CHAPTER 1 – INTRODUCTION – Sui and T’ang China – THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF CHINA

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This volume is the first of two devoted to the Sui and T’ang dynasties (581-907). It is designed to provide the reader with a narrative account of this complex period, during which China underwent far-reaching changes in political institutions, in her relations with the neighbouring countries, in social organization, in the economy and in every sphere of intellectual, religious and artistic life. The broader issues in institutions, social and economic change and in intellectual developments are dealt with in detail in Volume 4 which also contains a bibliography for both volumes. A glance at this bibliography will show that a wealth of modern scholarship has been devoted to the T’ang.

Chinese scholars have been attracted to the period as one of the high points of Chinese political power and influence, and as one of extraordinary achievements in every field of culture and the arts. Japanese scholars have been drawn to the Sui and T’ang not simply because of the intrinsic interest of the period, but also because it was during these dynasties that Japan was most deeply influenced by Chinese institutions. Western scholars too have long been fascinated by the period — the first full scale political history of the T’ang in a European language was completed by Father Antoine Gaubil SJ in 1753 – and in recent decades have begun to make their own distinctive contribution to the understanding of T’ang China.

However, although the Sui and T’ang periods have been subjected to more rigorous scrutiny by modern historians than any other period of Chinese history prior to the nineteenth century, political history in the broadest sense has been neglected and taken for granted. Surprisingly, much of the ground covered in this volume has not previously been examined in detail, even by modern Chinese historians. Only the Sui, the first years of the T’ang, the reign of the empress Wu, the latter years of Hsiian-tsung and the first decades of the ninth century have been subjected to reasonably close analysis. For the rest, the best summary often remains the amazingly lucid, critical and judicious account written by Ssu-ma Kuang and his collaborators in the T^u-chib fung-chien completed in 1085. As work on this volume has progressed, so our admiration for this prince among historians has grown.

The original aim of The Cambridge history of China was to produce a summary of the current state of knowledge, but in the event all the chapters in these volumes represent much new research into previously neglected topics. Some of the results are therefore tentative. But the placing of the results of many isolated studies of specialized topics into the context provided by a detailed chronological account has thrown into relief many unsuspected relationships between developments in very different fields, and we feel confident that this volume will provide the reader with a historical context which will add new significance to the more specialized studies in volume 4. By way of introduction I shall now outline some of the main themes which run through the period and have attracted previous scholars’ attention, and also draw attention to the complex underlying problems raised by the nature of our primary source material, which to a surprising extent prescribes the limits of what the modern historian can accomplish. The uneven coverage of the different periods in this volume reflects very closely the uneven documentation at our disposal.

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