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.