As pointed as this critique is, I feel that it actually understates the book’s problems. Even after another read, I’m still not sure what is really “new” about Zhao’s theory. Warring States competition leading to a merging of Confucian and Legalist institutions is an exceedingly mainstream view, especially in legal history, where the origins of the Li-Fa merger is standard textbook material that graduate students learn within a few weeks of beginning their programs. Granted, there are some technical refinements in Zhao’s framework, but the main thrust of the argument is something no serious institutional or political historian would be unfamiliar with. Moreover, conventional wisdom is that the framework can’t deal with most of the major developments post Tang-Song transition, including the state’s shift away from a direct administrative role into a more mediation and management-based one—and yet, very curiously, Zhao’s treatment of the long second millennium is far, far weaker than his (nonetheless flawed) engagement with pre-Han history, even though the structure of his argument demanded the exact opposite. Yes, one has to admire the book’s ambition and sweep, but it’s a frustrating read.
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