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The Writing of Official History Under the T'ang.

Historians of premodern China frequently encounter the problem of discrepancies and inconsistencies in their most essential sources - the dynastic or standard histories - whose primary components are the basic annals of the emperors, biographies of distinguished and notorious men, and monographs or topic-focused discussions. These sources constitute the official histories of the defunct dynasty and were compiled by the reigning dynasty under the historiographical principles and format first established by the Han (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) astrologer and historiographer, Ssu-ma Ch'ien (d. 86 B.C.). The writing of official history in the T'ang dynasty (618-906) was a formative stage in the development of this two-thousand year-old historiographical tradition which sought to instruct the present and legitimize the existing political authority. In this attractive book Professor Twitchett reconstructs in minute detail how the chief official history of the T'ang dynasty, known as the T'ang shu or Chiu T'ang shu, was initiated as early as 692, two years after empress Wu Tse-t'ien had declared the Chou dynasty (690-705) to replace the T'ang dynasty of her husband and sons. As it turned out, the Chou dynasty ended when she died and the T'ang was restored, thus this early draft of the T'ang shu was not completed. Indeed while the earlier drafts and records were collected, selected, written, and edited at various times and circumstances under the T'ang, the Chiu T'ang shu in two hundred chapters was finally presented in 945 by the reigning Chin dynasty (936-946) as the official official record of the T'ang dynasty, which by then had become defunct for forty years. Twitchett believes that the 1936 Po na edition reproduces in part the earliest extant edition printed in the twelfth century.

Twitchett's meticulous study of the sources and compilation of the Chiu T'ang shu is organized in three sections and fourteen chapters. The first section describes the personnel and bureaucracy of the historiographical office. The history officials were educated in Confucian classics but included the notoriously dishonest Hsu Ching-tsung as well as Liu Chih-chi's family of conscientious historians and the supervisors of history projects who often served as chief ministers. While situating these officials and their personalities in their institutional setting, Twitchett demonstrates the complexity of the historiographical process and the discrepancies of viewpoints. The second section forms the core of the book and analyzes the earliest stages and drafts of court diaries, inner palace diaries, records of administrative affairs, monthly daily-calendars, biographies, institutional histories, veritable records, and national histories. Twitchett formulates careful conclusions about both the extant and non-extant works falling into these categories. He argues convincingly that the veritable records of the reigns of each emperor were adopted as an innovation in the T'ang. The last section deals with the basic annals and the monographs of the final product of the official historiographical process for the dynasty - the Chiu T'ang shu - on which the eleventh-century Hsin T'ang shu, the other dynastic history for the T'ang, was based. Copius documentation and ample charts reinforce the solid scholarship evident throughout this definitive study in T'ang official historiography, the first in any language.

This book is actually the cumulation of forty years of Twitchett's research, both published and unpublished, in the field of T'ang history and historiography. An eminent authority in this discipline, he acknowledges generously the previous work of his outstanding colleagues including E.G. Pulleyblank, David McMullen, William Hung, Chin Yu-fu, and Etienne Balazs. The research of Twitchett and the above historians has stood up to the test of time; indeed this book provides additional proof of the combined enduring scholarship of four decades of research in the field by scholars in the west as well as in China and Japan. The volume is certainly a welcome addition to T'ang history and should become the primary research tool of any graduate student in traditional Chinese historiography.

Twitchett states at the outset that his study is concerned with only the aspect of official history-writing in the T'ang. But it seems that the boundary between official and private history-writing might be further explored so as to sharpen our skills and sensitivity in the scrutiny of the official works and in the application of non-official sources such as private histories, correspondence, poetry, and note-book collections to support alternative interpretations in our research. What appears equally urgent is a systematic treatment of the philosophy of history and the theoretical constructs of the T'ang history officials' such as the two generations of the Liu Chih-chi family and the five talented Sung sisters who were in charge of the writing of inner palace diaries for forty-four years. Perhaps Professor Twitchett will take up these topics in a companion volume.
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Author:Jay, Jennifer W.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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