Historum - History Forums  

Go Back   Historum - History Forums > Themes in History > History Book Reviews
Register Forums Blogs Social Groups Mark Forums Read

History Book Reviews History Book Review Forum - Discussion of Non Fiction Books and Historical Novels

LinkBack Thread Tools Display Modes
Old December 30th, 2015, 09:54 PM   #11

stevapalooza's Avatar
Joined: May 2009
Posts: 1,128

I think the term is used just to orient western readers (no pun intended) as far as time period goes. It's only a chronological marker, not necessarily a description of a level of culture or sophistication.

There are other terms more specific to Chinese history like "The Spring & Autumn Period" or "the Warring States Period", etc. but someone who is new to the subject probably doesn't know when these periods were, so more familiar descriptions like "medieval" are used. In most cases, Chinese history is broken down by dynasties. You'll find lots of books with titles like "Commerce in Late Tang China" or "Village Life during the Song dynasty", etc.

Last edited by stevapalooza; December 30th, 2015 at 09:56 PM.
stevapalooza is offline  
Remove Ads
Old January 2nd, 2016, 10:07 PM   #12

f0ma's Avatar
Joined: Sep 2012
From: 咸亨酒店
Posts: 1,045
Blog Entries: 9

Originally Posted by D C Hammond View Post
Is "medieval" a roughly agreed historical time period AD for all nations / peoples ?

Or are there Medieval China roughly-accepted years
that are not same as the commonly understood Medieval Europe period ?

I think of certain cultures today being "medieval" in their temperament, as if the Enlightenment slipped right by them. But they live in 2015 AD.
Originally Posted by stevapalooza View Post
I think the term is used just to orient western readers (no pun intended) as far as time period goes. It's only a chronological marker, not necessarily a description of a level of culture or sophistication.

There are other terms more specific to Chinese history like "The Spring & Autumn Period" or "the Warring States Period", etc. but someone who is new to the subject probably doesn't know when these periods were, so more familiar descriptions like "medieval" are used. In most cases, Chinese history is broken down by dynasties. You'll find lots of books with titles like "Commerce in Late Tang China" or "Village Life during the Song dynasty", etc.
It's very interesting, to me at least, how academia defines and names periods in Chinese history. I posted a thread about it a while ago, but I can go over it again quickly.

So, to take this period as an example, in Chinese scholarship the most common term is 魏晋南北朝 Wei Jin Nan Bei Chao, which refers to the Cao Wei, Sima Jin and Northern/Southern dynasties, from AD220-589. The next most common term is 六代 liudai or 六朝 liuchao, which translates as the Six Dynasties, referring to

a) Eastern Wu, Eastern Jin, Liu Song, Qi, Liang and Chen (by virtue of having the capital in Jiankang - modern day Nanjing)
b) Cao Wei, Sima Jin, Liu Song, Qi, Liang, Chen (by virtue of dynastic legitimacy)

The term 中古 zhonggu, medieval, doesn't see wide use in China - at least from what I've seen. It is used, but not so much as the above appellations. However, most writings on the premodern can and usually do fall under the umbrella of 古代 gudai, ancient.

Now, to Western scholarship. The term Wei Jin Nan Bei Chao isn't used very often and is usually translated as 'Early Medieval China'. However, the problem arises when scholars don't adhere to the time frame in question. Some, for instance, apply the label of 'early medieval' to the period AD300-900. Whilst we can argue a certain arbitrariness on the distinction between 220 and 300 (or anything in the 189-316 range) as a starting point, they still want to include the entire Tang dynasty within the early medieval bracket, which conflicts with other scholars, who give the date of 589/600 as the ending.

The label of 'medieval' is traditionally applied to the Tang, Song and Yuan (Ming, it has been argued, is early modern). However, a lot of scholarship also extends the medieval period back to 220 and the fall of the Han, whilst others say that 900 is the beginning of the early-modern period, so there is no true consensus. I guess the issue is whether or not 'early medieval' falls under the umbrella of 'medieval' or if it exists separately (in such a way that early-modern is distinguishable, in some form or another, to modern - rather than it only being tied together chronologically).

Forgetting the Tang question for a moment, 'Early Medieval China' itself is arguably one of the best suited labels for the 220-589 period, since there are obviously inherently problems within the terms Wei Jin Nan Bei Chao and Six Dynasties, as there obviously existed more states and dynasties in this period than those named - perhaps an arbitrary concern, but one I find strange at least. The term Six Dynasties itself is used a lot in modern scholarship, but, perhaps rightly, tends to usually be focussed on the Southern Dynasties and Eastern Jin (no one ever seems to talk about Wu in this context), as opposed to the Sixteen Kingdoms and Northern Dynasties. Then again, some others used the traditional term Southern Dynasties to include the Eastern Jin. Applying Northern and Southern Dynasties to the Three Kingdoms and Jin has also happened before.

