China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty.
Under Timothy Brook's capable editorship, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press has released six volumes of historical surveys of Chinese empires; together they unravel two thousand years of imperial China, with each volume taking up about one or two dynasties and covering an average of three hundred years. Mark Lewis completed the first three in the series: Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (2007); China Between Empires: The North and South Dynasties (2009); China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. Of the remaining three, Dieter Kuhn penned Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China (2009), Timothy Brook authored The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (2010), and William T. Rowe wrote China's Last Empire: The Great Qing (2009). All four highly acclaimed historians present the best of China-centred historiography, which they have already demonstrated in previous meticulous, awardwinning research.
In providing historical surveys of China's early dynastic history, Lewis' three volumes adopt a multi-disciplinary approach and an all-embracing vision of the construction of space and the cultural geography of empires. In China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty, Lewis has produced a substantive and admirable general history of two dynasties in China's middle period: the short-lived Sui (589-617) and the longer lasting Tang (618-906) that continued the institutional and economic transformation launched by the Sui rulers. The designation of these three centuries as China's Golden Age was based on their sophisticated material culture, military strength, and cosmopolitan society. The uniqueness of this volume lies in the extensive use of Tang writers as eyewitnesses, including major poets such as Du Fu and Li Shangyin, along with at least twenty other poets, to comment on social and economic changes in the public and private spheres. Indeed, showcasing the excellence of Tang poetry is most appropriate, considering that Chinese poetry reached its apogee during the three centuries covered by the volume. Although Lewis' other monographs are based on textual and primary sources, China's Cosmopolitan Empire, the furthest from his specialty, is mainly anchored on translations and secondary literature. Nevertheless, erudite scholarship is evident in all nine tightly packed thematic chapters that take the An Lushan rebellion as the pivotal point dividing the Tang dynasty into two halves--before and after the rebellion (geography of empire, foundation to rebellion, warlords and monopolists, urban life, rural society, outer world, kinship, religion, and writing). In late 755, the multi-ethnic army of An Lushan, the Turkic-Sogdian military governor of Fanyang (Beijing), sacked the Tang capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang and began seven years of devastating civil war in which a new dynasty was proclaimed and four rebel emperors replaced each other in rapid succession. Then the Tibetans attacked, and with the costly assistance of the Uighurs, the Tang dynasty survived but never recovered its previous glory and global prestige. Lewis argues that four transformations initiated at the juncture of the An Lushan rebellion not merely changed the direction of Tang China, but had a huge impact on subsequent Chinese history, precisely in bringing China out of the medieval period into the early modern era (pp. 2-4). Firstly, the weakened state and loss of state control in the northeast forced the government to abolish previous Tang institutions, some of which had been in place since 220. It relaxed the control over family property and replaced the equal-field landholding (with its poll-tax and tax-in-kind) with the twice-a-year taxation scheme, thereby ensuring a more reliable source of revenues in the provinces that remained under Tang control. Furthermore, a gradually professionalizing army now formally replaced the militia system.
The second transformation involves the reconfiguration of empire and a new cultural geography. At the beginning of the dynasty, the population was concentrated in the ancient heartland and Yellow River regions in the north, with the capitals located in Chang'an and Luoyang. Following the ecological destruction of the north, the "erosion of the grassland," and the rebels' invasion of the capitals, the population shifted southward. The An Lushan rebellion dismantled the tax base of the northeast; subsequently, economic and fiscal significance shifted from the north to the Yangzi and Sichuan regions. The further development of the Grand Canal linked a large number of cities and counties, greatly facilitating the shift to the south, where technologies for water control, drainage systems, and new land development contributed to the emergence of the south as the economic and demographic centre.
The third transformation linked Tang traders and society with the outside world through mercantile and cultural connections with the overland and maritime silkroads; the latter maximized the use of the harbors of the south. The fourth transformation is observed in the production and circulation of new literary genres in the reconfigured empire (for example, chuanqi romantic fiction, philosophical essays, cautionary fables), as their authors, many of whom were officials and scholars, transferred to new positions from the centres to major cities and other localities. Writers such as Liu Zongyuan and Han Yu were deeply involved in an intellectual and Confucian movement "to return to antiquity" through the affirmation of moral convictions of the writer and society.
In scope and conceptual framework, China's Cosmopolitan Empire is to date the best updated historical survey of Tang China in English. Both the specialist and non-specialist will appreciate immensely Lewis's copious documentation and readily accessible English sources. In a journey that departs from the traditional, straight narrative of emperors' reigns, the reader is certain to savor the fine poetry of contemporary informants who guide our understanding of institutional changes, populations shifts, urban and rural societies, and the kinship, religious, and literary landscapes of a vibrant Tang China.
Jennifer W. Jay
University of Alberta
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|Author:||Jay, Jennifer W.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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