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  • Changing Clothes in Chang'an
  • Shao-yun Yang (bio)
BuYun Chen. Empire of Style: Silk and Fashion in Tang China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. xiv, 257 pp. Hardcover $70.00, ISBN 978-0-295-74530-5.

In the popular imagination, Tang China's visual culture is associated with ostentation, opulence, extravagance, excess, its palette one of gold, bright reds, and tri-color glazes, in contrast to the austere monochrome and celadon of the Song. Tang women are imagined sashaying along in flamboyant hairstyles and makeup, flaunting their shapely bodies in sleeveless gowns with revealing necklines—again unlike their supposedly repressed, secluded, dowdily-dressed and bound-footed Song sisters. It is no surprise then that, as we are reminded in the first paragraph of this beautifully illustrated and engagingly written book by BuYun Chen, period dramas set in the Tang have become a recipe for eye candy in Chinese film and television.

Chen does not overtly reject that semi-romanticized image of the Tang as a beautiful world of bold colors and bolder people but seeks to historicize it and ground it firmly in a context of political, social, cultural, economic, and technological change. Specifically, she focuses on silk textiles as products of artisanship, commodities of exchange, markers of status and power, and the material basis for a court-centered "fashion system" that provided new opportunities for elite men and women to engage in "image-making" and "aesthetic play." In the process, she challenges modernocentric interpretations of fashion as a product of either a seventeenth-century consumer revolution or nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. Hers is the first book to use a fashion history approach to aesthetics and gender in the Tang. Chen is most original and interesting when analyzing visual and material evidence, and the abundance of such material in the book is testament to how much our knowledge of the Tang has been enriched by a century of archaeological discoveries in Xi'an, Dunhuang, and Turfan. But Empire of Style is also remarkable for the wide range of other modes of analysis it deploys, including economic history in Chapter 2, art history in Chapter 3, textile history in Chapter 4, and literary history in Chapter 5. [End Page 255]

Chapter 1, "History," is an overview of the early Tang empire (up to the An Lushan Rebellion) and the Tang capital, Chang'an. The chapter was clearly designed to serve non-specialist readers as an introduction to the Tang period. But such readers should note that the map of the Tang empire, ca. 740, on p. 24 is inaccurate: It greatly exaggerates the extent of Tang control in the northeast—which no longer included even the Liaodong peninsula, let alone all of Manchuria—while leaving out north Vietnam and Hainan.1

The chapter's central themes are empire (or imperialism) and cosmopolitanism, behind which seem to lie an assumption that the larger an empire is, the more "cosmopolitan" it will be. I believe Carla Nappi was right to caution scholars, in a book review published in 2013, about the "positive value judgment that is often inherent in naming a setting or entity 'cosmopolitan'" and the need to "maintain careful attention to the historical and local context within which descriptors like 'global' or 'cosmopolitan' have emerged and avoid using them indiscriminately or defining them so broadly as to render the terms ultimately meaningless."2 Labeling the Tang as "cosmopolitan" (rather than just multi-ethnic or multi-cultural) has indeed become a trite, unreflective matter of habit in recent historical writing, an emotive appeal to "golden age of empire" romanticism that implicitly and unfairly casts later periods as "less vibrant and relevant for a modern reader."3

In this book, Chen appears to take it as given that the Tang empire was "cosmopolitan" and the city of Chang'an especially so, citing (correctly) Xiang Da and Edward Schafer as the founding figures of this now-ubiquitous image and using the famous Nestorian Stele to affirm it. By my estimate, however, the number of foreign-born denizens of Chang'an (mostly Sogdians and other Central Asians) in 781, when the Nestorian Stele was erected, was about six to seven thousand out of...


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pp. 255-266
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