The T'ang Dynasty
October 18, 2008 5:00 PM   Subscribe


Curse of the Golden Flower is a good film which shows life in the imperial court during the T'ang Dynasty.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:32 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Previous post on T'ang poetry.
posted by homunculus at 5:36 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow. Thanks. I know next to nothing about Chinese history, and that article and those pieces just seriously whet my appetite.
posted by mediareport at 5:47 PM on October 18, 2008

"The T'ang invented printing, for Buddhists believed that one gathered karmic merit by the ceaseless repetition or reproduction of the sacred texts. (A single monastery in Ch'ang-an had a thousand copies of the Lotus Sutra.) The imperial library had some 200,000 books and scrolls, classified and labeled under four categories: Classics, Histories, Philosophers, and Collections. Individual scholars had private libraries with tens of thousands of books."

This is pretty awesome.
posted by Alex404 at 6:19 PM on October 18, 2008

This edition of the NY Review of Books also has an interesting article on Charlemagne's Europe and Muslim Spain in the same time period. It makes for an interesting comparison: How Muslims Made Europe
posted by homunculus at 7:08 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

And now China has 1.3 billion people, a principled Constitution, the right to bear arms, a tidy little business, and their eyes on the Moon.

Golden Age? Just you wait...
posted by cenoxo at 7:44 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks, I've been looking deeper into Chinese history and this hits the spot!

One observation from my studies: whatever cultural, political or financial upheaval we experience in the US, the Chinese have already seen it, oh, fifteen times or so.
posted by telstar at 8:34 PM on October 18, 2008

Thanks homunculus, serendipitous timing! My Netflix rental of House of Flying Daggers, set at the end of the Tang dynasty, arrived today.
posted by Araucaria at 9:12 PM on October 18, 2008

I've been living in China for several years, but it still is striking to me how alien and deep history is here. You can really see how eurocentrism in western education isn't just some PC trope but an actual fact. Their are literally thousands of hugely important emperors, philosophers, warriors and other historical figures which educated people in the west have never heard of but are as familiar to the Chinese as Plato or Ceaser would be to a westerner. And then you have historical institutions like the examination system that have no parallel in the west. At the same time that European leaders were gained power through the rather brutal feudal system, the people that ran China were the ones best able to write stylized essays based on obscure 1000 year old texts. I still have a really hard time grasping what life was like in ancient China, but I think it's bizarreness to the Western eye is what makes it so fun to read about.
posted by afu at 10:24 PM on October 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

One nitpick with the article, why does he use outdated Wade Giles romanization instead of pinyin? it makes reading Chinese history even more frustrating.
posted by afu at 10:29 PM on October 18, 2008

if you can, netflix the PBS history on 20th century China. In the late 80s I had taken an UD college course on modern China but seeing it on film was so much more visceral.

I did appreciate the observation in the article that the examination system wasn't /exactly/ a meritocracy, since one still required /access/ to the classics to become 'educated'.
posted by troy at 10:38 PM on October 18, 2008

Chinese people universally agree that the Tang was China's golden age. Just about everyone else thinks it was the Sung.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:46 PM on October 18, 2008

I couldn't agree more with what afu writes above - one of the sustaining interests for an outsider in Chinese culture is a sense of a whole other self-contained way of being human that makes just as much sense as your own but differs in many quite fundamental ways.
I look forward to some future point when debate and publishing are freer and Chinese history can have a similar going-over as we've seen in the West. There are definitely some competing interpretations emerging, but the received narrative still largely holds sway. Not that it's necessarily wrong (or that I'm qualified to say either way), but more robust critiques and reinterpretations can only broaden understanding.
posted by Abiezer at 12:00 AM on October 19, 2008


I think it's still very much that case that if you want scholarly historiography of China, you still have to turn to Western institutions, and I think this is, in no small part, a result of the considerably reduced political incentive for Western government to engage in the kinds of cultural manipulations that take us from 孔老二 to 孔子學院 within the span of a generation.

But the good news is that the last fifty years have seen the West producing some very impressive academic work in all fields of Sinology - from Robert Rorex and Wen Fong in art history to Edward Shaughnessy, Jeanette Faurot, and Burton Watson in classical literature, to name a few (and expose my biases.) And, as you can see from my past comments, the detached Western perspective has successfully disabused most of us of some of the more popular misconceptions.

I think the China journalism in the West is still at a very immature stage - in general, it seems reactionary and under-informed - but I think that this has had little effect on the production of the kind of quality academic research.

Do you have any interesting experiences you could share having to confront the dominant Chinese historical narrative in the Mainland?
posted by Sangermaine at 1:41 AM on October 19, 2008

I think it's still very much that case that if you want scholarly historiography of China, you still have to turn to Western institutions
Certainly to my layman's knowledge at least many of the best history books on sale here are translations of works published overseas, even if sometimes by Chinese scholars now working abroad.
Trying to think about you last question; something that first springs to mind is of course its impact on discussing issues of self-determination for non-Han people. The presumption that all preceding history occurring in the geographic territory of what is now Greater China leads up to the present nation-state certainly makes for easy dismissal of proposed alternatives as "not suited to China's character as a nation/particular circumstances 不符合国情," blithely ignoring the often heterodox origins of much that is no seen as quintessentially Chinese. Will ponder some more.
posted by Abiezer at 2:16 AM on October 19, 2008

err "now seen as quintessentially Chinese."
posted by Abiezer at 2:17 AM on October 19, 2008

