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  • The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty by Jack W. Chen
  • Hilde De Weerdt (bio)
Jack W. Chen. The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010. 468 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-6740-5608-4.

Imperial cultural production has elicited scholarly interest across time. Han Gaozu’s short poem written in nostalgic praise for the men of his native Pei, Tang emperor Taizong’s instructions to his heirs, Song emperor Huizong’s paintings and calligraphy, and the prolific oeuvre attributed to Qing emperor Qianlong are but prominent examples in a persistent tradition that seeks to highlight the cultural achievements of emperors. Earlier research has examined the meaning of imperial authorship and the social, political, and cultural functions of imperial productions in representing the sovereign to different kinds of audiences (see especially Ebrey and Maggie Bickford, eds., Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China: The Politics of Culture and the Culture of Politics [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University [End Page 314] Asia Center, 2006]). Jack Chen’s The Poetics of Sovereignty is the first in-depth study of the (partial) oeuvre of one of imperial Chinas most celebrated emperors and makes a very convincing case of the importance of imperial poetry as a constitutive force in the theory and practice of sovereignty. It also restores to Chinese literary history a body of literature all too easily dismissed as political propaganda or hermetic court poetry, irrelevant to the broader elite practice of poetry.

Taizong’s investment in self-representation was motivated by his awareness of a compromised early career and by his anxiety about the problematic legacy that fratricide and unfilial behavior (evinced in the forced abdication of his father) might leave. He was credited in later centuries for founding a golden age in which the Tang became the paramount power in the East, militarily strong and cosmopolitan in outlook, and for having upheld the principles of collegial government. Jack Chen suggests that this image of Taizong gained sway not only because of the interventions of eighth-century politicians (who immortalized his government in Essentials of the Zhenguan Reign, or Zhenguan zheng yao, a classic of Chinese governance) and later historians, but that the process of myth making started with the emperor himself.

After a survey of Taizong’s reign in the first chapter, the author turns to a reading of those writings of Taizong’s that seem to touch upon sovereignty. Chapters 2-7 offer close readings of a small number of prose texts (especially “The Golden Mirror” and “Model for the Emperor”) and a larger number of poems: poems on things (yongwu), on hunting, on palaces, on touring the imperial capital, and on historical sites. These chapters offer marvelous translations along with engaging interpretations characterized by historical depth and literary insight; at various times, I felt as if I were listening in on a spellbinding lecture-cum-text class.

A recurring theme in these chapters is self-moderation and the prominence of askēsis in imperial self-representation. Askēsis generally refers to the self-discipline of the body, but in discourses about sovereignty, it captures the idea that rulers need to exert control over bodily desires and excess in order to safeguard the moral and economic wellbeing of the empire (p. 73 and passim). In contrast to earlier models of rulership, such as Qin Shihuang’s, which was premised on the extension and expansion of the imperial body through the incorporation of the empire or the search for bodily immortality, we see the imperial persona, articulated in various genres of Taizong’s poetic oeuvre, time again retreat from palaces, grand rituals, or leisurely activities; temptation is always present, and imperial temptation the greatest source for concern. The power to resist the temptations of imperial power and the ruler’s articulation of such an image of the imperial role are then paradoxically part of Taizong’s model of sovereignty. This thesis may sound familiar to those accustomed to both earlier and later Chinese discourses about sovereignty. A crucial contribution of this work to the disparate discussions of sovereignty in Chinese philosophy and history...


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pp. 314-316
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