In Emperor Wu’s reign, Zhao Guo advocated a new “alternating fields method” of agriculture. Wider furrows were plowed, resulting in deeper root systems that were better protected from summer droughts. By midsummer the field would be level. The following year the positions of the furrows and ridges were reversed (hence the name “alternating”), thus supposedly preserving soil nutrients and reducing the need for fertilizer or fallowing (leaving fields uncultivated for a period of time). Wind no longer blew the seeds away from the tops of the ridges, and water was more easily conserved. The use of oxen allowed a larger area to be cultivated with the same amount of human labor.
While the plow used in Zhao Guo’s system required a pair of oxen and three men, Eastern Han farmers developed a nose ring that allowed a single man to control both the oxen and the plow. When farmers developed a combined plow and seeder, an individual could both plow and plant in one operation. But once again, these advances were available only to wealthy families and their tenants. As the comparative advantage of the former grew, more farmers were forced off the land.
Lewis conveys useful information; at the midpoint of his book, which totals ten chapters, I’ve found very little fluff, though previously I complained about his organization. Chapter 5 culminated in bringing to the fore certain irritations I have with the text—ultimately with the editing, I suppose (though from experience I know it’s a tricky negotiation). In the first paragraph quoted, I felt flabbergasted when I came upon, in parenthesis, “leaving fields uncultivated for a period of time” as a descriptor or definition of fallowing.
Now, I’m not a farm boy, but I should have thought that the meaning of fallowing was sufficiently clear as to not need elaboration: would not the dictionary suffice if one was stumped or uncertain? It reminds me of those poetry anthologies geared for students, in which many common words are glossed in the margins, so for example you might have, for “Whose woods these are I think I know” a little symbol after woods to inform that it means “a small forested area”.
Later on in the chapter he uses the same technique, of parenthetically defining a precedent word (possibly for students): “The same term is applied to the locally powerful lineages involved in the underworld, those who dominated commanderies, and imperial affines (relatives by marriage).”
“Affines” is not a word you would commonly know. In this case I did, and not from previous anthropological readings (though surely I have encountered it), but because he makes the exact same gloss in a previous chapter: “affines (relatives by marriage)” —though at that time I made no note to enable easy double-checking.
As I say, these are quibbles: the information conveyed in the text seems dependable; nevertheless it remains an irritation, and gives me a slight skepticism about the coherence in toto of the author’s presentation. Whose fault let me not point the finger; perhaps, as I suggested recently, it represents a “dumbing down” demanded by Harvard Press, but perhaps it represents just contemporary carelessness.
On p. 110 Lewis begins a paragraph, “A typical village consisted of about a hundred families, all of whom owned small amounts of land.” Very well; but then it is jolting to come across on p.121 another beginning: “Villages typically consisted of a hundred or more households, and in those dominated by a powerful lineage a significant percentage of those households might share a surname.”
The information is not bad; but the duplications, as I noted, are rife—as well as what I consider to be omissions, but these are harder to pinpoint. It is telling that I have already become so sensitive to notice this. Sanctioned Violence never seemed so disjointed; but perhaps editorial standards have shifted over the years. In my own experience, editors are prone to rewrite even if it disrupts the flow of one’s thought; or maybe Lewis is himself haphazard, but Brook then should not have let it pass.
Yesterday I quoted a reviewer (of another book) commending it for having Chinese words for place names and persons; I would ask further, for titles of cited (classical) texts and critical terminology (“ch’i”). Harvard avoids this like the plague, and it is hard to understand why. (Chinese characters are ever-present in Chang; after all, this is scholarly work, is it not?)
In Lewis you have something like this: “This is marked by the recurrence of such terms as ‘to connect (jie),’ ‘to contact (jiao),’ or ‘to communicate (tong),’ which often appear as compounds and have a large range of meanings.” Chang would frequently give the Chinese character along with the romanization; then, after usage had been determined with the first appearance, omit subsequently the character while keeping the romanization. In the quoted example, of what possible use to me is it to know the sound—and remember Chinese is a language replete with homophones—without giving the character? Here, a student with rudimentary Mandarin will likely know to which words these phonetics refer; but frequently it is not so simple.
After all, Yuen Ren Chao has already written a poem (“The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den”) —justly become famous—to demonstrate just how ridiculous it all is. Lewis and Brook should have known better. The book—and series presumably—is not so shabby as such practice makes it appear.
These are quibbles, nitpicks, and minor irritations, something to be gotten off one’s chest in a blog post: I continue to recommend the book, and honestly doubt much better is to be found, at least so up-to-date. Half way and I hope to continue.