Historical Records of the Five Dynasties

Historical Records of the Five Dynasties

Historical Records of the Five Dynasties

Historical Records of the Five Dynasties


Only fragments of historical text from China's middle period have been translated into English, until now. Here at last is the first major Chinese historical work from the Song dynasty. Written by Ouyang Xiu, an intellectual giant of the eleventh century, this is a history of the preceding century (907--979), a period known as the Five Dynasties.

The historical and literary significance of Ouyang's achievement cannot be underestimated. In rewriting the existing official history of the Five Dynasties, Ouyang -- whose own time was characterized by extraordinary intellectual and political innovation -- made several notable decisions. He rewrote the history in the "ancient" style preferred by forward-thinking literati; he even rewrote the original documents quoted within biographies. He also relied on his own moral categories, reevaluating the worth of the historical figures in light of his own convictions that individuals should take personal responsibility for the fate of society. Ouyang's history would eventually become the official version -- the last state-sanctioned dynastic history of imperial China to be written by an individual in a private capacity. In addition to its provocative insights and lucid presentation, Historical Records of the Five Dynasties is an eloquent statement on the art of historical writing in the eleventh century.

A preeminent scholar of Chinese history, Richard L. Davis has provided a thorough introduction and rendered nearly two-thirds of the Chinese original into English, including complete sections critical to understanding the politics and personalities of the time. Biographical clusters based on Ouyang's moral categories also appear in full, helping readers to appreciate the Confucian agenda that informs the work.


Few early civilizations can match imperial China in the precociousness of its historical writings. For nearly three thousand years, the Chinese have produced works astonishingly advanced in method and monumental in volume, thereby making it difficult to speak of a single epochal Golden Age for the historical genre. Conceivably, though, the Eastern Zhou (ca. 770–256 B.C.E.) was such a time: in this classical period, history first asserted its independence from literary and cosmological writings to assume an autonomy of its own. Every major epoch contributed distinctively to the philosophy and technique of historical scholarship, yet the Song dynasty (C. E. 960–1279) can rival the very best. Historical innovators of the time drew inspiration from classical traditions, yet they adjusted traditional forms to meet the current needs of politics and the expectations of scholarship. The Historical Records of the Five Dynasties, or Wudai Shiji, so uniquely succeeded in combining tradition with innovation, empirical rigor with didactic message, that the government promptly sanctioned it as official history. It was the last of the dynastic histories by an individual author and the last written in a wholly private capacity.

The Five Dynasties era (C.E. 907–979), with its pandemic tumult and personal tragedy, differed from the times of author Ouyang Xiu (Ou-yang Hsiu, 1007–1072) like night and day. In the earlier period, a mighty military machine commonly subverted civilian controls, lackluster favorites wreaked havoc on a succession of royal palaces, and emperors typically acted on whim and their officials on greed while northern China succumbed to a string of alien occupiers. Ouyang Xiu writes in indignation and disbelief, his . . .

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