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Communication and Cooperation in Early Imperial China: Publicizing the Qin Dynasty

Communication and Cooperation in Early Imperial China: Publicizing the Qin Dynasty

Martin Lavicka05 Apr 2014Leave a comment

Written by Oliver Weingarten

Sanft, Charles. 2014. Communication and Cooperation in Early Imperial China: Publicizing the Qin Dynasty. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN: 978-1-4384-5037-7. $85.

Traditional historiography has long disparaged the Qin dynasty as a tyrannical regime par excellence. Its predatory military machine which owed much to the fierce customs of the barbarian northwest mercilessly crushed the last surviving rival polities from the Warring States period. Out of the blue, the Qin forced an omniscient administrative system on the population that extracted extortionate taxes for megalomaniac building projects. The writing system, weights and measures, and even the axle width of carriages were standardised throughout the newly founded empire in an attempt to wipe out any regional diversity. But a political system as inhumane as this one was not destined to last. After the undignified death of its charismatic founder, who began his final journey encased in boxes of rotting fish to cover up the stench of his decomposing body, the Qin dynasty was swiftly overthrown by popular uprisings. It had simply pushed the populace too far. Fortunately, with the Liu clan of the Han a more benign ruling house arose that remedied the worst excesses of its predecessor. Or so the story goes.

Historians will, of course, recognise the claims above as a blunt caricature of Han and post-Han representations of the Qin. With good reason they have long suspected that a picture of Qin rule more firmly grounded in empirical data and first-hand source material would be a good deal less stark. The motivation of Han writers to vilify the Qin is so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning. For a long time, historians have been aware that the Han departure from the practices of its hated predecessor was less abrupt than the new imperial propaganda would have it and that the new rulers preserved central aspects of the Qin legal and administrative system. Until the 1970s, however, few sources beyond the received body of historical literature were available, and doubts about the traditional condemnation of the Qin could, at best, take the form of cautious reinterpretation, but these were difficult to substantiate. The rich archaeological finds of the last four decades, beginning with the First Emperor’s tomb (1974) and the Shuihudi 睡虎地 legal manuscripts (1975), have significantly changed the situation. Charles Sanft’s new monograph is one of several publications following in the wake of this still ongoing archaeological revolution.[1] It promises to help build a more nuanced understanding of Qin’s development from the Warring States polity to a universal empire. The particular virtue of Sanft’s book lies in the application of a sophisticated theoretical framework to sources and data, both old and new, in order to propose “an additional layer of significance” (p. 150) to existing interpretations of salient features of Qin rule.

As Sanft emphasises both in the introductory first chapter and in the theoretical overview of the second chapter, communication and cooperation are necessary preconditions of social life and political power. Without either, societies could not form and political systems could not exist. Even the “lasting tyranny of a single person or a small group is impossible without convincing (not forcing) most members of the society to comply” (p. 7). Any form of political rule requires cooperation understood as “a situation in which one person bears a cost in order to benefit another” (p. 9). For this to work, benefits need not be evenly distributed, and cooperation in this sense does not presuppose the absence of power relationships.[2] But in order to convince people to cooperate, common knowledge of the existing order has to be fostered. To achieve this, communication is of the essence, though it “does not require perfect distribution of detailed information”; “a simple message [..] broadcast widely and effectively” and in particular “information-poor messages transmitted in multiple modes” will be sufficient for the purpose (p. 9). The main body of Sanft’s monograph proceeds to demonstrate in detail how such insights, undergirded by work from areas such as game theory, signalling theory, theory of ritual, and governmentality, can be fruitfully applied to the historical case of the Qin.

Chapter 3 argues that ancient Chinese thinkers were well aware of the fact that political rule depended on public support and could not last without it. Books as different as Mozi, Xunzi, Han Fei zi, and Guanzi all argue in one way or another that rulers cannot but take the interests of the common people into account in order to “win the active support of all levels of society” (p. 55). As Sanft underlines, the “conceptions” he discusses “challenge analysis of early Chinese society as functioning primarily or only as top-down, coercive hierarchy” (p. 56).  Additionally, they suggest that his own theoretical framework would not have been entirely alien to those thinkers themselves.

