Christian P. Sorace's Shaken Authority is about the power of language. Set in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake, Sorace's study uses the reconstruction efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after the natural disaster to explore the role of ideology in policy making. He contends that official discourse is not empty propaganda—it provides “valuable insight into how power works” in the People's Republic of China (p. 150). This is because, he argues, discourse functions as political power. It is the cornerstone of how the CCP “formulates policies, defines legitimacy, and exerts its power” (p. 6).

For historians like me, the power of language is hardly untrodden analytical ground, though according to Sorace's own introduction, it is perhaps a rarer lens for political scientists. Yet given how limited historians’ evidence often is, we find it difficult to definitively prove how discourse tangibly affects everyday life. With few exceptions, we cannot go...

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