Tamara T. ChinSavage Exchange: Han Imperialism, Chinese Literary Style, and the Economic Imagination

Harvard University Asia Center, 2014

by Carla Nappi on January 30, 2015

Tamara T. Chin

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Tamara Chin’s new book is a tour de force and a must-read for anyone interested in early China, the history of economy, or inter-disciplinarity in the humanities. Focusing on the reign of Han Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), Savage Exchange: Han Imperialism, Chinese Literary Style, and the Economic Imagination (Harvard University Asia Center, 2014) carefully considers how this earliest period of expansion of China’s markets and frontiers inspired scholarly debates over the relationships of frontier, market, word, and world. In a series of three chapters that each treat a discursive genre (philosophical dialogue, epideictic fu, and historiography) and two chapters that look at social practices (kinship and money), Savage Exchange traces the literary innovations that emerged within contexts of political economic debate. Chin’s story reads Han literary texts in a way that uncovers and traces multiple, sometimes conflicting narratives instead of the kind of linear story that often accompanies traditional readings of these works. The book shows that the “savagery of imperialism,” for many, was not about borders between the civilized and the barbarian, but instead was about modes and rituals of exchange across boundaries of gender, morality, numeracy, kinship, and materiality. Chapter 5 will be of particular interest to historians of money, and the final chapter of the book is a special treat for readers interested in the broader implications of Chin’s methodology,  as it covers the importance of literary scholars engaging with the materials and texts produced by frontier archaeology, of comparative literature engaging with premodern histories of contact, and of the historiography of world systems engaging a broader set of approaches to documents and data.

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