In The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy, his superb prosopographical study of the Tang political elite in the decades immediately preceding the dynasty’s collapse, Nicolas Tackett examines one of the most profound changes associated with the Tang–Song transition—the “transformation in the nature and composition of the Chinese sociopolitical elite” (p. 5). In an oft-quoted passage, the twelfth-century scholar Zheng Qiao 鄭樵 (1104–1162)1 described this change as follows: “Up until the Sui and Tang dynasties, officials had dossiers [identifying the offices of their ancestors], and families had genealogies. The appointment of officials relied upon the dossiers; marriages between families relied upon genealogies. … Ever since the Five Dynasties, one no longer asks about family background when selecting officials, and one no longer asks about family prestige when arranging marriages” (quoted on p. 5). Tackett draws his conclusions from a careful study of rich biographical materials preserved in dynastic histories and more than three thousand epitaphs (tomb inscriptions), many unearthed only in recent decades. In the opening pages, Tackett lays out a series of important questions: How did the aristocratic families of the Tang dynasty manage to dominate political life for so long? When did they disappear, and what brought them down? And who should be considered members of the Tang aristocracy after all, and what characteristics defined them as such?
Tackett’s definition of the Tang aristocracy in the first chapter lays the groundwork for the argument in the rest of the volume. He asserts that, by the ninth century, “the extraordinary demographic expansion of great clans” (p. 67) had watered down the prestige of great-clan descent.2 The widespread use of choronyms signified that pedigree [End Page 233] alone was far from sufficient to grant political power. The Tang aristocracy, instead, consisted only of those who had an office-holding tradition among their most recent ancestors, “a small subgroup” (p. 105) of claimants to great-clan descent. They were based predominantly in the capital region and, by Tackett’s estimate, had an adult male population roughly the same as the total number of ranked officials in mid-Tang. In other words, the “aristocracy” by Tackett’s definition comprised precisely those families whose sons staffed the Tang bureaucracy.
In the subsequent two chapters, Tackett explores two related strategies that the Tang aristocracy employed to consolidate its status, much in line with arguments of earlier scholars like Mao Hanguang and Patricia Ebrey.3 In Chapter 2, he shows that capital residency was indispensable for maintaining national political prominence over multiple generations and that the Tang aristocracy was, for that reason, essentially a “capital elite” whose members differed significantly in their career patterns from the provincial elites.4 In Chapter 3, he explains this necessity, arguing that living “in a relatively narrow geographic space helped reinforce the social networks that, more than anything else” (p. 106), helped the Tang aristocrats hold on to power. Tackett reveals that three-fifths of the known capital elites of the ninth century participated in a densely knit marriage network composed almost entirely of capital elites such as themselves.
This combination of strategies, Tackett maintains, allowed the capital elites to monopolize political power at all levels of government well into the ninth century. “In the vast majority of cases,” he writes, “governors, prefects, and magistrates serving all over the empire came from families living in the capital region” (p. 170). This assertion is very plausible on current evidence, which is, however, scarce on appointments below the provincial level. Although Figure 4.7 (p. 180) shows [End Page 234] that capital elites were given county and prefectural assignments all over the empire, it is not evidence that they alone were given such assignments. Since the vast majority of ninth-century epitaphs were unearthed in the capital region, it is unclear whether capital elites shared power with provincial elites to any extent.
Think of the “southern selections” (nanxuan 南選), which presumably allowed local elites to staff local offices in the far south. The paucity of biographical...