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Tang China in Multi-Polar Asia

A History of Diplomacy and War

Zhenping Wang

Publication Year: 2013

Using a synthetic narrative approach, this ambitious work uses the lens of multipolarity to analyze Tang China’s (618–907) relations with Turkestan; the Korean states of Koguryŏ, Silla, and Paekche; the state of Parhae in Manchuria; and the Nanzhao and Tibetan kingdoms. Without any one entity able to dominate Asia’s geopolitical landscape, the author argues that relations among these countries were quite fluid and dynamic—an interpretation that departs markedly from the prevalent view of China fixed at the center of a widespread “tribute system.”

To cope with external affairs in a tumultuous world, Tang China employed a dual management system that allowed both central and local officials to conduct foreign affairs. The court authorized Tang local administrators to receive foreign visitors, forward their diplomatic letters to the capital, and manage contact with outsiders whose territories bordered on China. Not limited to handling routine matters, local officials used their knowledge of border situations to influence the court’s foreign policy. Some even took the liberty of acting without the court’s authorization when an emergency occurred, thus adding another layer to multipolarity in the region’s geopolitics.

The book also sheds new light on the ideological foundation of Tang China’s foreign policy. Appropriateness, efficacy, expedience, and mutual self-interest guided the court’s actions abroad. Although officials often used “virtue” and “righteousness” in policy discussions and announcements, these terms were not abstract universal principles but justifications for the pursuit of self-interest by those involved. Detailed philological studies reveal that in the realm of international politics, “virtue” and “righteousness” were in fact viewed as pragmatic and utilitarian in nature.

Comprehensive and authoritative, Tang China in Multi-Polar Asia is a major work on Tang foreign relations that will reconceptualize our understanding of the complexities of diplomacy and war in imperial China.

7 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: World of East Asia


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

This book originated from a fax sent by Denis C. Twitchett on 11 September 1994. In this message, he invited me to contribute a chapter on Tang China’s external relations to The Cambridge History of China, volume 4: “I’d like you to give your views on reciprocity and the tributary...

Map of Tang China

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pp. xvi-17

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pp. 1-10

This book examines the relations between Tang China (618–907) and its major Asian neighbors. During its almost 290-year course, the Tang experienced often turbulent relations with Koguryŏ, Silla, Paekche, Parhae, the Turks, the Uighurs, the Tibetans, and the Nanzhao...

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1. Dancing with the Horse Riders: The Tang, the Turks, and the Uighurs

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pp. 11-54

A duo is a bird of pale yellow feather, with a forked tail and a claw that resembles the foot of a mouse without the hind toe. About the size of a pigeon, this fowl flies in big flocks, cries in a high-pitched tone, migrates south to seek refuge from harsh winters, and returns to its habitat...

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2. Restoring Lost Glory in Korea: China, Koguryŏ, Silla, Paekche, and Parhae

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pp. 55-96

Ancient Korean tribes are said to have come into contact with China in the early first millennium B.C.E. Later, when China achieved political unification under the Qin Empire in 221 B.C.E. by eliminating various local states, one of those eliminated was the northern State of...

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3. Rearing a Tiger in the Backyard: China and the Nanzhao Kingdom

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pp. 97-137

In the deep mountains and dense forests of what is now modern Yunnan province lived a large number of tribes.1 For centuries, tribes in the remote western and southern regions had been beyond the reach of Chinese power, but those in eastern Yunnan, whose borders neighbored...

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4. Contesting the Western Regions and the High Grasslands: China and Tibet

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pp. 138-190

The Qiang people were early inhabitants of the Tibet Plateau, where they tilled the land and raised livestock for a living. The origins and the language of these people, however, remain unclear.1 The early history of Tibet itself is largely a mystery, though it is known that there...

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5. Driving a Wagon with Two Horses: Dual Management of External Relations under the Tang

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pp. 191-230

The vast Tang Empire maintained contacts with both its near neighbors and remote countries. For better management of China’s external relations, the Tang court adopted a dual management system that involved both central and local officials in information gathering,...

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6. Seeking Policy Appropriate to a Changing World: Diplomatic and Foreign Policy Thought under the Tang

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pp. 231-301

In its nearly 290-year history, the Tang dynasty related to very different types of neighbors, ranging from the peaceful to the outright hostile. To create an international environment conducive to Tang’s existence and development, Tang emperors often sought inspiration and...

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Conclusion: Multi-Polarity in Asia and Appropriateness in Tang Foreign Policy

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pp. 303-306

The history of Tang China’s external relations provides ample evidence of Asia’s shift toward a multi-polar world. In this world, Tang China remained a formidable but not the dominant power. The gaps between Tang China and the rest of Asia were shrinking, and power relations...


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pp. 307-325


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pp. 309-391


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pp. 393-409


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pp. 411-448


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pp. 449-462

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837884
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824836443

Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: World of East Asia

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • China -- Foreign relations -- Asia.
  • Asia -- Foreign relations -- China.
  • China -- History -- Tang dynasty, 618-907.
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