes a low opinion of Cao Rui, on the basis of his extravagant spending and lack of time in the field, before moving onto the period of Cao Shuang and Sima Yi. The conflict between the two regents is reported as one between the landed gentry and the Cao family, eventually won by the Sima family, the final nail in the tomb of the short-lived Wei dynasty. The fall of Shu is briefly considered before De Crespigny draw his chapter to an end, concluding that Wei never really made the transition from a warlord state to true Empire.

Analysis:

This is a well written and is a good, if basic, introduction to the Wei dynasty. It is short and is therefore only able to give brief attention to the many themes it covers. As is reflected in the overview De Crespigny actually spends more time talking about Cao Cao then he does the Wei dynasty proper. Brilliant for the beginner, or someone looking for an overview. However, if you are looking to go in depth on any of the themes covered, or if you wish to know more about the Wei dynasty itself, this chapter will leave you disappointed.
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Pirao » Fri Mar 20, 2020 6:37 pm

Since you started reviewing this book that I'm reading right now, I'd like to make a remark too, for people who may be thinking of buying it in the future. If you're looking for a book centered in the Three Kingdoms: forget about it. If you've read books like Generals of the South or To establish Peace, you'll barely find any new information that you didn't already have before. Only buy it if you're interested in the fall of Jin and the Northern and Southern dynasties (which is an interesting period in its own right), since that's the topic the book covers more extensively.
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Sun Fin » Fri Mar 20, 2020 7:56 pm

I presume that if you want to know about social and military history for the Three Kingdom's it will still be pretty good, but I've not got there yet.

Today's review is actually from a different book. I planned on working on a scene based in Luoyang so thought I'd read a relevant chapter, so instead you've got Chapter 1 of Fire Over Luoyang. The only downside is that the chapter was so dense I didn't actually have any time to write afterwards! Always tomorrow! :lol: Just for the record, detours for relevant chapters for my story is something you should expect in future as well.
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Sun Fin » Fri Mar 20, 2020 7:58 pm

Imperial Capital by Rafe De Crespigny

Themes: Luoyang; Buildings; Roads; Army; Han Government; Food, water and toileting

Overview:

Rafe De Crespigny opens the chapter by comparing the modern glory of the ancient city of Rome to the way that ancient Luoyang has almost disappeared. Context for the chapter comes from a brief the history of Luoyang from the Zhou dynasty to the Later Han when it became that capital.

The emphasis then shifts to the historic access routes of the great city. De Crespigny remarks that, “Water was the preferred means of transport,” and so takes his time describing the rivers and canals that linked Luoyang with the rest of the country, and then does the same with roads. A helpful map is contained that helps you hold all the information together.

Having described the geography of the surrounding area De Crespigny moves on to the building works conducted in the city and its suburbs by Emperor Guangwu. The subjects covered include the palaces, temples and the restoration of the Imperial University. The building work was continued by his heir Emperor Ming and De Crespigny takes a brief detour to describe some of the religious ceremonies of the day before going into further depth about the layout of the palaces.

The next topic are the people who work for the city. He starts with the various people with authority to guard the capital. This was an extensive list as power was diversified to prevent anyone individual gaining control over all the armed men in the city. The civil authorities of the city are also considered and where their status differs from others of the same rank in the rest of the Empire, it is discussed.

The layout of the city is also considered. Description of various elements of the city, such as the Covered Walkway (a bridge that links the two palaces), marketplaces and the wards formed by the grid-like networks of Great Avenues are discussed. There is another map that shows the city layout.

De Crespigny estimates the population of Luoyang at 400,000 people, using cities in Rome to help guide his thoughts. Then thinks about the climate, saying that despite some dusty, dry seasons the parks and trees would have created a pleasant green environment. Water is discussed next, both human intake and excrement.

He finishes the chapter by thinking about how the land immediately outside the capital is used. Starting with the Emperor’s vast hunting parks. These parks were the one place the Emperor could go to escape the business of ruling, however regular trips were discouraged by pious Confucian scholars. He also talks about private mansions and farms and the Funerary Parks for deceased Emperors.

