Three questions to Michael Loewe

This is the second interview in a new series, entitled Three questions, in which scholars,  invited to participate in the SAW events, answer three questions about their research.

It is my honour to introduce Michael Loewe, who will give a talk on Wang Mang’s bronze vessel for the system of capacity units of measurement at the workshop Cultures of Computation and Quantification (session of 29 January 2013).

Michael Loewe (born 1922) was appointed Lecturer in the History of the Far East at the University of London in 1963, and Lecturer in Chinese Studies in Cambridge in 1963 until his retirement in 1990. His research has been concentrated on the history of China’s early empires (221 BCE to 220 CE) with attention to religious, intellectual, and institutional developments and with account of both literary and material evidence.  His principal publications include Records of Han Administration (1967); A Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han and Xin Dynasties (2000) and Dong Zhongshu, a ‘Confucian’ heritage and the Chunqiu fanlu (2011); and as co-editor The Cambridge History of China volume I (1986) and The Cambridge History of Ancient China (1999).

Natalie Cernecka: How did you become interested in Chinese studies?
Michael Loewe: In 1942 I was trained in certain aspects of Japanese and thereafter in contemporary Chinese.  During a six months’ stay in  Pei-ping in 1947, I acquired a deep interest in China’s traditional culture and on return to England I was able to pursue this interest while working for a degree in Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

NC: What is Wang Mang’s bronze vessel and what is unique about it?
ML: The Jialiang hu, now on display in Taipei, is a unique vessel in bronze that dates from the time of Wang Mang’s short-lived dynasty of Xin, probably in 14 CE.  The vessel is shaped to provide all five standard and authorised measures of capacity, the largest being for the hu, of approximately of 20 litres. There is a general description that concerns the function of the vessel and five other inscriptions for each of the five measures.  Its historical significance lies in its part in the process of standardising weights and measures in China, in the part played by Liu Xin in its construction, references to the vessel in the Han shu and later writings, and the application of mathematical principles in its construction.

Karine Chemla: What are in your view the most promising issues for future research regarding state and scholarship in Wang Mang’s time?
ML: Much attention is needed to studying how certain distinguished scholars of Wang Mang’s time affected his decisions and principles, how far he was consciously attempting to re-create conditions that he believed had characterised the kings of Zhou, how effectively he changed the institutions of Western Han and in what ways he left a heritage for Eastern Han.

NC: Many thanks!

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