But the academic trend in recent years appears to be that Early Medieval China, as a term for at least roughly covering the period 220-589, is the most common, but by no means is the only one. Other less common and/or less popular appellations include:

The Age of Disunion/Division
The Age of Fragmentation
The Age of Transition
Dark Ages
Feudal China/The Feudal Period*
(Early) Middle Ages

*From a Western perspective at least. Chinese scholarship, at least Marxist/Communist scholarship, will define pre-modern history as feudal history, although I'm not sure about how its translated. Some Western scholars, not necessarily even Marxist ones, will do the same. However, the 220-589 period is the closest analogue to European feudalism that we have in China, with a landed gentry and so on and so forth, so is sometimes referred to as such.

However, we also run into problems with the terms 'ancient' and to a lesser extent 'classical', as well as the overarching term of 'Imperial'. Ancient China particularly is a tricky one and some scholars extend this term past the traditional boundary of the Han to the subsequent period. Classical is roughly analogous, and not in as wide a use, but perhaps is more suited to the pre-Imperial period - although there exist further problems there, with Bronze Ages and whatnot. The overarching term of 'Imperial' takes us from the Qin to the Qing and some scholars use terms such as 'early imperial', 'late imperial' and so on, so the 220-589 period is sometimes included in this larger umbrella of 'early imperial', along with the Qin-Han and probably the Sui-Tang.

Another umbrella term is 'Early China', which is another tricky one. I haven't encountered it enough to fully understand its application - which isn't to say its not in wide use-, but its traditionally applied to ancient and pre-imperial China, sometimes through to the Han dynasty, making it synonymous with ancient. However, I do recall instances where 'Early China' has been used to cover the 220-589 period as well.

So to return to the point, there is something of an attempt to sync Chinese history with European history by way of appropriate appellations, but it isn't a concrete thing. Most scholars of China will at least say the (early) medieval period began a lot sooner than in Europe. Whether using 'medieval' as a term for China is etymologically correct, I wouldn't actually know. Then again, the important thing is that there is at least some kind of broad consensus on what constitutes what, even if the name itself is erroneous.
f0ma is offline  
Old January 4th, 2016, 03:53 PM   #13

ShadowSwordmaster's Avatar
Joined: Jan 2016
From: United States of America
Posts: 37

I will add these books to my "books to read list" right now.
Thank you for making this thread.
ShadowSwordmaster is offline  
Old March 1st, 2016, 11:12 PM   #14

f0ma's Avatar
Joined: Sep 2012
From: 咸亨酒店
Posts: 1,045
Blog Entries: 9

[ame="http://www.amazon.com/Profound-Scholars-Lectures-Poems-Dynasty/dp/7508529987"]Profound Scholars Lectures on Poems in the Tang Dynasty: Anonymous: 9787508529981: Amazon.com: Books@@AMEPARAM@@http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Cc4M7J0oL.@@AMEPARAM@@51Cc4M7J0oL[/ame]

I originally didn't intend to discuss many Tang books here, simply because I don't study it often, but I'm not adverse to discussing the dynasty in general. Eitherway, although my Chinese-language library is growing at an alarming rate, sometimes it is nice to 'relax' with an English language work. Yet finding English language monographs can be a little tough in China, so as I prepared for a long journey over the weekend, I grabbed something at random from my shelf and ended up devouring Profound Scholars Lectures on Poems in the Tang Dynasty.

I'm no expert in Tang poetry, and my knowledge is limited to late Tang writers such as Li He and Li Shangyin, so my review of this book lacks perhaps the broader knowledge it might need.

Profound Scholars Lectures on Poems in the Tang Dynasty is a typical Chinese English-language 'scholarly' work. Translated into English to 'help foreign readers to get a better understanding of Chinese classical culture', it serves an educatory purpose perhaps more than an academic one. The general nationalistic flavour of the text is most likely endemic to this translation, although one cannot discount that this is actually the honest 'academic' sentiment of the writers themselves. As such, references to 'masterpieces', 'geniuses' and vast ranges of superlatives appear on nearly every page, which calls into question the book's general objectivity.

The volume itself is a collection of twenty seven short essays by 'profound scholars' on various poets and poems of the Tang. However, no information whatsoever is given about who these scholars are, where they work or what their credentials are. Likewise information about the editor(s) and translator are missing. No footnotes or bibliographies exist, and citations are few, which generally handicaps the books usefulness to the student or scholar.