Analysis:

This chapter is incredibly dry, but is rammed full of information. However, often what he writes only raises more questions. He frequently references a book by his mentor, Hans Bielenstein entitled Lo-yang in Later Han Times which would goes into more depth. That, sadly, is an incredibly rare text. Meaning that for anyone interested in Luoyang during the Later Han this is the go to source. This chapter is setting out context for the book so there is very little political history, that follows on but for someone interested in social history, or the city of Luoyang itself it is a truly valuable resource.
Have a question about a book or academic article before you buy it? Maybe I have it!
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Pirao » Fri Mar 20, 2020 8:07 pm

Sun Fin wrote:I presume that if you want to know about social and military history for the Three Kingdom's it will still be pretty good, but I've not got there yet.


The social organization of China, material culture, funerary customs, music, agriculture and so on mostly center on the Jin dynasty and onwards. The information pertaining to the Three Kingdoms is very brief (and mainly about Wei, with a bit of Wu, Shu doesn't get very much attention I'm afraid). The military history is a brief overview that people who've read other works on the Three Kingdoms period will already be familiar with, though it did provide some new information in the form of figures of soldiers, population and such.
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Sun Fin » Sat Mar 21, 2020 11:38 am

Wu by Rafe De Crespigny

Themes: Sun Ce’s conquest of Wu; Battle of Red Cliff; Hefei; Ruling the South

Overview:

After introducing the Sun clan, De Crespigny sets out his argument for the chapter. He suggests the reason that Wu fell was a growing distance between the Sun clan and the noble families. However, he does go on to say that the great contribution of Wu was the growth of south China, which became a refuge later in the period.

De Crespigny gives a brief overview of the achievements of Sun Jian and Ce. He is keen to give both of them credit for their achievements. Stating that Jian was “founder of the fortunes of his family” and that Ce “proved to be one of the most talented military commanders of his day.”

Following Ce’s death, attention swings to his brother Sun Quan. De Crespigny gives some attention to the Battle of Red Cliffs and its aftermath eventually leading to the breaking of alliance between Sun Quan and Liu Bei. The main factor he explores here is Wu’s relationship with Wei, first as reluctantly subordinate before announcing its independence.

Next De Crespigny changes tack slightly, rather than telling the political story, he focuses on the work of He Qi and others in bringing South China under a central governments control. He considers factors to why the south had largely been ignored and extols the successes of these military campaigns.

Despite these successes De Crespigny is blunt about the difficulties that Wu faced. Those covered are geographical challenges, limited population leading to less celebrated figures than Wei and of course the immoral behaviour of many of Wu’s leading men. De Crespigny finishes this section by saying “The paraphernalia of empire could never disguise the reality of a warlord state.”

Sun Quan’s death led to a succession squabble and a series of short-lived Emperors and regents. De Crespigny only really gives this section enough attention to give a list of names of major players and a paragraph of their actions before they are killed.

The chapter ends with concluding thoughts. De Crespigny returns to his opening arguing that many of the most important people under Ce and Quan came from the north, and their heirs never managed to establish power-bases. Therefore those most loyal to the Sun clan eventually lost favour in place of local families who were more focused on their regional interests then expansion.

Analysis:

Reading the Wu chapter when I am very familiar with Generals of the South made me realise just how lacking in detail this chapter was. It also frustrated me to see some simple errors creeping in, for example Sun Ben was described as Jian’s cousin, not his nephew. However, there is some value in getting a slightly bigger picture perspective. Like it had never occurred to me that some of the reason for tension between Sun Quan and Liu Bei could have been to do with Liu Biao’s son being with Bei and the animosity between families. My biggest frustration is that unlike the Wei chapter this entry gave very little insight into social or military history.

