In 2009, two very different histories of the Song Dynasty, both part of multivolume histories of China, appeared in English. Dieter Kuhn’s book is the fourth of six volumes in Harvard University Press’s History of Imperial China edited by Timothy Brook. Denis Twitchett and Paul Jakov Smith edited a political history of the Song, Part One of Volume 5 in The Cambridge History of China; Part 2 will focus on cultural and economic history. This review begins with the Kuhn volume, whose price and brevity assure that many readers will start with it, too.
Kuhn’s work is well known to the readers of this journal. A historian of the Song specializing in archeology, he wrote the textiles volume in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation series (Volume 5, part 9: Chemistry and Chemical Technology: Textile Technology: Spinning and Reeling, 1988). Since then, he and his students at Würzburg University have written many volumes that treat different topics in Liao, Jin, and Song archeology. Some are in English, others in German, and all are published by Edition Forum. (See, for example, Kuhn’s Burial in Song China ).
Kuhn has achieved something noteworthy with the Harvard survey of the Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties, which covers the Five Dynasties period, too. In 280 readable pages, his volume offers an original perspective that is as compelling for colleagues in Chinese history as it is useful to students and colleagues in other fields, especially those required to lecture on Song history in world history survey classes.
The ground rules for the Harvard series are clear: in less than 300 pages, each volume provides an up-to-date survey of a given dynasty. Twenty-three black-and-white illustrations and ten basic black-and-white maps of China (some recycled from other volumes) point to bare-bones production values, which keep the price tag low. No Chinese characters appear anywhere in the [End Page 131] volume. Happily, the reader is never left wondering about Kuhn’s sources; the book is heavily and clearly annotated with many more Chinese, Japanese, French, and German references than the other Harvard volumes.
In the first paragraph of the book, Kuhn makes an excellent case for the significance of the Song:
The tenth-century transition from the late Tang to the early Song empire marks the most decisive rupture in the history of imperial China. The “old world” of the northern hereditary aristocratic families, with genealogies going back hundreds of years, finally vanished in the turmoil and civil wars between 880 and 960, and with their fall the old statecraft was forgotten or lost. A newly emerging class of scholar-officials, trained in Confucian doctrine and graduated in a competitive civil service examination system, was willing and well-prepared to take on responsibility for reshaping Chinese tradition. Their political, ideological, philosophical, cultural, literary, artistic, technological, and scientific achievements, combined with powerful economic forces that reconfigured daily life, have come to define our understanding of the Song as a transformative dynasty. Few periods in Chinese history are as rewarding as this in demonstrating the willingness of the Chinese to restructure and reform their society as a whole. Some historians have gone so far as to call the Song transformation a Chinese “renaissance” that heralded the dawn of modernity.(p. 1)
This passage conveys Kuhn’s style: lively, intelligent, and, most of all, dynamic. Anyone reading this wants to know more. Remarkably, Kuhn maintains this vigorous pace for the entire volume.
Chapters 2–4 present a concise and fresh overview of the dynasty’s history (pp. 10–98). Kuhn opens with the view of Lü Gongzhu 呂公著, “a close companion of...