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Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages by Sanping Chen (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 174-175 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0089

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Sanping Chen's interesting and challenging collection - part linguistics, part cultural case studies - is clearly a labour of love and dedication. The obvious interest Chen has in challenging accepted norms is foregrounded from the start through both the initial foreword by Victor H. Mair and the jacket appraisal by Peter Golden of Rutgers University, which refers to the text as a 'useful corrective'. Without a network of existing support, Chen's status as an independent scholar throws into stark relief both the challenge he makes in 'correcting' existing historical interpretations of Sui and Tang China and the sheer effort required in doing so, evident by his painstaking literary, linguistic, and sociological analysis.

Through six related and somewhat self-referential essays, Chen explores a series of subjects to peel back the Chinese 'veneer' of Tang dynasty culture, norms, language, and familial descent. He argues that far from the accepted standpoint, the Tang royal household was in fact 'barbarian' in origin, that Steppe, Altaic, and Iranic influences were pervasive throughout the Tang eras, that such influences were an 'open secret' forcing a backlash against the royal household and nobility by Han and Confucian traditionalists in society, and this led to further stratification and segregation at court and throughout the noble classes.

The first essay, on the cultural ancestry and heritage of the Tuoba Steppe people in connection with their subsequent 'Sinotization' as the Tang dynasty, is the strongest of the collection. Chen deftly examines the mores of the royal household, such as language, kin relations, predilection for 'barbarian' interests such as riding, hunting, and the performing arts in the context of a few, offhand mentions of this heritage in various histories which previous scholars have not been able to fully explain. Indeed, the context of 'official history' - which in China would typically mean an authorised, Confucian and court-scholar Han version - gives Chen a single impetus in explaining why so few mentions of this heritage exist and why previous historians would underplay or try to explain away a connection between a supposedly native dynasty and a 'barbaric' people.

Following the first essay on ancestry, Chen turns to topics as diverse as the legend of Mulan and the linguistic origin of the Chinese unicorn, the relations between kin and the treatment of canines in various Sino-Altaic cultures, the connections between the Huns, the Bulgars, and the Steppe peoples bordering China, Iranian cultural connections, the use of theophoric names in China and their cultural ancestry, and the likely ancestry (both tribal and cultural) of the celebrated Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi.

It is the historical and cultural context of the first essay, and a broader awareness of the norms of the Tuoba people, that filters through and grounds the entire collection. Chen's retelling of this 'open secret' of the Tang dynastic ancestry provides a solid and necessary frame for those who come to his collection without Chen's detailed and independent background in the broader history of the Middle Kingdom across a good two millennia. It is this breadth and depth of knowledge that infuses Chen's collection, both its core strength and its chief weakness. He has such a clear command of detail that at times he appears more to be clutching at evidence to support his initial claims, simply because they are so often repeated across each case study. Chen fails to build on the bigger picture of the first essay, but rather, goes smaller, dwells deeper, and in setting out his case he spends as much time debunking alternative interpretations as he does setting forth his own argument.

While his ultimate contention - that Tang dynasty China contained a wealth of disparate and foreign influences across the royal dynasty, in administration, religion, language, and trade - is more than plausible, as Chen delves deep into each case there is the possibility he loses the reader who does not have quite the depth of knowledge as he does. He spends the larger part of each successive essay 'knocking down' established historical and linguistic analysis in order to then pose his broader argument as a plausible alternative.

Each subsequent essay builds on the case made in the first essay - that there is a...

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