- China’s Southern Tang Dynasty, 937–976
The Five Dynasties era (907–979) is coming of age among a new generation of scholars, and few regimes of the period are as colorful and complicated as the Southern Tang. The regime, encompassing most of present-day Anhui and Jiangxi provinces, could draw upon a vast array of resources. It occupied the strategic center between states of the emerging eastern coast and the long-settled west, and it presided over an area with its own distinct culture, economy, technology, and armed forces. Its famed last ruler, Li Yu (r. 961–976), an acclaimed poet, remains to this day a highly popular subject among literary scholars. The Southern Tang inspired, if it did not necessarily produce, the single-most famous painting from the Five Dynasties period, Night Revels of Han Xizai (the present painting, long attributed to the Southern Tang, is believed today to be a Song re-creation), but the painting’s mere attribution to the Southern Tang has elevated the state to a place of high esteem among legions of art historians. Additionally, historians of the Song period have increasingly come to realize the pervasive and enduring impact of the Southern Tang on virtually every aspect of Song life.
In light of the rich potential of the topic and the paucity of English-language writings, this contribution by Johannes Kurz is a genuine disappointment in terms of topical coverage and scholarly depth. In this thinnest of books, the author confines himself to the military and political history of the Southern Tang and moves in chronological fashion from one reign to the next, based mostly on the Zizhi Tongjian by Sima Guang. Only at the very end, in the four-page epilogue, when Kurz discusses the fall of the Southern Tang and transfer of a vast trove of cultural relics to the Northern Song capital, does he excite the reader with an important assessment of the Southern Tang’s long-term cultural legacy. Kurz is best at flushing out interstate relations during this period of political division, the diplomacy and the campaigns of the era that informed political evolution. He disproves some popular misperceptions, revealing the Southern Tang as militarily expansive under its second emperor, Li Jing (r. 943–961), contrary to the popular image of a state perpetually inclined toward pacifism. Furthermore, his research highlights a problem common for virtually all the southern states, namely, the inability of second-generation monarchs to rise to the promise of their founders, leaving both courtiers and soldiers ambivalent about their mandate and looking elsewhere for leadership. The Southern Tang had witnessed a steady progression from the charismatic and frugal Li Bian (r. 937–943) to the decadent and aloof Li Yu.
As a diplomatic history in the conventional sense, Kurz’s work reveals more about the “what,” “who,” and “how” of history than the more important “why.” For [End Page 81] example, he covers in some detail the Zhou dynasty’s invasion, from 955 to 958, which resulted in the Southern Tang’s loss of nearly one-third of its land mass, yet he offers little analysis of the reasons for such staggering losses. Traditional historiography focuses on personal issues, portraying the Zhou ruler, Shizong, as vastly superior in moral sway and strategic cunning relative to Li Jing, a view apparently shared by Kurz, who characterizes Li Jing as indecisive and tentative. However, personal factors are only part of the picture. The Zhou benefited from an impressive cluster of military advisors like Li Gu and Wang Pu, men inspired by the charismatic monarch but also independent and critical. We can find pockets of martial genius in earlier regimes in the north as well: Jing Xiang of Later Liang, Guo Chongtao of Later Tang, Sang Weihan of Later Jin, and Shi Hongzhao of Later Han; each was a brilliant strategist and manager of war. The Southern Tang had no similar arsenal of martial assets, and its general interest in building...