I was trained as a historian under the Chinese academic system in Beijing, after spending ten years away from school during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s, I had opportunities to study in the US and Japan, and focused my research on the diplomacy of the Tang dynasty. I subsequently spent more than 30 years researching and teaching Chinese history in Singapore before I retired a few years ago.
As a historian and researcher, I benefitted much from the great academic traditions of China, Japan and America. I was fortunate enough to have honed my research skills under the guidance of prominent scholars and the most dedicated teachers. Among them were Prof Frederick Mote (牟复礼), Prof Denis Twitchett (杜希德) and Prof James T. C. Liu (刘子健), as well as my late father, Prof Wang Liqi (王利器). In the process, I came to realise that Asian and Western academic traditions shared many similarities in research methodology, of which the thorough examination of historical materials was a common prerequisite.
Prof Mote studied history as an undergraduate in the University of Nanjing from 1946-48, after he had served as a Chinese interpreter in the US Army Air Force during World War II. In his classroom more than 30 years later, his doctorate students were required to each pick a historical text — be it official archive, local chronicle or other form of record — and examine the origins of these sources. He instructed us to investigate whether a piece of source information was based on an original record further upstream. By so doing, we acquired an in- depth understanding of the nature of the historical information at hand.
Prof Twitchett was a student of Prof Piet van der Loon, a renowned scholar from the Centre of European Sinology at the University of Leiden. His training was based on the tradition of language studies, and he administered a department of languages and literatures at the University of London. As a result, he valued the mastering of ancient and foreign languages, and believed that historical materials can be better assessed and analysed in their original forms. While taking Prof Twitchett’s courses, I translated Chinese and Japanese historical texts as my homework. When I worked on my Ph.D. dissertation, I had weekly meetings with him. We would go through the Chinese source materials I had translated into English during the week, after which I would share my understanding and opinions of the relevant materials. He patiently corrected my translations, critiqued my viewpoints and suggested improvements to what I had proposed. I received similar training from Japanese professors during my one-year stay as a research student at Kyoto University between 1987 and 1988.
Prof Mote, Prof Twitchett and my Japanese professors shunned abstract speculations and built their scholarships on a solid, evidence-based academic foundation instead. In fact, their research methodology shared a similar philosophical tradition with the Qian-Jia School (乾嘉学派) from the Qing dynasty, studies on the origin of historical records (shiyuan xue 史源学) advocated by historian Chen Yuan (陈垣), and my father’s research in textual criticism.
Assoc Prof Wang Zhenping (left) with Prof Denis Twitchett
Denis Crispin Twitchett (1925-2006) was a British Sinologist and scholar who specialised in Chinese history, and is well-known as one of the co-editors of The Cambridge History of China.
In the 1960s, a group of young American scholars proposed to replace Sinology with multidisciplinary “China studies” based on the principles of social sciences. They criticised the traditional European Sinology for being too pedantic and outdated. In his 1964 journal article “A Lone Cheer for Sinology”, Prof Twitchett pointed out that the hostility between the two sides was misplaced. Instead, they should have united and complemented each other in contributing to modern Sinology. In his opinion, historians without robust training in languages and research rigour would reduce their opinions to pointless social science theories because of their inability to accurately understand and assess historical information.
All the master historians I know placed immense emphasis on the in-depth and thorough understanding of historical texts in their research methodology. Through this, they imparted to their students the strong abilities to discover and solve problems in their research. My father reminded me time and again that the fundamental skill of a scholar is his ability to “ask questions as he reads”, and to “discover problems that others fail to notice while reading the source materials available to all scholars”.
Another important lesson I learned from Prof Twitchett is that one needs to systematically conceptualise his interpretations of historical issues so as to gradually develop his own scholarship. He often asked me to compress my initial answer to a question, from a page of writing to a mere sentence, and then to further generalise it to a single word after several iterations. It is through his rigorous guidance that I pioneered the concepts of “mutual self-interest”, “multi- polarity” and “open network” in my research on the diplomacy of the Tang dynasty.
Prof Liu played a key role in introducing the rich tradition of Japanese scholarship on Chinese history to the West. His expertise lay in the conceptual interpretation of the political operations of the Sung dynasty. He often prompted his students to elaborate on their understanding of a historical event or historical figure based on the materials they had examined. Prof Liu summarised his vast research experience in an article entitled “Methods, Techniques and Crises in Historiography”. He advocated the techniques of “research on a specific aspect of a major issue” (dati xiaozuo 大题小做) and “holistic approach to a minor issue” (xiaoti dazuo 小题大做). In particular, the second technique emphasised that one should always be mindful of the macro political and socioeconomic background while studying a seemingly minor issue, because a discovery achieved by this method might contain major theoretical implications. They could potentially enhance, correct or even refute a major theory.
“Chinese history belongs to the world not only as a right and necessity, but also as a subject of compelling interest,” Prof Twitchett argues in “The General Editors’ Preface” to The Cambridge History of China. In my opinion, there is plenty of room for scholars and researchers from the East and the West to inspire and learn from each other when they work on the history of China. In fact, Prof Twitchett, Prof Mote and Prof Liu were the foremost champions for scholarly co-operation among China, Japan and the West. Together, they transformed the scholarly understanding of pre- modern Chinese history.
Tang China in Multi-Polar Asia
A History of Diplomacy and War
This book examines the relations between Tang China (618-907 AD) and its major Asian neighbors. During its almost 290-year course, the Tang experienced often turbulent relations with Koguryŏ, Silla, Paekche, Parhae, the Turks, the Uighurs, the Tibetans, and the Nanzhao Kingdom, running the gamut from peaceful coexistence to open warfare. Except for the Uighurs, these countries rose to power one after another to become in turn China’s principal adversaries (Wang 2013:1).
