- China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty
China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty is the third of the six-volume series of the history of imperial China published by Belknap Press. Unlike the multivolume Cambridge History of China, this series is accessible to the nonspecialist, offering succinct introduction surveys for undergraduates and beginning graduates, drawing from the latest scholarship such as ecological and gender studies. Each volume was written by a single established scholar in an accessible, straightforward manner. The first two, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han and China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties, were both written by Mark Edward Lewis.
Lewis chose the word "cosmopolitan" to reflect the aura of the Tang in the title of the book, recognizing that most Chinese regarded the Tang as the high point, a golden age, both politically and culturally. The Tang had the most open and cosmopolitan outlook in the whole of China's imperial history. A mixture of Han-Xianbei-Turkic origins, the Li ruling house embraced nomadic influence. In the [End Page 533] early Tang's expansion westward, trade and diplomatic communications along the transcontinental silk roads flourished. Influence of foreign cultures redefined Tang culture—in music, dance, painting, clothing, food, and polo playing. The Tang welcomed all foreign religions—Buddhism, Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam. Foreign envoys, merchants, performers, artists, students, Buddhist scholars, and missionaries were prominent in Tang cities, leaving their images in art, poetry, and literature.
The word "golden" is often applied to the Tang dynasty's achievement in poetry and Buddhism and in the accomplishment of its elite women. The Tang produced China's greatest poets. Their lyric verses embodied political consciousness, idealism, individual reflections, and the joys and sorrows of the commoners. Buddhism, centuries after its introduction into China, became a native faith and an integral part of Chinese culture. It appealed to all social classes. Its influence permeated politics, the economy, education, art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. As Tang China established itself as a sacred land of Buddhism, it grew to be the center of Buddhist teaching for East Asia.
Contrary to the image of Chinese women with slender bodies and bound feet that came after the Tang, Tang women were robust; they rode on horseback, played polo, and wore low-cut see-through dresses. Traditional China had no lack of powerful mothers and empresses, but the Tang had Empress Wu (r. 683–705), the only woman who assumed the title of emperor, known for her efficient and forceful governing record. In foreign politics, several Tang princesses sent into marriage alliance with powerful regimes facilitated peace and cultural exchange. Here Lewis writes that Princess Taiping became a Daoist nun to avoid marriage to the king of Turfan (p. 212). This is an error. The king was in fact that of Tufan (Tibet). Devoting to Buddhism and Daoism, Tang women assumed the roles of nuns, scholars, and role models. What contributed to the relatively high status of elite women, Lewis explains, was the rule of the non-Han nomadic regimes in North China in the previous three centuries. They "had brought with them the greater equality of men and women that characterized nomadic societies" (p. 180). Buddhism and Daoism also offered women opportunities to assume roles outside the family to pursue education and independence. The Tang as a golden age for elite women, however, is only relative. Lewis shows that under the patriarchal structure, the increasing urbanization and commercialization of the Tang marketed more women into entertainment and brothels and into households as concubines.
Indeed, the book avoids a romantic narrative of the Tang. Its essential theme is change. Lewis defines the Tang as a time of change, which transformed China from medieval to early modern, a hypothesis first advanced by Japanese scholar Naito Torajiro (1866–1934) and substantiated by scholars after him. The turning point was the An Lushan rebellion (756–763). In this survey work, Lewis does not burden the readers with...