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The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy.

The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy, by Nicolas Tackett. Cambridge, Harvard University Asia Center, 2014. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 93. xv, 281 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).

The book under review is a substantive contribution to social history, historiography, human geography, and material culture in Tang China (618-906). It is an admirable application of gis (China Historical System) and social network analysis to sinology. The research undertaken by Tackett is remarkable, with the creation of a huge database derived from several thousands of excavated epitaphs recording the lives of men and women from the seventh to the tenth centuries. He used the gis to generate comparative charts plotting the transformation and migratory pathways of descendants of the medieval aristocracy that traced its origins to the first century. Checking the epigraphic evidence against digital biographies, anecdotal collections, and dynastic histories, he provides empirical data to confirm the research outcomes of two generations of Chinese, Japanese, and western scholarship on the Chinese medieval aristocracy.

Tackett begins with the tomb epitaph of Ms. Lu, who hailed from the prestigious Fanyang (Beijing) clan and married into an eminent clan in Luoyang. Her son passed the highest level of examinations and her son-in-law became chief minister. In 880 when the Huang Chao (d. 884) rebels swept into the capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an, she perished along with four of her five children, who died without heirs. Only one son survived, and a nephew buried her with three epitaphs that form part of Tackett's epigraphic data. The extinction of the clans of her father, husband, and son-in-law mirrored the broader crisis of the medieval aristocracy and its total disappearance from the mass killings of the members.

Chapter one presents the medieval aristocracy as a hierarchy of top-ranked, eminent, and famous-surname clans that survived several dynastic changes, on the strength of breeding, education, morality, public service and a strong social network sustained by endogamous marriages. The epitaph shows the individual's life passages as well as clan descent and social networks. The materiality of the epitaph (such as the length of the epitaph, calligraphy, and quality of tombstone) is indicative of clan hierarchy and differentiated wealth among the elites. Charts generated from plotting 6,255 epitaphs show that the top-ranked and eminent great clans moved into Chang'an and Luoyang while less distinguished clans relocated to peripheral regions.

The next chapter uses geographic data to show that the capital elites were sharply distinct from the provincial elites. Based in the Chang'an/ Luoyang / surrounding region, the capital elites dominated key central government posts for a number of generations. The provincial elite spread in the provinces and only one or two generations held public office. Downward mobility is observed when certain capital elites transferred to the provinces for term appointments, while upward mobility can be seen where wealthy merchants, clergy, military, and other non-officeholder elite families moved into the capital region. By the ninth century, most prominent capital elites lived in the capital region, but those who relocated to the provinces lost contact with their relatives in the capital region and fell into obscurity.

In chapter three, Tackett taps into his database of some 20,000 Tang individuals to document how social capital through the marriage and social networks integrated patrilines from the imperial house, military clans, and eminent writers' families with the pre-Tang old aristocracy. In the next chapter, Tackett walks us through epigraphic evidence that revises our understanding of provincial bureaucracies before and after the An Lushan rebellion (755-762). The autonomous northeast provinces in Hebei had hereditary governors who controlled their armies and paid no taxes to the Tang. The capital elites staffed a mere two percent of the top posts, and even these individuals did not intend to settle there permanently. The Hebei provinces developed an elite identity and culture on which the imperial clan that founded the Song dynasty (960-1276) built their roots. Tackett marshals epigraphic evidence to demonstrate that the An Lushan crisis devastated the economy but the Tang court retained greater control of the provinces than previously thought. The capital elites survived intact and dominated multiple levels of provincial bureaucracies in the remaining provinces. The charts show that the Tang court strengthened its military forces against the provincial armies, appointed an increasingly larger number of civilian governors, limited their tenure, and reduced the number of mutinies. In these provinces, the clerks came from the local elites, but the governors, prefects, and magistrates were connected through kinship, marriage, and social networks to the capital elites.

In the last chapter, Tackett argues that in 874-885, the agrarian rebellion organized by the failed examination candidate Huang Chao dealt the death blow to the capital elites. As the rebels and bandits sacked the capitals and violence spread to major centres, the Tang court fled but the chief ministers and officials were hunted down and executed by the thousands while others committed suicide. Their homes and possessions totally destroyed, the survivors soon succumbed to epidemics and starvation. Few members among the capital elites survived to prepare epitaphs for deceased family members.

Tackett cautions us that his empirical data could change when many more epitaphs of the period are excavated, but for now he has more than fulfilled his stated objectives, to examine how the medieval Chinese aristocracy survived the An Lushan rebellion and why it disappeared at the end of the ninth century. It is welcome news that he is working on a sequel, on the configuration of a new merit-based elite, whose identity and value system from the tenth century onward departed from the visions of the medieval aristocracy.

DOI: 10.3138/CJH.ACH.50.3.007

Jennifer W. Jay, University of Alberta
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Author:Jay, Jennifer W.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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