Ethnic Identity in Tang China

Ethnic Identity in Tang China

Ethnic Identity in Tang China

Ethnic Identity in Tang China

Synopsis

"Ethnic Identity in Tang China" is the first work in any language to explore comprehensively the construction of ethnicity during the dynasty that reigned over China for roughly three centuries, from 618 to 907. Often viewed as one of the most cosmopolitan regimes in China's past, the Tang had roots in Inner Asia, and its rulers continued to have complex relationships with a population that included Turks, Tibetans, Japanese, Koreans, Southeast Asians, Persians, and Arabs. Marc S. Abramson's rich portrait of this complex, multiethnic empire draws on political writings, religious texts, and other cultural artifacts, as well as comparative examples from other empires and frontiers. Abramson argues that various constituencies, ranging from Confucian elites to Buddhist monks to "barbarian" generals, sought to define ethnic boundaries for various reasons but often in part out of discomfort with the ambiguity of their own ethnic and cultural identity. The Tang court, meanwhile, alternately sought to absorb some alien populations to preserve the empire's integrity while seeking to preserve the ethnic distinctiveness of other groups whose particular skills it valued. Abramson demonstrates how the Tang era marked a key shift in definitions of China and the Chinese people, a shift that ultimately laid the foundation for the emergence of the modern Chinese nation. "Ethnic Identity in Tang China" sheds new light on one of the most important periods in Chinese history. It also offers broader insights on East Asian and Inner Asian history, the history of ethnicity, and the comparative history of frontiers and empires.

Excerpt

In 1997, shortly before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, a Chinese polling firm asked a focus group of Shanghai students to choose which period, historical or present-day, they would most like to live in. a plurality of the students chose the Tang dynasty (618–907)— the present-day came in second—because, in the students’ words, it was a period of “Great China.” These results reflect a widely held belief, formed by Chinese official pedagogy and popular culture (historical novels, televisions serials, and feature films on the great figures of the Tang continue to be churned out at a huge rate), that the Tang was the peak of Chinese military strength, political unity, economic influence, and cultural efflorescence. Historians concur that the Tang era was indeed a unique conjuncture in Chinese history of power and cosmopolitanism. Rather like the People’s Republic of China today, the Tang Empire was remarkably receptive to foreign influences in nearly every cultural practice, from music to literature, food to clothes, and religion to medicine. Moreover, unlike the situation at the turn of the twenty-first century, China was, for most of the Tang era, the dominant power in East Asia and arguably had the strongest economy and highest prosperity of any region on the globe.

This understandable pride in the Tang, combined with the powerful contemporary self-image of China as a pluralistic multi-ethnic nation state welcoming all ethnic groups into the fold, has been a potent force behind the conventional wisdom among both historians and laymen that the Tang Empire readily assimilated non-Han peoples who were willing to adopt Chinese culture. This understanding essentially discounts the importance of ethnic identity relative to cultural difference. This book intends to show that ethnicity mattered in the Tang. While cultural change was significant and was often a vector for ethnic change, the two types of change were far from congruent. the fundamental themes that structured ethnic difference—culture, to be sure, but also ancestry, the body, and politics—remained salient throughout the period, and in turn revealed deep ambiguities among Tang elites about the identity and cohesiveness of the ethnic Self and China itself.

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