I think the China journalism in the West is still at a very immature stage - in general, it seems reactionary and under-informed

Well, hopefully that will change. At least since Tiananmen, and long before, the Chinese government has been extremely apprehensive to let foreign media freely report in the country. Just Friday Wen Jiabao made permanent the temporary freedoms granted to the foreign press in advance of the Olympics. No longer will journalists have to ask for permission to travel within the country or interview Chinese citizens. It's a pretty major step (although foreign media was prevented from entering Tibet early this year when the freedoms were nominally granted, as well). The domestic media, though, remains as restricted as ever.
posted by msbrauer at 5:14 AM on October 19, 2008

Probably a good spot to link to this very enjoyable blog: Tang Dynasty Times
posted by Abiezer at 6:13 AM on October 19, 2008

The masses, who rarely saw these treasures, told tales of strange objects with magical powers, brought from abroad: a single bean that was sufficient food for weeks; a certain wheat that made the body so light that one could fly; a crystal pillow that gave the sleeper visions of strange lands; a piece of rhinoceros horn that could heat a palace; hairpins that turned into dragons; pots that cooked without fire; the translucent stone that emitted a cool breeze; the plant that was always surrounded by darkness.

Today most of them would have a small label saying "Made in China".
posted by gimonca at 10:27 AM on October 19, 2008

Great article, thanks!
posted by DenOfSizer at 11:25 AM on October 19, 2008

fwiw, amy chua has a nice treatment of tang in the context of 'hyperpower' :P

re: non-han and what is 'quintessentially chinese' i think anderson's take is illuminating, if perhaps not instructive...
Once a year, the government stages a huge television spectacular, which goes on for many hours and is extremely popular, showing the various peoples that make up the population of the PRC. What is very noticeable in this long display is a sharp distinction between the Great Han people and the various minorities. The minorities are made to appear in their most colourful traditional costumes, and indeed make a splendid sight. The Han themselves, however, cannot appear in traditional clothing, even though we know from paintings and other historical records just how colourful and beautiful these actually were. So the men, for example, appear in business suits, derived from Italian and French models, about which there is nothing Han at all. The Han thus manifest themselves as the Future, and the minorities as the Past, in a tableau which is utterly political, even if not entirely consciously so. This Past, of which the minorities are the visible sign, is also part of a Big Past through which the Chinese state’s territorial stretch is legitimized. It is, of course, therefore a Chinese past.

Naturally, in this line of official discourse, the older the Past the better. One can get a curious sidelong look at this phenomenon if we consider aspects of the archaeology that the state sponsors. One especially odd aspect has emerged in the reaction to the widely accepted theory that the distinctively human species emerged most likely in what is today eastern Africa. Evidently it is not a pleasant thought in official circles that the ultimate ancestors of the Great Han people, as of all other peoples, lived in Africa, not China, and can hardly be described as Chinese. So considerable funds have been made available in the search for some physical remains, within the borders of today’s China, that are both older than, and entirely distinct from, anything in Africa. My intention here is not to ridicule Peking, though that is easy enough to do, but to stress its comparability. The easiest way to show this is to tell you that when I was very young, growing up in Ireland, my mother found for me, in a second-hand bookshop, a fat volume, written for children, called a History of English Literature. It was originally published at the end of the nineteenth century when Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The long opening chapter shows London searching for a Very Ancient Past in exactly the same manner as Peking.
cf. gellner, High Culture and danegeld...

oh and china's present age [contrast zhang (also see zheng) and tolkien on the power of narrative]

posted by kliuless at 1:56 PM on October 19, 2008

I looked up the original text of the two poems by 李贺 (Li He or Li Ho) quoted in the article:
《秋来》: 桐风惊心壮士苦,衰灯络纬啼寒素。谁看青简一编书,不遣花虫粉空蠹?思牵今夜肠应直,雨冷香魂吊书客。秋魂鬼唱鲍家诗,恨血千年土中碧!

《感讽五首》, 【其三】: 南山何其悲,鬼雨洒空草。长安夜半秋,风前几人老。低迷黄昏径,袅袅青栎道。 月午树无影,一山唯白晓。漆炬迎新人,幽圹萤扰扰。

He is not taught much in schools, I guess because his stuff is so dark. Too bad.
posted by of strange foe at 2:15 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for that article, it was very illuminating. I'm somewhat surprised that I've never come across Li He before. I think that I must have but he didn't register, for some reason or another.
posted by Kattullus at 10:03 PM on October 19, 2008

If you are ever in Lijiang, Yunnan you can spend the afternoon at a concert of the Naxi Orchestra, a group of aging ethnic minority men who play tunes on instruments that are hundreds of years old and were buried under houses to protect them from the cultural revolution. Much of the music they play dates back to Tang dynasty when the Naxi were conquered by the Hanzu and their musical ancestors were pressed into service at the court of the Imperial Governor.

Tang taoist music is similar to the sound of someone beating a cat while another throws pots and pans down a flight of stairs. That said, if you do go to Lijiang, you really should support the Naxi Orchestra's efforts to preserve this ancient art.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:33 AM on October 20, 2008

I should add that the Naxi orchestra has been trying to pass their traditions on to young men and women before they die of old age, but time is running out.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:34 AM on October 20, 2008

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