Mark Edward Lewis’s research deals with many aspects of Chinese civilization in the late pre-imperial, early imperial and middle periods (contemporary with the centuries in the West from classical Greece through the early Middle Ages), and with the problem of empire as a political and social form.
His first book, Sanctioned Violence in Early China, studies the emergence of the first Chinese empires by examining the changing forms of permitted violence—warfare, hunting, sacrifice, punishments, and vengeance. It analyzes the interlinked evolution of these violent practices to reveal changes in the nature of political authority, in the units of social organization, and in the defining practices and attitudes of the ruling elites. It thus traces the changes that underlay the transformation of the Chinese polity from a league of city-states dominated by aristocratic lineages to a unified, territorial state governed by a supreme autocrat and his agents.
His second book, Writing and Authority in Early China covers the same period from a different angle. It traces the evolving uses of writing to command assent and obedience, an evolution that culminated in the establishment of a textual canon as the foundation of imperial authority. The book examines the full range of writings employed in early China, including divinatory records, written communications with ancestors, government documents, collective writings of philosophical traditions, speeches attributed to historical figures, chronicles, verse anthologies, commentaries, and encyclopedic compendia. It shows how these writings in different ways served to form social groups, administer populations, control officials, invent new models of intellectual and political authority, and create an artificial language whose mastery generated power and whose graphs become potent, almost magical, objects.
His third book, The Construction of Space in Early China, examines the formation of the Chinese empire through its reorganization and reinterpretation of its basic spatial units: the human body, the household, the city, the region, and the world. It shows how each higher unit—culminating in the empire—claimed to incorporate and transcend the units of the preceding level, while in practice remaining divided and constrained by the survival of the lower units, whose structures and tensions they reproduced. A companion volume, The Flood Myths of Early China, shows how these early Chinese ideas about the constituent elements of an ordered, human space—along with the tensions and divisions therein—were elaborated and dramatized in a set of stories about the re-creation of a structured world from a watery chaos that had engulfed it.
In addition to these specialist monographs, Lewis has written the first three volumes of a six-volume survey of the entire history of imperial China: The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, China Between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties, and China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. These volumes serve as introductions to the major periods of Chinese history for non-specialists, and as background readings to introductory surveys. In addition to recounting the major political events, they devote chapters to the most important aspects of the society of each period: geographic background, cities, rural society, kinship, religion, literature, and law.
He has completed a new monograph, Honor and Shame in Early China, which traces evolving ideas about honor and shame in the Warring States and early empires in order to understand major developments in the social history of the period. It examines the transformation of elites and the emergence of new groups through scrutinizing differing claims to “honor” (and consequent re-definitions of what was “shameful”) entailed in claiming a public role without necessarily being a noble or an employee of the state.
“Fiscal Regimes in Early Imperial China, from the Qin and Han through the Tang.” In FiscalRegimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States. Ed. Andrew Monson and Walter Scheidel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
“Mothers and Sons in Early Imperial China.” In Extrême Orient, Extrême Occident. 2012.
“Swordsmanship and the Socialization of Violence in Early China,” in From Athens toBeijing: West Meets East in the Olympic Games. Ed. Susan Brownell. New York: Athlone. 2012.
“Historiography and Empire,” in Oxford History of Historical Writing, Vol 1. Ed. Grant Hardy and Andrew Feldherr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
“Evolution of the Shang Calendar,” in Measuring the World and Beyond: TheArchaeology of Early Quantification and Cosmology. Ed. Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
“The Mythology of Early China,” in Rituels, pantheons et techniques: Histoire de lareligion chinoise avant les Tang. Ed. John Lagerwey. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009.
“Gift Exchange and Charity in Ancient China and the Roman Empire," in Institutions of Empire:Comparative Perspectives on Ancient Chinese and Mediterranean History. Ed. Walter Scheidel. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.
“Writing the World in the Family Instructions of the Yan Clan.” Early Medieval China: Essaysin Honor of Albert E.Dien Volumes 13-13: Part 1. 2007.
“The Just War in Early China,” in The Ethics of War in Asian Civilizations. Ed. Torkel Brekke. London: Routledge, 2006.
“Writings on Warfare Found in Ancient Chinese Tombs,” Sino-Platonic Papers 158 (August 2005).
“Custom and Human Nature in Early China.” Philosophy East and West 53:3 (July 2003).
“Dicing and Divination in Early China.” Sino-Platonic Papers. 121 (July 2002).
“The Han Abolition of Universal Military Service,” in Warfare in Chinese History. Ed. Hans van de Ven. E. J. Brill, 2000.
“The City-State in Spring-and-Autumn China,” in A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures. Ed. M. H. Hansen. Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter 21. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2000.
“The Feng and Shan Sacrifices of Emperor Wu of the Han,” in State and Court Ritual in China. Ed. Joseph McDermott. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
“Political History of the Warring States,” in The Cambridge History of Ancient China. Ed. Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
“The Ritual Origins of the Warring State.” Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient 84:2 (1997).
“The Warring State in China as Institution and Idea,” in War: A Cruel Necessity? Ed. Robert A. Hinde. I. B. Tauris, 1995.
“Les rites comme trame de l'histoire,” in Changement et idées de changement en Chine. Ed. Vivienne Alton. Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises, 1994.
“The Suppression of the Sect of the Three Stages: Apocrypha as a Political Issue,” in ChineseBuddhistApocrypha. Ed. Robert Buswell, ed., University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
Academic Awards and Honors
Awarded the Humboldt Stiftung Forschungspreis from the German government for a year of research based at Münster University in 2008-2009. Gave invited lectures at Zürich, Leipzig, Bochum, Bonn, Hamburg, Tübingen, Wurzburg, and Heidelberg.
Awarded the Prix Stanislas Julien by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres of the Institut de France in 2009 for The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han.
Awarded the Prix Budget by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres of the Institut de France in 2002 for Writing and Authority in Early China.
Society of Fellows. Harvard University. Sept. 1985 - June 1988. Resigned September 1986 to take up lectureship at Cambridge University.