Book Review: China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty

China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty, by Mark Edward Lewis

It is not easy for Westerners to get a good sense of Chinese history, and this book does a good job at pointing out how it is that a dynasty with part-Turkish origins in the North managed to help lead in ways that would further the development of China’s South, which would have massive consequences for future Chinese dynasties as the shift in population dynamics would hinder Chinese military strength in the northern areas where barbarians would become increasingly important in the military security of China. Likewise, in many ways the Tang dynasty marks a shift in Chinese religious thought, serving as the peak of institutional Daoism and Buddhism, as a time when Chinese belle lettres were in a high state of development, and where Chinese aristocracy shifted from the dominance of families whose power had lasted for centuries to a slightly better distributed elite that was not nearly so focused on court power as was the case during the Tang. There is a sense of sadness here too given the massive destruction that came upon China’s urban culture during both the An Lushan rebellion as well as the catastrophic fall of the Tang in the late 9th century when resentful local warlords took out their frustrations on court elites in the powerless late Tang.

This book is almost 300 pages long and it is divided into 9 chapters that look at the Tang dynasty and its achievements in thematic fashion. The book begins with an introduction and then a discussion of the geography of the Tang Empire from its core regions in the longtime cultural capitals of Chang’an and Louyang, neither of which would again be the center of future Chinese realms to its peripheries in Central Asia, northern Vietnam, and Korea (1). After that the author discusses the early Tang period from its founding in the revolutionary end of the previous Sui dynasty to the An Lushan rebellion that shook the empire to the core (2), which is then followed by a discussion of the fate of late Tang society with its struggle against the power of warlords and the increasing power of Southern economic monopolists (3). The author then spends some time talking about urban life (4), especially in its two most important cities, where political power was long centered, and rural life that was dominated by landlords and by the decreasing presence of free peasantry on the tax rolls (5). This leads to a discussion of Tang diplomacy and relations with the outer world, including India (6), as well as the increasing importance of kinship ties and ancestor worship (7). There are also chapters on the institutionalization of Chinese religion (8) and the spread of a powerful and popular writing culture that blended conservative elite tastes and more austere rural elements (9), after which the book ends with a conclusion, a discussion of dates and dynasties, notes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.

What was it that made the Tang so cosmopolitan? In part, it is the happy and not always very common combination of military and cultural strength that China projected during these times, as well as the way in which key Chinese developments like the examination system and homegrown Buddhist traditions began to have a large influence on the life of Chinese people. Chinese military power in Central Asia, even if it was threatened by the rise of Islam and even the rise of Tibetan power, managed to present an image of a strong China during those periods where internal disorder was not overwhelming. Chinese cultural prestige increased to a great degree as well, and the weakness of China under the Song would encourage later Chinese to think of the Tang as a golden age even if some of the seeds of that weakness started to be present during the Tang as well, particularly the worrisome dependence of the Tang for the security of their Northern borders on barbarian leaders whose connections and loyalty to the central ruling house was limited if that ruler could not command their respect as the founders of the Tang did through their own military prowess. And that does not even consider the question of the role of women in the elites of the Tang either. To be cosmopolitan is to be in danger of decadence and weakness, and if the Tang eventually succumbed to that weakness, they did at least have a lot to show for themselves in terms of their power and their culture for a period of more than two hundred years, and that is not nothing.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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