Chapter 4 reprises arguments that the famous standardisation projects of the Qin dynasty had a number of practical, especially economic purposes in that they facilitated the exchange of products across regions and simplified pricing processes. Sanft concedes that all these advantages would have been in evidence but maintains that they were accompanied by less tangible, yet no less significant effects. The very process of pervasive standardisation as well as the ubiquitous inscriptions that proclaimed and attested to it were moves in the communicative game of creating common knowledge of the freshly founded empire. This is further borne out by the fact that the Second Emperor piggybacked on the existing inscriptions on measuring devices by adding new ones of his own, which made it known that he “had taken the throne” and which “positioned him as the filial, dutiful, and legitimate successor to a remarkable monarch” (p. 75).

Chapter 5 reviews a number of previous interpretations of the First Emperor’s imperial progresses presenting them, for instance, as “huge political ceremonies” and as attempts to “suppress dissent” in the newly conquered regions (p. 85). Continuing a long tradition of such progresses and building on existing religious and communicative practices, Sanft argues, the First Emperor’s tours were in fact multimedia performances which served the purposes mentioned but also, crucially, generated “common knowledge of the new sovereign” (p. 98).

Chapter 6 discusses the construction of roads as means of transport and communication as well as instruments of imperial propaganda. Some aspects of road building were continuations of existing practices, as the standardisation of measurements and the imperial progresses had been. Walled roads had been used for military transports before the founding of the empire. Afterwards, however, such roads and raised walkways were constructed for exclusive use by the emperor and thus helped broadcast his uniquely elevated status: “At the same time these walls obscured the emperor’s movements, they made his paths permanent and communicated his presence in an enduring manner” (p. 104). In the same vein, the Direct Road (zhi dao 直道) whose name could likewise be understood as “upright way” (p. 109) and that connected the area outside the Qin capital with the northwestern border region, functioned both as a means of transport and a symbol of the dynasty’s power. Its symbolic message was directed at Qin subjects and the Xiongnu or proto-Xiongnu on whose homeland it was probably designed to encroach.

Chapter 7 investigates how legal and administrative measures could be used concomitantly to enforce order and to communicate. Drawing strongly on Han examples, Sanft argues that household registration, public punishments, and changes in the law in addition to their clear practical objectives also fulfilled propagandistic purposes by generating common knowledge of the ruling dynasty and by bringing subjects into regular contact with agents of the state. This is further borne out by excavated documentary records of how the Qin and Han actively promulgated laws and regulations among the populace (pp. 143-145).

In sum, Charles Sanft proposes a sophisticated reinterpretation of Qin imperial history and political symbolism by looking beyond the immediate pragmatic effects of political measures in order to probe their wider communicative purposes. This reinterpretation is partly carried forward by the continuing momentum of archaeological finds with their immeasurable potential to transform the current understanding of early China and of Qin in particular. Sanft’s interpretation also integrates various theoretical approaches to communication and cooperation into a coherent framework for historical investigation. He doubtless succeeds admirably in his declared aim to undermine “the traditional picture of senseless Qin barbarity” by offering “a way of viewing Qin activities that makes them intelligible” instead (p. 151). Moreover, his work has “broader implications” which he contemplates at the end of the book (pp. 156-58). His approach promises to yield useful results particularly for later periods of imperial history which are more fully documented. Finally, Communication and Cooperation sets an example for the fruitful integration of tenets and frameworks from a variety of social sciences and from behavioural science and evolutionary theory. In this sense, Sanft succeeds in an exemplary fashion at utilising both new evidence and novel approaches. He deserves to be congratulated on both accounts.

Oliver Weingarten works at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences

[1] Finds and purchases of inscribed archaeological objects continue unabated. For a recent overview of a massive cache of administrative documents discovered in 2002 see, e.g., Robin D.S. Yates, “The Qin Slips and Boards from Well No. 1, Liye, Hunan: A Brief Introduction to the Qin Qianling County Archives”, Early China 35-36 (2012-13): 291-330.

[2] Sanft has argued elsewhere that one of the effects of Shang Yang’s 商鞅 (?–338 BCE) reforms was to foster cooperation, especially within the mutually responsible household groups into which society was divided; see his “Shang Yang Was a Cooperator: Applying Axelrod’s Analysis of Cooperation in Early China”, Philosophy East and West 64.1 (2014): 174-191.

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