The essays collected within have a surprisingly broad range, although Du Fu, Bai Juyi and Wang Wei are the most written about. Yet the majority of essays are, honestly, trash - which might seem crass or crude to mention, especially as they are penned by 'profound' scholars. However, I know for a fact that if an undergraduate turned in a similar essay, his professor would rip him to shreds. The lack of textual analysis, contextualization and predominance of supposition sabotage many of the essays. As a result, I will only be focussing on those that actually contain a modicum or merit.

The book opens with an essay entitled 'Origin of Poetry in the Tang Dynasty' by Ye Jiaying, which serves to give a history of poetic development up until the Tang. Ye makes a sharp distinction between the Shijing and Chuci, which surprised me a little, but generally explains their relevant styles in a decent depth. His discussion on Han poetry veers heavily towards folk songs, but he does place a large emphasis on foreign influences, which I thought was intriguing. The translation of poetry influenced by this however as 'New Mutant Music' was particularly strange though. Ye's treatment of Wei-Jin development is slapdash and he also very tellingly still ascribes to Lu Xun's theories of literary awareness, which have long been called into question in the West. His notes on tonal patterns and very beneficial (something generally ignored in Western scholarship), but he fails to really break out of an analysis based on structure and form. He does however briefly mention Palace Style poetry, yet places an overwhelming emphasis on Yu Xin, presumably because - in the author's own words - 'he endeavoured to blend South China's writing style ... with that of North China'. This is particularly fascinating, since it shows that the disdain for Palace Style still exist among modern scholars. His final conclusions however fail to properly draw a strong link between pre-Tang and Tang poetry, leaving unanswered the question of how these styles influenced or evolved into Tang poetics.

The following two pieces discussing Wang Zhihuan and Chen Ziang by Zhong Yuankai and Yuan Xingpei respectively both feature hit-and-miss analysis, but raise interesting points. Yet along with a following piece on Wang Wei by Tao Wenpeng, they are generally vapid.

The following two articles however are by far the most insightful of the book. The first is entitled 'Sweet Laurel Blooms in the Poem Entitled "The Dale of Singing Birds"' by Guo Xiliang and discusses the metaphorical connotations of a particular tree in a poem of Wang Wei's. This enlightens us to a debate within Chinese academia, wherein there is a division between those who believe the laurel blooms represent actual laurel blooms, or rather take on the metaphorical meaning of moonlight. Guo sits in the latter camp and his well sourced and well argued essay pitches a strong argument for his case. With a tongue-in-cheek humour, and at one point a dive into historical botany manuals, his presents one of the finest pieces in the volume.

However, following this is Cai Yijiang's 'New Explanation Has No Way to Justify Itself - more comments on 'Laurel Blooms' in "The Dale of Singing Birds"' - a direct rebuttal of Guo's arguments. The crux of Guo's argument rested on the fact that laurel blooms do not blossom in Spring in north China (the poem is set in the Spring), whereas Cai debunks this through intertextual studies and solid source analysis (such basic historical processes that it feels very strange praising the author for using them...). With a similar manner to Guo's and many veiled insults towards him, reading Cai's piece is quite enjoyable. Cai ends his argument by referencing the use of laurel blooms as an allegory from the Chuci for reclusiveness and friendship, which seems like a winning point, yet Cai fails to properly convince us that these were themes Wang was actually trying to convey.

The next piece, and longest, is also by Cai and also again focusses on Wang Wei, but this time analyses four of his quatrains - two five character and two seven character pieces. A long introduction detailing Wang Wei's life and writing is welcome and his treatment of the first three quatrains are generally very strong, although the fourth falls far short.

Following this, the next three essays are all useless and tell us nothing we couldn't ourselves immediately glean from reading the poems in question. However Ni Qixin's piece of Meng Haoran is decent, although it lacks depth, and Gu Xuejie draws some intelligent comparisons between the works of Du Fu and Bai Juyi afterwards. Three further essays on Du Fu are not worth discussing, but Huo Songjin makes some decent points on Bai Juyi's "Grass on the Ancient Plain", even if his conclusions are lacking.

Bai Juyi keeps the spotlight with a piece by Liao Kebin and another by Bian Xiaoxuan. The first is useless, but the second features some interesting parallels between Han and Tang China wherein we can read "Elegies on the Palace for Thinking of Son" as a political satire - although actual evidence and textual analysis is missing.

There are no worthwhile essays until Ge Zhaoguang discusses Li Shangyin and the idea of poetic viewpoints, but this too lacks any real depth. A following piece also on Li Shangyin by Han Shipeng is so-so.

The penultimate piece by Zang Kejia on Du Mu is perhaps an example of all that's wrong with the book. The author throws his opinions at us with no evidence whatsoever and then slams the research of others with no good cause. In an analysis of Du Mu's "An Autumn Night", Zang 'argues' that the maiden within is a symbol of innocence, whilst attacking the theory of a certain Liu Yongji that she is actually one of sexual awakening, which sounds like an interesting argument - although it is not explained. Zang gives no rhyme or reason, no how or why, to justify his conclusions, and comes across only as obnoxious and pig-headed.

