Northern Song Reflections on the Tang


A review of Northern Song Reflections on the Tang, by Jeffrey Rice.

Jeffrey Rice’s dissertation is a study of Northern Song historiography of the history of the Tang dynasty (618-907). In it he examines how scholars in the eleventh century revised the history of the Tang by means of editing, omitting, and rewriting primary sources in a manner different from their predecessors; by adopting recent syntax to write about the themes that concerned them most as civil officials of the Song; and by distributing their work with print technology.

Chapter 1 sets the scene by outlining the writing of Tang histories in the eleventh century, especially their relevance to intellectual debates and the guwen (ancient style prose) movement in the Song civil service. The imperial court commissioned a revised history of the Tang, which came to be known as the New Tang History, as opposed to the Old Tang History. Others scholars also offered historical criticism as moral lessons for the state in their private histories of the Tang, such as in Sun Fu’s (d. 1057) Discussions and Judgments on Tang History and Fan Zuyu’s (1040-1098) Tang Mirror. Literature like these belonged to new genres that reflected how Song scholars redefined the past according to contemporary concerns. Rice then introduces the methodology he employs in the following 4 chapters to examine how Northern Song historians put forward revisions to the history of the Tang. He draws substantially from the two titles mentioned above and studies them on four levels: historiography, linguistics, politics, and print culture.

Chapter 2 offers meticulous comparisons of primary sources from Tang and Song historical works to see how Northern Song histories of the Tang handle and present them. Rice first traces the textual history of the court records of the Tang, showing what Song scholars could have relied on when they wrote histories of the Tang period. Most of the relevant secondary research compares the two official Tang histories, but Rice broadens the analysis of Northern Song historiography of the Tang by incorporating the works by Sun Fu and Fan Zuyu, which are more judgmental and didactic than the official history. Through examples of several episodes in Tang history where relevant primary sources are still extant, Rice observes in these eleventh century works “a shift in emphasis away from the text of the source documents and towards the historian’s interpretation of these texts by various means” (p. 50).

Rice then turns in Chapter 3 to the issue of ancient prose style in historical writing of this period. When the leader of the ancient style movement, Ouyang Xiu, sought to establish a writing standard, he was not persuading people to imitate the diction of Han Yu (768-824), who was usually regarded as one of the early masters of ancient style prose in the Tang. This then leads to the question of what was the language that the New Tang History edited by Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) actually adopted. To tackle this, Rice conducts a detailed formal analysis of the syntax, possibly the first of its kind in studies on Chinese historiography. Rice concludes that the use of the character yu 于/於 was the most indicative of diachronic grammatical change in this work of history when compared with the Old Tang History. Its usage patterns in the New Tang History actually show that the language adopted in it resembles more recent grammar, rather than that of the classical era. With the evidence he yields from this syntactic analysis Rice breaks the standard interpretation of the language of the New Tang History, that it was penned by proponents of the ancient style who went back to the way of the ancient sages.

In Chapter 4, Rice analyzes the narratives in the historical works during the Song period to examine the central issues with which the historians were concerned. He begins the chapter by revisiting the objectivist and moral-didactic views of history in traditional Chinese historiography, referred to as “historical analogism” by Robert Hartwell. The selection of what content to include and omit, as well as commentaries by Sun Fu and Fan Zuyu in their historical criticism both demonstrate the main ideological concerns of Song historians. The depiction of upright ministers promoting good governance in the Tang and their role of keeping the power of imperial actors in check should be seen as analogies for contemporary events in the eleventh century, such as the fear that empresses were getting too politically involved. As an expression of the values of the new civil official elite, their historical writing serves as a reminder to us that all history is indeed contemporary history.

Rice then directs attention in Chapter 5 to the significance of print technology for these historical works. After an appraisal of the research on Chinese book history, he argues that the dearth of quantitative evidence regarding books in imperial China determines that it will be more useful to study the qualitative change in the rising commercial book market and its implications on historical writing. Drawing observations from a comparison between textual practices in China and Europe in the transitional period from manuscript to print culture, Rice argues that the authors of the New Tang History and the Tang Mirror, though ambivalent about having their work published, were more willing than before to revise existing narratives. The development of print culture inspired such writers to focus on interpreting rather than preserving historical information when they wrote for a like-minded reading public in the Song.

Rice’s dissertation is a very promising contribution to the study of historiography in the middle period of Chinese history. That the histories written by Song scholars tell us about them as much as about the Tang is only one of the contributions of this study that should make it of interest to researchers beyond the field of Tang and Song China. The study makes use of an impressive range of methods in investigating the competing historical narratives, and thus produces a comprehensive view of the concerns and approaches of Song historians. It provides a well-crafted and inspiring example in applying syntactic theory to the analysis of trends in classical Chinese historical writing. Rice’s use of the comparative method in studying the sources and syntax is also a good demonstration of its usefulness for source criticism in researching multiple sources in Chinese historiography. The perspective and arguments of this dissertation will be of major interest to scholars of middle period Chinese history, historiography, and book history.

Lik Hang Tsui
Institute for Chinese Studies, Faculty of Oriental Studies
University of Oxford

Primary Sources

Jiu Tang shu舊唐書 (Old Tang History)
Xin Tang shu 新唐書 (New Tang History)
Sun Fu 孫甫, Tang shi lun duan 唐史論斷 (Discussions and Judgments on Tang History)
Fan Zuyu 范祖禹, Tang jian 唐鑒 (Tang Mirror)
Han Yu 韓愈, Shunzong shilu 順宗實錄 (Veritable Records for the Reign of Emperor Shunzong)

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2013. 259 pp. Primary Advisor: Victor H. Mair.

Image: couplet by Han Yu written in the calligraphy of Song Emperor Guangzong (

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