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Reviewed by:
  • Ethnic Identity in Tang China
  • Paul Fischer
Ethnic Identity in Tang China. By Marc S. Abramson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 288 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

In this book Marc Abramson considers the ambiguity of ethnicity in Tang elite discourse. Elite conceptions of the cultural self vis-à-vis the cultural other are often a telling and essential component for understanding their intellectual history. This is certainly true in the case of the Tang because the ruling house was of non-Han stock and yet conceived of itself as a reiteration of the archetypal Han dynasty, which had crumbled some four centuries prior. The delicacy of this situation was exacerbated by the lack of any direct and formal exposition on the subject of ethnicity, often relegating it to oblique references employing unexamined stereotypes. This new book on Tang relations [End Page 153] with non-Han peoples is largely concerned with cultures to the north of China, and therefore may be profitably read along with Nicola Di Cosmo's Ancient China and Its Enemies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Abramson has sifted through a wide variety of Tang sources and made use of a considerable amount of modern international scholarship on various kinds of Tang history. He presents the reader with both an exhaustive analysis and an interesting argument. His analysis approaches the topic of ethnicity by examining a number of instances where the foreign impressed itself upon the Han psyche: accounts of "barbarians" in the classics, the relatively new religion of Indian Buddhism, the Tang practice of using borderland and foreign militias along with Han militias to fight other foreign armies, the hazy and elastic nature of the national border, and official dealings with traders and immigrants, among others. One conclusion from this analysis is clear: the prevalence of racist stereotypes is accompanied by an equally pervasive awe of the Other, resulting in a profound ambivalence in the minds of the Tang elite. Exploring the various examples of this ambivalence is one of the main joys of reading this book. His argument is more subtle, but no less interesting. He claims that during the Tang a decisive shift occurred in the self-conception of the Han elite. Early in the dynasty Chinese self-identity centered on ethnicity and, indeed, on the varieties of ethnicities that coexisted within the Middle Kingdom. Later in the dynasty, the defining characteristic shifted from ethnicity to culture, a culture that was decidedly sinocentric, though not necessarily Han-centered. This shift, Abramson argues, became more evident in the Song and has persisted down to the present day.

Abramson explores a different facet of Tang ethnicity in each of his six chapters. Chapter 1, "Ethnicity in the Chinese Context," introduces a few important concepts in ethnography that are important for the analysis that follows (e.g., ethnic criteria and ethnic indicia), as well as some of the central Chinese terms (e.g., hua for "ethnic Han" and fan or hu for "non-Han"). Chapter 2, "The Ambiguity of the Non-Han: Stereotyping and Separation," presents some of the most common stereotypes made about foreigners in typical Han elite narratives. Here we first begin to see the exoticized, eroticized, and demonized Other as a source of both fear and awe. The Han perceived themselves as "rational but passive" and conceived the non-Han as "irrational but active" (p. 51). Chapter 3, "Buddhism as a Foreign Religion," affords us the best opportunity to see how the non-Han fought back against negative Han stereotyping. Some Buddhists from South [End Page 154] and Central Asia, well-educated and motivated by missionary zeal, explicitly articulated nuanced rejoinders to those Confucians and Daoists who sought to marginalize Buddhism and ostracize its monks by portraying the Buddha and his teachings as foreign, inferior, and possibly dangerous. Chapter 4, "Deep Eyes and High Noses: The Barbarian Body," draws attention to the prevalence of physiognomy in premodern China and how its characterization of body "types" necessarily implicated the non-Han body. As in the previous two chapters, the ambivalence is pronounced, not only between the typical Chinese polarities of the civil (wen) and the martial (wu), but also between more corporeal differences such...


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pp. 153-156
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