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  • Why Does the Tang-Song Interregnum Matter?Part Three: The Legacy of Division and the Holistic Empire
  • Hugh Clark

Recently I have published two essays1 that have explored the significance of the interregnum century (878–9782) that divides the Tang and Song dynasties.3 These essays have focused on economic, social, and cultural developments within the southern kingdoms, which historians have conventionally if misleadingly called the Ten Kingdoms 十國,4 that occurred through the [End Page 1] interregnum century, with a particular focus on the Wu/Jiangnan Tang 吳/江南唐, WuYue 吳越, and Min 閩 kingdoms. The present essay, by way of conclusion, addresses instead the legacy of the period as it developed through the opening decades of the Song dynasty and particularly through the reigns of Emperors Taizong 太宗 (r. 976–997), Zhenzong 真宗 (r. 997–1022), and Renzong 仁宗 (r. 1022–1063). I will argue that the interregnum was the last time that region of southeastern Eurasia that historians call "China" could have evolved into a multi-state system akin to Europe.5 Although political unity would collapse from time to time thereafter, the idea that the holistic empire—an empire that embraced the drainage basins of the Yellow, Yangtze, and West Rivers as well as the coastline from Manchuria south as far as modern Guangdong and even to the Red River basin of modern Vietnam—could permanently fracture was no longer viable.6 [End Page 2]

A Brief Historical Background

In recent work I have explored the persistence of a cultural divide between north and south through the early imperial era.7 All too often this divide has been ignored in the historiographical tradition in favor of an emphasis on the holistic empire identified with Qin/Han and later with Sui/Tang.8 My argument has been that the holistic empire overlaid a profound cultural division that endured even through the Tang. Although most readers are familiar with the outlines of the narrative, in order to situate my argument a brief "revisionist" review is called for.

As early as the centuries before the Qin/Han empire, northern scholars had dismissed the myriad peoples of the south as uncultured and uncivilized barbarians, a characterization that persisted in the centuries of political holism. For example, Sima Qian 司馬遷 (traditional dates ca. 145–86 bce), in his Shiji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian), said of the Yue king Goujian 勾踐 (d. ca. 465 bce), "He tattooed his body and cut his hair,"9 a comment echoed by Ban Gu 班固 (32–92), author of the Han shu 漢書 (History of the Former Han Dynasty): "[The Yue] tattoo their bodies and cut their hair in order to avoid the dangers of the predatory dragon (jiaolong 蛟龍)."10 Tattooing and cutting the hair were anathema in the culture of the north, where they were considered desecrations of the body bequeathed by one's parents. They were considered emblematic of everything that was defined as uncivilized. [End Page 3]

In the aftermath of the collapse of the holistic empire in the late second and third centuries ce, that division was laid bare through the era known as the Northern and Southern dynasties (Nanbei chao 南北朝). Although the Qin/Han empire had endured for roughly four centuries, other than a brief and superficial reintegration in the late third century known as the Jin 晉 dynasty (266–316), the political separation between north and south that paralleled the unresolved cultural division itself lasted for nearly four centuries. Most notably, despite the restoration of the holistic empire under Sui/Tang, a political unification that endured at least nominally until the Tang unraveled in the late ninth century, the cultural divide remained. Even as the Yangtze valley, the heart of the southern empires through the centuries of separation, had witnessed the emergence of an elite that drew heavily on the political and cultural legacy of the Han, the broader south remained distinct from the north on myriad levels. Southern politics, literature, religion, economics, and social order had evolved in their own directions. Poets developed their own themes that were heavily influenced by the seductive landscape in which they lived. Buddhism drew not only on the legacy of sinitic practices northern migrants brought with them to the south but also on...


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