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Divided China, Preparing for Reunification 883–947 (review)

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 443-447 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This is not a new book but a second, revised, edition of The Structure of Power in the Five Dynasties, which is based on Wang’s Ph.D. thesis completed in 1957. The book was originally published by the University of Malaya in 1963 and reissued by Stanford University Press in 1967. As readers of this journal will be aware, until the 1990s Wang’s book was essentially all there was on the Five Dynasties in a western language, and it still offers a foundational analysis of political-institutional developments, based on painstaking deduction from large quantities of the often uncooperative historical material. The argument is that the Five Dynasties was the period in which the essential groundwork was laid for the centralised order and extended authority achieved by the Song Dynasty. Wang tells a story of a struggle for power that pitched governors (jiedushi節度使) with a lengthy habit of autonomy from central control, against a series of short-reigned emperors of varying quality who gradually, and by no means consistently, undermined governors’ administrative authority in their own provinces while turning the palace armies into the strongest military force in the realm. In an age of military men, Wang sees the slow re-emergence of civil bureaucrats as a political force. These men served as agents of the institutional reforms that underpinned political changes, and were also among the chief beneficiaries of the new order. The book is very much an attempt to explain where the Song came from, and to that extent has a goal in sight, but Wang’s nuanced analysis, including among other things descriptions of the rapid turnover of personnel, makes it clear to the reader that many actions were driven at least as much by the need to respond to contingencies as by any sense of a larger plan.

While a new generation of scholars are unlikely to agree with all of Wang’s conclusions, emphases, premises, or assumptions, he introduced English-speaking audiences to the hitherto barely known Five Dynasties period, with a study that provides both essential background and interpretations that demand engagement. Since Wang’s analysis stopped in the year 947, his work invited continuation, and twenty years later Edmund Worthy supplied one in his Ph.D. dissertation, ‘The Founding of Sung China, 950–1000: Integrative Changes in Military and Political Institutions’ (Princeton University, 1976). This work was never published, and only quite recently have a new group of scholars begun to give to the Five Dynasties and the tenth century more generally the attention that Wang Gungwu thought they deserved. By happy chance, the reissue of Wang’s initialising work came just at the start of an increase in Europhone publications in this field, and it is all the more welcome for being in affordable paperback form.

How does the revised edition differ from the original? Wang has gone over every word to improve readability, clarity, and argumentation. Evidence and quotations that were originally in the endnotes are now much more effective for being placed in the main text (although this sometimes leads to repetition due to copying and pasting rather than cutting and pasting), there are new and better chapter titles, and there are occasional cosmetic changes, including some paragraphing. Unfortunately the scholarly apparatus of the book has not survived the transition to new technology. Drastic cuts to the bibliography have left it shockingly short, and it has not been updated with either the small amount of Chinese work, the more extensive Japanese work reflecting ongoing interest in the period there, or the handful of western-language items. The index covers only names and official titles and so is of limited use. In particular, no English translations are included in the index even though translations are routinely used in the text, with the transliteration given only at first appearance. Some faults are carried over from the original publication. For instance, Chapter 4, on crucial institutional changes, contains not one transliterated office name until “hsüan-hui-yüan,” and the English/ transliteration equivalents have to wait until Table 8 (p. 151), which makes it hard work to connect the English analysis with the Chinese primary sources. It is a shame...

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