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Reviewed by:
  • China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty
  • Charles Holcombe
China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. By Mark Edward Lewis. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. 368 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

A fine new Harvard book series on the history of imperial China assembles together into six conveniently sized volumes the entire imperial era from the ascension of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, in 221 B.C.E., to the abdication of the last emperor, Puyi, in 1912. Although there is, naturally, some unevenness in this series, the overall quality is very high, and some of the volumes can even be called outstanding. William T. Rowe's contribution, for example, China's Last [End Page 830] Empire: The Great Qing (2009) manages to be fresh and original and thoughtfully analytic while still covering all the expected standard material in an easy-to-read manner. Also, in a remarkable tour de force, one single author, Mark Edward Lewis, was responsible for three of the six books in this series: the first volume on the Qin and Han dynasties, the second book on the Age of Division following the Han, and the third volume about the great reunified Tang dynasty (618-907), which is the specific volume under review here.

The Tang was without question one of China's most glorious dynasties. It was an age of economic development, cultural sophistication, military power, and unparalleled regional influence. The memory of the Tang dynasty is also currently enjoying an extra special vogue, due to the fact that its justly renowned spirit of cosmopolitanism resonates so well with the People's Republic's present-day policies of openness and globalization. Lewis notes, however, that even the inclusive-minded and cosmopolitan early Tang emperors still "accepted that a fundamental difference between Han Chinese and alien peoples would remain" (p. 28), and therefore assumed for themselves the dual identity of Chinese-style emperors of China and nomadic-style "Heavenly Qaghans" of the steppe, rather than some more uniform universal posture. By late Tang times, "the simultaneous sinicization of East Asia and the Islamization of Central Asia caused a permanent rebalancing of China's relations with the outer world" (p. 147). Central Asia and the formerly important Silk Roads were pulled away into a different orbit, while a new "eastern Eurasian world of multiple states in which China was at the center but no longer the ruler" had also emerged (p. 146). By the late Tang dynasty, premodern China's great age of cosmopolitanism was over.

China's Cosmopolitan Empire is organized into topical chapters, devoted to such major subjects as political history, urban and rural life, religion, and literature. The first chapter deals with geography, and we are treated at the beginning of the book to a fascinating description of the long-term economic—and consequently also political—decline of the northwestern region "within the passes" (guanzhong) that was the site of the Tang capital, as well as of the capitals of several earlier dynasties, but which after the Tang would never again be central to the Chinese heartland. The chapter on urban life recapitulates what are by now familiar descriptions of the Tang dynasty capital, Chang'an, including the seemingly obligatory city map (in this case actually five maps, highlighting different features of the city; the map on page 87 contains a minor error, reversing the correct locations of the great and small Wild Goose Pagodas). Seasoned Tang scholars will have heard [End Page 831] this before, but this conventional description of Chang'an is then followed by a discussion of the capital's pleasure quarters (the Northern Hamlet), which is a little more off the beaten textbook track. This includes a very effective use of the famous fictional "Tale of Li Wa" (once translated by no less hoary a sinological figure than Arthur Waley, and the subject of a book-length study by Glen Dudbridge1) to illustrate, inter alia, "the manner in which money defines all social ties" by Tang times (p. 104). This theme of pervasive monetary interests is one that Lewis returns to again later in his excellent discussion of Tang literature (p. 262).