restricted access The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong and the Tang Dynasty (review)
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The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong and the Tang Dynasty by Jack W. Chen. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010. Pp. xvii + 445. $49.95.

This volume is constructed like a generous, lightly toasted deli sandwich: two thin-but-crisp slices of pumpernickel (Introduction and Conclusion) hold together seven multilayered, highly caloric chapters. I recommend taking time with lunch; the time spent will be well worth the effort.

Jack W. Chen’s Introduction performs well all the important functions of the genre: it lays out the design and purpose of the work, positions it in the field, and makes initial arguments. His objective is clearly stated:

What the present study is concerned with, however, is not the historical record of Taizong’s reign [which is the focus of most other studies], but rather with how he represented the acts and deeds of his reign. At the heart of the study is the way in which the second Tang emperor constructed for himself a reputation for moral rulership, one based upon the models of the sage-kings and cultural heroes of the ancient past.

(P. 2)

We soon find out why this emperor was so concerned with his “moral rulership,” for despite Taizong’s lasting reputation for accomplishment and Confucian restraint, Chen shows us that the emperor had much to “construct.”

The brief but very important Conclusion draws the details of commentary and reading that fill the center of the work into a theoretical frame, which is only partially evident as we proceed through the [End Page 373] chapters. Here, Chen returns to the basic tension that filled Tang Taizong’s world, where poetic form and historical prose intersected, and he reminds us of the heavy burden that the imperial legacy, both exemplary and minatory, had on Taizong’s life and work. In the end, Chen argues that poetry played the key role in the constitutive work forming Taizong’s reputation:

For Taizong, poetry allowed for the translation of corporeal desire to textual representation, for the rhetorical performance of virtue, which could not always be successfully enacted in life. It was through poetry that Taizong could imagine a reign of sagely exemplarity, thereby transforming the problematic realities of empire into something pure and flawless.

(P. 383)

These are heady expectations for poetry in any context, but especially in the chambers of high imperial power.

The central focus of Chen’s study is the complex textual world of Emperor Taizhong. Although there have been studies of this emperor in English (and many in Chinese), Chen is the first to focus on the emperor’s literary life, in terms of both of what he produced and what “produced” his reign. Chen is interested in the “self-fashioning” (a concept taken from the work of Stephen Greenblatt) that the emperor performs in textual terms, and especially in the tension between the imperial and the personal dimensions of the emperor. The ferreting out of those textual nuances is the central part, at least physically, of this work, for as Chen says, he is interested in producing a “thick description” (as described for anthropology by Clifford Geertz) of a relatively small selection of Emperor Taizong’s texts (p. 9). The “thickness” of Chen’s central chapters, although well grounded in contemporary theory, results not so much from theoretical considerations as from institutional and literary history, close readings of a variety of texts, a review of secondary literature, and some old-fashioned sinology. This is the roast beef, not the porcini mushrooms, of scholarship. Yet, there is also something finely French and Foucauldian worked into these chapters; this is found especially in Chen’s attention to the subtle ways that texts, institutions, and power are mutually produced.

Although each chapter features unique materials and arguments, Chen adopts a similar overall strategy to produce his thick descriptions. Typically he begins with a brief introduction to his topic (such as the specific type of text produced by Taizong) with appropriate theoretical [End Page 374] grounding, and then proceeds to explore the background for this topic, broadly surveying historical precedents and literary, institutional, and social contexts. This discussion is driven primarily by a close...