China’s Cosmopolitan Empire


As China’s economic might continues to rise, it’s important that we all gain a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural forces that are driving the rapid growth of the country.

An excellent place to start is by reading China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, Mark Edward Lewis’ outstanding history of the Tang Dynasty. Straddling nearly three centuries from 618 to 907, this is widely regarded as China’s “golden age”, a period of rapid territorial expansion, growing urbanization, and burgeoning foreign trade with Asia and the Middle East accompanied by an explosion in literary and artistic creativity.

Indeed, as I read the book I couldn’t help but notice the many parallels between the China of the Tang Dynasty and the China of today. Then, as now, the country was grappling with the challenges of balancing rapid economic growth and urbanization with the needs of the environment; of building up a massive internal transportation infrastructure to handle growing internal and external trade; and of managing its relationships with foreign powers and accommodating large foreign populations in major cities such as Changan (today’s Xian). About the only thing that I found missing was a modern day equivalent to Li Bo (Li Bai), the Tang Dynasty’s very own poetic superstar and Tu Fu, almost universally acknowledged as China’s greatest poet.

Of course, there are differences between the two periods as well, most notably in the political and administrative systems, though – wicked empresses and princesses and grasping eunuchs apart – these are not quite as large as a casual observer might think.

Religion also played a much greater role in Tang government affairs than it does now, with the Buddhists and Daoists enjoying great influence and power – not to mention extensive tax benefits on their massive land holdings.

As a history book, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire is inevitably a little dry in areas such as its descriptions of administrative and land ownership reforms, but it really comes into its own when describing the daily rhythms of city life, the sinicization of the Buddhist religion, and the flowering of Tang dynasty culture, art, and literature.

The author does a particularly good job of adding life and color to the overall narrative by mixing in poems and other writings from the period with the hard historical facts. In doing so, he also highlights the importance that literature had in Tang Dynasty government and society, and the role it played in political debate.

Here is a sample from the ninth century poet Liu Zongyuan decrying the wanton destruction of the environment and by extension the execution of talented officials by the corrupt court:

The official guardians’ axes have spread through a thousand hills
At the Works Department’s order hacking rafter-beams and billets
Of ten trunks cut in the woodlands’ depths, only one gets hauled away
Proud summits and deep-sunk gorges – now brief hummocks of naked rock.

I learned a huge amount not just about the Tang Dynasty but also modern China from China’s Cosmopolitan Empire. I hope to have time in the not too distant future to tackle the author’s other books on the early history of China.

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