Great Men and State Formation in Medieval China

11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room 2

  • Organised by Masha Kobzeva
  • Masha Kobzeva, Chair
  • Christine Welch, “Calligrapher, Poet, and Statesman: Yu Shinan and the Founding of the Tang Dynasty”
  • Masha Kobzeva, “Post scriptum to Tang Taizong’s Rule: Comments of the Officials on the Jin shu
  • Xin Zou, “Building Legacy Through Stories: A Case Study of Anecdotes on Great Ministers of the Tang Dynasty”
  • Anthony DeBlasi, Discussant

The interactions between the ruler and his officials played an important role in state formation and policy implementation. The positive political changes and harmonious rule contributed to the creation of a particular image of the emperor with the ideal ruler-minister relationship. Humble and attentive ruler listened to his advisors and encouraged remonstration. However, the extent of ministers’ involvement in a decision-making process and their status in relation to the ruler were frequently contested in a discussion on their influence on the regime’s stability and its success. The panel provides an overview of the role and function of the high-ranking officials during the Tang dynasty. Christine Welch focuses on the role of a famous calligrapher, Yu Shinan 虞世南, as an influential advisor to Tang Taizong, second emperor of Tang. Masha Kobzeva analyzes the postfaces to the Jin shu 晉書 chapters written by Tang Taizong’s ministers exploring their views on early Tang imperial policies. Finally, Xin Zou provides a comparative perspective of the ministerial function from the mid-late Tang by examining anecdotes on outstanding officials written by Li Deyu 李德裕.The papers provide an alternative reading of the dynamics of interactions between ministers and rulers and its role in state formation, challenging the uniformity of an idealized picture of ruler-minister relationship.

Christine Welch, “Calligrapher, Poet, and Statesman: Yu Shinan and the Founding of the Tang Dynasty

Although best known today as compiler of the Beitang shuchao, a valuable encyclopedic compendium of pre-Tang texts, or perhaps as an important transmitter of the Wang Xizhi calligraphic style and one of the Four Masters of the Early Tang,” Yu Shinan (558–638) was most influential as advisor to and confidant of Li Shimin (598–649) posthumously known as Taizong, second emperor of the Tang Dynasty. In his Diwang luelun, a short text which outlined the rise and fall of ancient kings and emperors, Yu proscribes correct activities and lambasts morally reprehensible behavior, constructing a handbook for the continued Heavenly Mandate, written for Li Shimin’s personal perusal. Yu’s memorials recorded in the Tang histories warn the throne against certain activities, like the composition of lavish poetry reminiscent of the style popular during the politically chaotic Southern Dynasties and the construction of an overly elaborate mausoleum for Taizong’s father, Gaozu. Though these warnings appear to have been met with varying levels of acquiescence, it was Yu’s appointment to the influential Hongwen guan, Taizong’s high praise of Yu’s character, and the emperor’s extended mourning after Yu’s death and subsequent revealing dream of the return of Yu’s spirit which together betray the deep political influence Yu had on the incipient Tang government and especially the second Tang emperor.

Masha Kobzeva, “Post scriptum to Tang Taizong’s Rule: Comments of the Officials on the Jin shu

The second emperor of Tang, Tang Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 626–649), initiated a massive compilation project of the earlier dynastic histories during his rule. For one of them, the Jin shu 晉書, he personally wrote critical evaluations in the end of several chapters. The Jin shu, ordered separately from the first group of the dynastic histories, was the first historical compilation done by a group of scholars. The scholars were also part of Taizong’s coterie and responsible for advising the emperor on a majority of political decisions. Most of the chapters in the Jin shu each had a summarizing comment written by one of the editorial staff in the end. According to some scholars, Taizong ordered the compilation to use the examples in the Jin shu to warn and educate his ministers and future rulers. As Taizong was personally invested in writing the four commentarial essays in the JS, his ministers similarly used “Official Historian remarks” 史臣曰 as a safe space to remonstrate with Taizong on his policies and views. Despite Taizong’s encouraging criticism of his decisions, his officials were still rather reluctant to directly voice their opinion and use of the dynastic histories was one of the indirect ways to do so. The paper explores how the closest ministers of Taizong and, concurrently, Jin shu editorial staff made use of the compilation to express more freely their views on the regime through their reading of and comparison to the Jin history.

Xin Zou, “Building Legacy Through Stories: A Case Study of Anecdotes on Great Ministers of the Tang Dynasty

This paper takes the case of Li Deyu 李德裕 (787–850), an important statesman poet of the mid-late Tang, as a window in exploring the theme of “Great Men in State-Formation.” Li served as a Grand Councilor during Emperor Wenzong 文宗 (r. 827–840) and Emperor Wuzong’s (r. 840–846) reigns, the latter of which witnessed Li’s personal rise to the summit of his imperial service as well as a brief revival of the great Tang prosperity. The focus of this paper is a close reading of a set of anecdotes on ministers of the high Tang as seen in Li Deyu’s Ci liushijiu wen 次柳氏舊聞 (Sequenced old stories from the Lius), a collection of stories concerning the great Tang monarch Emperor Xuanzong’s reign (r. 712-756). This collection was first presented to Emperor Wenzong in 834 and was later incorporated into official histories after the fall of the Tang dynasty. The trajectory of these accounts enables us to study the lives and careers of these outstanding ministers and their key roles in state-formation. More importantly, we can see how these anecdotes, as a literary genre, created and shaped a legacy of these great ministers in official and unofficial histories. In other words, this paper does not regard the accounts of these ministers as a wholly faithful record of their lives, careers, and achievements. Rather, I suggest that we interpret these Tang texts as a product of their immediate social, political and cultural conditions.

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Room 2