Trenton Wilson

HistoryUniversity of California / Berkeley

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2017 IDRF Program

HistoryUniversity of California / Berkeley

The Imperium of Doubt: Trust and Suspicion in China’s Early Empires, 356 BCE-316 CE

Can social and political order be premised on the elimination of doubt? What pressure does the attempt to establish certainty in human affairs place on social order? My dissertation will focus on these questions as an entrée into the culture and political thought of the early imperial period, roughly from the Qin administrative reforms in 356 BCE to the destruction of the Western Jin in 316 CE. "Dispelling doubt" (jue xianyi) and similar variants occur frequently in the texts of this period to describe an ideal for knowledge and action. Many of the institutional and social technologies of the period are thought of in terms of their ability to "dispel doubt," including bureaucracy, quantitative audits, contracts, prognostication practices and ritual. My dissertation will analyze the way these technologies developed over time and the combinations of these technologies employed within different kinds of relationships. By viewing social and political order through the lens of practices for "dispelling doubt" and building trust, this dissertation will show the complexity of early imperial governance. I will show how debates about the effectiveness of governance in the period often revolve around the practical and ethical problems of "dispelling doubt." The last part of the study, concerning the collapse of the Eastern Han empire and its aftermath, will show how writers were incredibly sensitive to the problems brought about by failures of trust and transparency and the proliferation of doubt and suspicion. Numerous ideas and organizational forms were put forth as possible solutions to the problem. Peasant rebels, imperial academy students and aristocrats developed new ideas about the organization of society based on varying concepts of trust, ranging from the formation of local pacts and the cultivation of extreme moral integrity to the development of philosophies premised on the moral and social value of opacity and uncertainty.