Unless searching for an overview there is little reason to read this chapter when Generals of the South is available online, for free. However, I do have sympathy for De Crespigny, having written a whole book on the Sun clan, he was never likely to be able to write anything new in a short overview chapter. That said, I think he missed an opportunity. Like in the Wei chapter he spent a lot of time on what is really the context, what happened pre-220 AD. If he had focused all of his attention on Wu proper then it might have been a more unique contribution.
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Sun Fin » Sun Mar 22, 2020 3:23 pm

I’m going to take an extended detour this week to review what I believe to be the very first piece of English language academic writing about the Fall of the Han/Three Kingdoms. It was a PHD thesis by a guy called Paul Michaud and it was all about The Yellow Turban Rebellion, written in 1957!
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Sun Fin » Sun Mar 22, 2020 3:25 pm

Introduction by Paul Michaud

Themes: Yellow Turbans

Overview:

The chapter starts by introducing who the Yellow Turbans were, and why they were worth studying. The author argues they are worth studying for two reasons, firstly because they were a factor in the fall of the Han dynasty, a significant part of China’s history. But also due to the religious undertones, and the author is keen to make clear that they feel its classic presentation as a peasant rebellion is not built on fact, and instead it should be understood primarily through a religious lens. At this point he mentions in passing that he believes the moment to be both Daoist and Buddhist in nature. A claim he will substantiate later.

The rest of the introduction is given over to an overview of the rebellion itself. Month by month it goes through the major military encounters, until all three Zhang brothers were dead. It then very briefly introduces the "The Way of Five Peck of Rice" which is a topic the author will consider further in relation to its connections with the Yellow Turbans.

Analysis:

As one would expect from an older source this is written in Wade-Giles, hence Zhang Jue is written Chang Chueh. This is off putting, especially when you encounter less common names. This is very much an introductory chapter, there is very little controversial yet, it is laying out the facts of the rebellion.
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Re: Sun Fin's Book Reviews

Unread postby Sun Fin » Mon Mar 23, 2020 9:48 am

The Background of the Rebellion of the Yellow Turbans by Paul Michaud

Themes: Yellow Turbans; Army

Overview:

Michaud opens by questioning what the causes of the rebellion were. Before he attempts to answer that question, he points out that it is a difficult topic to address fairly as the Yellow Turbans left no documents of their own behind. Instead we assess them on the basis of sources written by hostile Buddhists, who were not keen to paint them in a good light.

The rest of the introduction to the chapter is setting out the argument he is going to make. He wants to dismiss economic concerns as being the primary reason for rebellion in favour of demoralisation of government officials.

Having introduced his premise Michaud argues for it. First, he looks at the power struggles between Emperor, his relatives and the eunuch faction. He questions whether it made much difference to those outside of politics who was running the country. Next, he considers wars with foreign tribes, in some depth. He concedes that these were a significant drain on the Imperial purse, but concludes that the worst of the wars had ended many years before the Yellow Turbans rose up and so it was unlikely to be a factor.

The next section considers three factors. Michaud talks about natural disasters, and says that they are reordered frequently. But as the Han Chinese of the day believed that they were linked to the behaviour of the Emperor he is sceptical of whether they were recorded faithfully, or mentioned for political reasons. He touches on population growth but says that this was mitigated by southwards migration. Lastly, he focuses on rebellions, here he says the sharp increase implies something was getting worse. He says it could be economic factors but instead wonders if it was to do with a “deterioration in the officialdom.”

Moving to the position of the eunuchs, Michaud gives a thorough overview of their gain of power. Then he considers why this might have had an adverse effect on the country. While they were rich, he doubts that their wealth was so extortionate as too put an unbearable burden on the common people. Instead he argues that it was the manner of their rule. Their power came from the Emperor; therefore, their motivation was entirely in keeping him happy. This prevented them from taking long-term political decisions, making them very short-term thinkers, and Michaud argues most keen on how to win themselves the most money possible. Instead, he argues they drove away the most competent officers and destroyed the bureaucracy, returning us to his initial argument.

Analysis:

This is an extensively well researched chapter. Both his sections on eunuchs and foreign tribes go into a lot more depth then one would have expected for sub-points in a relatively brief thesis. He has a clear argument that he makes throughout, and he marshals evidence in its defence that is helpful for a student. However, I am not so convinced that many of the factors he lists as pointing towards a downturn in competent government wouldn’t also lead to economic issues. He is so keen to make his argument that I think he loses sight of the bigger picture.
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