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Ethnic Identity in Tang China

Ethnic Identity in Tang China

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Ethnic Identity in Tang China
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0101-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xxvi)

    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.”¹ 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...

  4. Chapter 1 Ethnicity in the Chinese Context
    (pp. 1-17)

    Historians and social scientists have largely defined ethnicity in terms of the relationships between majority groups, minority groups, and the political center within the context of the modern nation-state, explicitly tying it to presentist questions of modernity, imperialism, capitalism, racism, and democracy. However, historians have also used ethnicity with increasing frequency to interpret premodern phenomena.¹ This approach has validity, for while “ethnicity” has existed as an analytical concept only since the middle of the twentieth century, numerous universal structures, such as kinship, community, and homeland, as well as historically specific terms (e.g., Greek ethnos, Latin gens, and English race) fall...

  5. Chapter 2 The Ambiguity of the Non-Han: Stereotyping and Separation
    (pp. 18-51)

    Stereotypes reveal the basic fault lines and insecurities harbored by a society. The prominence of ethnic stereotypes in everyday and official discourse in the Tang bespeaks the discomfort engendered by ethnic boundaries and the profound need felt by Tang elites to come to terms with their own, often ambiguous, ethnic and cultural identities. The rhetorical use of ethnic stereotypes, examples of which extend across all genres and periods of the Tang, consciously constructed non-Han as a discursive category and is thus an appropriate starting point for delving into ethnicity in the Tang.

    Following the work of sociologists, we can distinguish...

  6. Chapter 3 Buddhism as a Foreign Religion
    (pp. 52-82)

    The early eighth-century edict ordering the expulsion of “barbarian monks from foreign lands,” which sparked the reaction from Vajrabodhi described in the Introduction, implicitly acknowledged that Buddhism had become too deeply rooted in Han society and Chinese culture to allow for a broader expulsion or prohibition (although Wuzong was to make an ill-fated attempt more than a century later). However, the phrase also hints at the extent to which Buddhism’s critics perceived the religion’s alien connections and foreign origins as central to the Buddhist “threat,” even when the targets of the critics’ ire were largely Han practitioners of Buddhism. Buddhism...

  7. Chapter 4 Deep Eyes and High Noses: The Barbarian Body
    (pp. 83-107)

    The body and its ornamentation, ranging from skin color and tattoos to the shape of the nose and hair, are potentially the most visible criteria of ethnic difference in any ethnically heterogeneous society.¹ All humans have a basic familiarity with the body and its accoutrements and are used to interpreting them in a wide number of contexts based on the universal assumption across societies that decoration of the body is one important means by which groups and individuals constitute their identities and communicate their beliefs.² In contemporary American society, we instinctively assume that such characteristics as age, gender, class, occupation,...

  8. Chapter 5 The Geopolitics of Ethnicity
    (pp. 108-149)

    Sinitic texts had, long before the Tang, used geographic boundaries to mark off ethnic differences and ascribed ethnic content to geographic features. Chinese geographical discourse easily incorporated ethnic content and facilitated construction of ethnic boundaries because it was from its origins highly political and cultural and strongly oriented toward delimiting frontiers. Indeed, the concept of boundary or division was arguably the most important structuring principle in the Chinese construction of geographic space. Even basic geographic vocabulary reveals the centrality of boundaries: one of the most common geographic terms, jing, denotes both a border and territory enclosed by the border, while...

  9. Chapter 6 Varieties of Ethnic Change
    (pp. 150-178)

    Tang society was marked both by class consciousness and by snobbery—reflecting the inherited aristocratic traditions of the Northern and Southern Dynasties—and, increasingly over the course of the dynasty, by social mobility based on the broadening of officialdom, the spread of education, and the overall growth in the principle of meritocracy. The trend toward meritocracy would mature in the Song dynasty. Indeed, scholars have long recognized the Tang as a transitional period between the aristocratic society of the early medieval period and the meritocratic or literati society of the Song and subsequent eras.¹ Under the aristocratic society, ancestral and...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 179-192)

    One of the chief difficulties in studying the construction of ethnic difference in the Tang Empire is the absence of works in the Tang corpus that explicitly address ethnic and cultural identity at an abstract level, with the partial exception of the polemical discourse on the alien origins and nature of Buddhism examined in Chapter 3. While a consciousness of ethnic difference informed a wide range of Tang discourse, as the variety of sources cited in this book attests, ethnicity as such was neither the topic of any established genre of Chinese writing nor conceived of in a coherent fashion....

  11. Appendix A. Chinese Dynasties
    (pp. 193-194)
  12. Appendix B. Sui and Tang Emperors
    (pp. 195-196)
  13. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 197-198)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 199-222)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 223-246)
  16. Index
    (pp. 247-256)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 257-258)