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Ethnic Identity in Tang China (Encounters…
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Ethnic Identity in Tang China (Encounters with Asia)

by Marc S. Abramson

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In the early pages of the introduction, one reads: "The foundational myths and the imperial identity of the Tang dynasty were predicated on a manufactured Han genealogy of the royal Li clan ... The actual ancestry, cultural practices, and geographic focus of many Tang elites and the imperial family were, at least up through the mid-eighth century, strongly oriented toward Inner Asia and "barbarized" northern China" (p. xxi). If true, this is a critical element in helping us today understand the Tang Dynasty (its cosmopolitan nature, the relative 'freedom' of its women in dress and behaviour, the court's proclivity towards such physical activities as polo and hunting, its interest in foreign music and dance, food, etc.)--and the book does give us many examples of such non-Chinese manifestations (dress, sport, exotic interests). However, we needed to start at the beginning of the story. In short, there was an insufficient discussion of those referred to "manufactured genealogies" and the actual ethnicity of the ruling Tang house, and if true, how such 'foreign' roots survived or withered over the succeeding generations.

The book discusses two groups within the Tang elite--the Confucian-educated [literati] Han elite (who would eventually take over in the Song), and those who by nature of skills or marriage or special position overcame (?) their "Other" origins to yield power and influence. But if the ruling family's roots were Central Asian, wouldn't they have started being the power-yielding clan with the Confucian literati having to earn 'their' place in the royal court? And how and when did this structure evolve? Without understanding the beginning identity of the Li clan, we have no starting point.

To what extent was the court--and here's the real question--fascinated by (?), intrigued by (?), guided by (?), dedicated to (?) Central Asian customs and practices? Was it "fun" to dress in Central Asian clothing or was it natural? Did Tang elite women ride horses as a given or was it an exotic 'hobby'? Yes, some Tang elites were bilingual, but who, when and why? (and not just that some Chinese literati learned Sanskrit because they were interested in Buddhism). What languages did An Lushan speak? To whom? When? Was the 'rogue' crown prince Chengqian who loved to dress in Central Asian clothing and imitate its customs the sole such example? He's also described as a fool--was he ridiculed because he was a fool or because he lived like a central Asian? How 'Turkic' was the Tang royal family and the court really?

So despite the many pages of examples of how non-Han (elite and non-elite) were treated, labelled, described, taxed, relocated, etc. I finished feeling disappointed. Perhaps its unfair to seek the answer to such questions when all we really have are a handful of official records written by Han Chinese court historians, but I finished feeling this work would perhaps have been better titled, Foreigners in the Eyes of the Tang; Ethnic Identity in Tang China seemed to promise more. ( )
  pbjwelch | Jul 25, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812240529, Hardcover)

Ethnic Identity in Tang China is the first work in any language to explore comprehensively the construction of ethnicity during the dynasty that reigned over China for roughly three centuries, from 618 to 907. Often viewed as one of the most cosmopolitan regimes in China's past, the Tang had roots in Inner Asia, and its rulers continued to have complex relationships with a population that included Turks, Tibetans, Japanese, Koreans, Southeast Asians, Persians, and Arabs.

Marc S. Abramson's rich portrait of this complex, multiethnic empire draws on political writings, religious texts, and other cultural artifacts, as well as comparative examples from other empires and frontiers. Abramson argues that various constituencies, ranging from Confucian elites to Buddhist monks to "barbarian" generals, sought to define ethnic boundaries for various reasons but often in part out of discomfort with the ambiguity of their own ethnic and cultural identity. The Tang court, meanwhile, alternately sought to absorb some alien populations to preserve the empire's integrity while seeking to preserve the ethnic distinctiveness of other groups whose particular skills it valued. Abramson demonstrates how the Tang era marked a key shift in definitions of China and the Chinese people, a shift that ultimately laid the foundation for the emergence of the modern Chinese nation.

Ethnic Identity in Tang China sheds new light on one of the most important periods in Chinese history. It also offers broader insights on East Asian and Inner Asian history, the history of ethnicity, and the comparative history of frontiers and empires.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:36 -0400)

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