- Sui-Tang China and Its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power, and Connections, 580–800 by Jonathan Karam Skaff, and: Tang China in Multi-Polar Asia: A History of Diplomacy and War by Zhenping Wang, and: China and Beyond in the Medieval Period: Cultural Crossings and Inter-Regional Connections ed. by Dorothy C. Wong and Gustav Heldt
Research on Eurasia as a complex whole rather than a sum of unrelated parts has become increasingly popular in recent years. Christopher Beckwith promotes the idea of a “Central Eurasian Culture Complex” with Europe and East Asia at the periphery rather than at the center, while recent studies focus on the interplay of multiple centers or, more holistically, Eurasia as a kind of fluid, transcultural zone. This newly arisen interest in Inner or Central Asia is also due, on the one hand, to the idea of “Global Middle Ages” gaining momentum, at least in the Anglophone world, and, on the other, to a predilection for interdisciplinary approaches, as several disciplines can come together in this kind of research. From the point of view of Chinese history, studies have focused [End Page 121] largely on reports about diplomatic embassies between China and its neighbors in the socalled standard or dynastic histories of premodern China. In contrast, scholars of Central Asia, lacking traditional sources for most of the empires they study, focus on epigraphic sources or archeology and art history.
The three books under review represent poles on a spectrum: Skaff’s book is a cohesive and theory-driven account of the shared values and practices of Eurasian empires; Wang’s is a compartmentalized narrative of Tang 唐 China’s (618–907) relations with its neighbors; and the edited volume by Wong and Heldt, in contrast to the two monographs, offers views of cultural flows from many different angles. Moreover, Skaff’s and Wang’s books also stand in perfect opposition to each other, with one representing a traditionalist, exceptionalist approach and the other an integrationalist, holistic approach.
Sui-Tang China and its Turko-Mongol Neighbors
The first book is also the most theoretical. Skaff strives to transcend the “exclusivist” stereotypes of China here, Inner Asia there. However, he runs the risk of overgeneralizing the approaches of earlier scholars, pressing them into schools of “integrationalists” and “institutionalists,” and thus setting up shooting targets, which, on the whole, is not very convincing. A very good example appears on page 10:
The conflict visions of integrationalist and institutionalist schools have emerged because of a shared tendency to essentialize Sui-Tang culture. If we stop assuming that Sui-Tang society was homogenous, the contradictions can be resolved. The Sui-Tang empires were pluralistic realms containing tens of millions of people who had different ethnicities, regional traditions, status rankings, and religions.
Apart from the fact that Skaff fails to specify who it is that shares a tendency of essentializing Sui-Tang culture, no one has ever assumed that Sui-Tang society was homogenous. The claim that the Sui 隋 (581/9–618) and Tang were pluralistic is not new; this is a matter of scholarly consensus. Skaff himself takes up the “integrationist” stance, which might be the reason he has to overemphasize past scholars’ lopsidedness. Quoting the founder of the French Annales School, Marc Bloch, in his epitaph, he sets out to overcome the traditional and anachronistic mode of studying premodern China in the vein of modern-nation [End Page 122] states. Instead, he wants to study China and its neighbors in terms of “entangled histories.” The view that Eurasia formed a continuum has gained some adherence recently, although one could argue that it overemphasizes complexity and...