PROFESSOR DENIS TWITCHETT ; Prodigious Historian of China

By McMullen, David | The Independent (London, England), April 19, 2006 | Go to article overview
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PROFESSOR DENIS TWITCHETT ; Prodigious Historian of China


McMullen, David, The Independent (London, England)


Denis Twitchett was a prodigiously able and energetic scholar who pioneered English-language research on the financial and legal administration of dynastic China. Through his own abundant publications and editing of others' work, Twitchett made an unprecedented contribution to the field of pre-modern Chinese history.

He exemplified an ideal for his own and later generations of scholars working ontheTangempire in China (AD 618-907): an ability to integrate the information contained in conventional dynastic sources with the fresh discoveries of archaeologists and others from the beginning of the 20th century. He was a master both of the copious documentation that has been transmitted on the medieval Chinese state and of the massive archive of documents recovered from Cave 17 at Dunhuang, the great desert oasis staging post on the Silk Road to Western Asia. Twitchett's command of the secondary literature covering this field, in European languages, Chinese and Japanese, was also superb.

He approached the history of Tang administration initially through Japanese scholarship, and his debt to the best Japanese analyses of Tang primary sources was considerable and openly acknowledged. In the empirical and highly detailed studies of such scholars as Hino Kaisaburo, Aoyama Sadao and others, he found an outlook fully compatible with his own. His own early, closely focused and meticulous articles on such topics as Tang Buddhist monastic estates and extant fragments of Water Board ordinances, and his first book, Financial Administration under the T'angDynasty (1963), set an entirely new standard in English language scholarship on East Asian history. Their incisive analyses have stood the test of time He had many other interests. In 1983, he published a monograph on the early history of printing in China (Printing andPublishinginMedieval China). He was an expert on Chinese criminal codes and on the judicial procedures and legal institutionsofmedieval China Onafamous occasion, he once lectured at Harvard at short notice and, as was his custom, without notes, giving his audience a succinct summary of Tang criminal law. His reading in Tang poetry was extensive, not simply because it provided abundant historical information of the kind he applied to his own research but also because he appreciated the variety and individuality of the many poetic voices that have survived from the Tang period. The scholar who once empathised that "it is always difficult to be a Chinese" was deeply drawn to the complex tensions and frustrated world of the major Tang lyric poets.

Twitchett's later interests moved towards institutional history. His writing on the political aspects of the Tang empire derived authority from his effortless command of the often highly technical language of its civil bureaucracy. His third book was an analysis of the official sources for Tang history (The Writing of Official History Under the T'ang, 1992). In great detail, he showed that theurbane and apparently seamless narrative of the voluminous Old Tang History was the result of a long and often factionally distorted process of information collection, editing and re- editing. Behind this process lay the lite institutions of the period, the central government ministries, the ritual agencies, the imperial library, the music bureau, the History Office, a Tang dynasty innovation founded in 629, and, in some cases, the emperors themselves.

Another interest was the handbooks on emperorship associated with some of the ablest sovereigns of the Tang dynasty, including Taizong (r. 626-649), Gaozong (r. 649-683) and the Empress Wu (r. 690-705). The results of this later research were published in his mid- Seventies and included exhaustively annotated translations.

Twitchett's greatest editorial achievement was the Cambridge History of China, initially planned in 1966 with the late Professor John King Fairbank of Harvard as a series of six volumes, but subsequently much extended.

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