An analysis of Du Mu's “The Red Cliff” , the final piece by Wei Gengyuan is generally interesting. Wei attempts to argue that the 'east wind' that saved Zhou Yu in the poem was not the magic conjured by Zhuge Liang, but instead 'Sun Quan's full trust in the general'. Whilst Wei goes to some efforts to explain why Du Mu wouldn't criticize Zhou Yu by way of the first explanation, he provides no evidence for the second, leaving us a little unsatisfied.

As a whole, the book contains more bad essays than good ones - although still provides a valuable insight into Chinese scholarship, attitudes and debates therein. Other issues include:

1) not every article's representative poem(s) is given
2) all poems are provided in English only, with no Chinese
3) whilst a variety of pictures and artwork are included, they often bear little to no relevance to the accompanying text
4) the translation, whilst generally strong, still contains many errors, most notably one where an emperor was 'murdered' and just went a little bit mad instead of dying.

So on the whole, generally poor, and the lack of footnotes and bibliography are enough to immediately stamp a big red 'not recommended' on this. But an interesting inroad into Chinese mainland academia all the same.
f0ma is offline  
Old June 22nd, 2016, 10:31 PM   #15

f0ma's Avatar
Joined: Sep 2012
From: 咸亨酒店
Posts: 1,045
Blog Entries: 9

As my laziness gets the better of me once again, I find myself picking up another English language book. I was actually really surprised (and not a little excited) to find an English language book on the Yongming period - as I perhaps a little arrogantly thought that I already knew them all.

Whatever the case, Zhang Hongming and Song Chenqing's Tonal Prosody in Yongming Style Poems is tough going. A rewarding read, no doubt about it, but difficult and challenging to get through. Most of my experience in reading poetic history comes down to two factors: content and form. On one hand, the meanings of the poems, on the other, the ways in which they are presented. This book however, deals with a third angle - prosody, or the actual sounds of the poems. In other words, how poets manipulated the four tones for poetic (mainly rhyming) effect. As such, it reads very differently to other books on this period, which are more concerned with the first two angles of content and form. This is essentially a mathematics book; a statistical study of prosody that uses some very complex equations to examine the probabilities that tones either were or were not manipulated.

Even from page one it can be a challenging read for one without any background in statistical analysis. However, credit to the authors, they do take steps to break down their equations and explain everything in layman's terms - something that takes them near half the book, once they have introduced the problems of Yongming prosody and its scholarly contexts. After this, we are treated to two chapters of mathematical study - the first on contrasting rules in couplet pairs (the probabilities that character X in a line will or will not be the same tone as character Y in the same couplet) and the second on line patterns (the probabilities that a certain line, with varying tones for each character, will be used). The Yongming poems (of Shen Yue, Xie Tiao and Wang Rong) are first compared against a pre-Yongming baseline (of the 19 Ancient Poems, Cao Zhi and Xie Lingyun) and then against Tang rules of Regulated Style. The results are the cross-compared between the two sections and conclusions drawn.

The book is actually incredible and very inspiring. Although I had difficulty following the second section on line patterns a little, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was interesting to see their analysis of other scholars' work on Yongming prosody (mainly Chinese and Japanese academics, with the main exception of Meow Hui Goh) and how they overcame a lot of the flaws inherent in earlier works. The book was laid out nicely for a layman, with extensive and repetitive diagrams, tables and equation sums - which although may make one's head hurt, still make things a lot easier.

My major gripe with the book is that their bibliography seems incomplete. There are numerous instances in the first half of the book where the authors cite a source, yet this source does not appear in the bibliography - which is naturally very frustrating if we want to pursue further lines of enquiry.

That aside, the book is incredibly strong, unique, and deserving of a place on the shelf of any serious scholar of all things medieval China.

Last edited by f0ma; June 22nd, 2016 at 10:34 PM.
f0ma is offline  

  Historum > Themes in History > History Book Reviews

china, early, medieval, reading

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Similar Threads
Thread Thread Starter Forum Replies Last Post
dark age/early medieval france + germany xin fu European History 3 February 1st, 2015 04:46 PM
Bows in early medieval Normandy SirIronshield War and Military History 5 August 22nd, 2014 10:31 PM
Early Medieval private castles in Rome Kirialax Medieval and Byzantine History 3 June 23rd, 2013 05:20 AM
English Early Medieval Recruitment Daniel Evans European History 6 June 18th, 2013 08:49 AM
Irish Illuminated Art from the Early Medieval Period General Michael Collins Art and Cultural History 12 November 1st, 2012 02:24 AM

Copyright © 2006-2013 Historum. All rights reserved.