Source: Zhenping, W. (2013). Introduction. In Tang China in Multi-Polar Asia: A History of Diplomacy and War (pp.1-10). University of Hawai’i Press. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqhwt
Zhang Yichao expelling the Tibetans
In 848 AD, when the Tibetan Empire plunged into civil war, Zhang secretly planned a rebellion with the other Han Chinese, Yugur (Uyghur), Tuyuhun and Qiang residents of Sha Prefecture (Dunhuang) to return Sha Prefecture to Tang allegiance. The above shows a late Tang mural from Mogao Cave 156 depicting the victory of Zhang.
APPLYING WESTERN THEORIES OF HISTORY IN THE STUDY OF CHINESE HISTORY
Western theories of history have their roots in the historical experiences of the West, and this is where the limitations of these theories lie. However, people in both the East and the West faced similar challenges when they built their societies, satisfied material needs and managed international relations over the course of history. Over the centuries, historians in the West have developed a set of analytical concepts and theoretical frameworks to describe and explain how these challenges were dealt with in the West. These concepts and frameworks are relevant to our historical experiences in the East as well. They should be appreciated because they provide us with a frame of reference and inspire us to reflect on our own experiences.
On the other hand, we should not view these Western theories and frameworks as all- encompassing and universal. Instead, we should attempt to enrich, revise and even dispute them with our points of view based on the research of Chinese history. The notion of “politics of accommodation” (baorong zhengzhi 包容政治), which Prof Liu suggested in his research in the court politics during the Song dynasty, is a good example of such a scholarly endeavour.
As for myself, I attempted to apply the concept of “soft power” to explain the foreign relations of the Tang dynasty, and went a step further to redefine the concept introduced and popularised by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. Some scholars were of the opinion that I misunderstood Nye’s idea of “soft power”. However, there should be no surprise that the soft power employed by the Tang court in implementing its diplomatic strategy was not exactly the same as that defined by Nye.
In fact, the history of Tang China has enriched our understanding of “soft power”. By extension, I feel that there is much room for the reinterpretation of some of the basic issues in the history of the Sui-Tang period. We need the collective efforts of fellow historians to form new and innovative perspectives of some of the key issues in Chinese history. Some of these alternate views may seem narrow at times, but they are the forces that motivate further historical research. These views are also contributions to the study of history by historians of our generation.
TANG DYNASTY IN MULTIPOLAR ASIA
While there is much consensus on today’s international community being multipolar, the multipolar nature of the world was concealed under a unipolar appearance a mere 30 years ago. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, some Western scholars envisaged the development toward a unipolar world, in which the US was the only superpower. Today, the multipolar nature of the world is apparent to us, but we still have much to learn about its complex characteristics.
Coincidentally, traditional historians and some contemporary scholars portrayed Asia during the Tang period as a unipolar world dominated by the Tang empire. Looking back at how the Tang court recognised the Asian geopolitical configuration as multipolar, its corresponding external military experiences, and how it weighed the gains and losses of its foreign policies, we may be able to learn some valuable lessons for the benefits of today’s China and today’s world.
In medieval Asia, multiple tribes and nations strived to survive and develop. They sometimes fought and competed with each other, sometimes formed alliances against common enemies, or simply left each other alone in other times. In the international community then, the power distribution was dispersed. The relative strengths of its member states were full of uncertainties and shifting from time to time, with no single force having the ability to dominate for long. Multipolarity and fluidity were inherent to the nature of the international relations during that period.
For more than a century between 620 and 755 AD, the Tang empire enjoyed a period of growth during which it had consolidated its political system, strengthened its economy and built its military might. In contrast, its neighbours were weakened by infighting, natural disasters and mutual invasions. However, after they had managed to recover and completed their respective internal consolidations, they often sought equal status with the Tang empire. At times, they even ventured into border disputes and major wars with Tang to protect their interests. When the Tang empire was united and prosperous, defeating a trouble- stricken neighbour was easy. However, when China was unstable internally, the court often had trouble maintaining its diplomatic dominance and was forced to forgo its leadership position in the international community.
In managing its foreign relations in a multipolar Asia, the Tang court often adopted a low-key policy known as the “loose rein”(ji mi 羁縻). This was a policy that chose not to force the “master-servant” relation upon China’s neighbours, thus freeing China from unnecessary political, economic and military obligations to other countries. The ji mi framework also allowed foreign rulers to maintain cultural and economic exchanges in their official relations with China, without having to bear the political cost of being an “outer subject” to the Tang emperor.
Tang China first fought the Turks and subsequently confronted the Tibetans from the 7th to the 8th century. During this time, the Tang court did not demand loyalty from its neighbours in Central Asia, but interacted with them as equals. This policy was mutually beneficial to all parties involved and brought about great diplomatic successes to Tang China.
However, there were also exceptions when Tang’s foreign policies deviated from the ji mi principle. The wars Emperors Taizong (太宗) and Gaozong (高宗) launched against Goguryeo, a kingdom in northern Korean Peninsula, were examples in point.
Foreign relations in Tang China
Emperor Taizong is depicted giving an audience to Gar Tongtsen Yulsung, the ambassador of the Tibetan Empire, in a later copy of a painting by court artist Yan Liben (600-673 AD).
During the early Tang period, Goguryeo aimed at unifying the Korean Peninsula, an ambition that did not directly threaten the Tang empire. Emperor Taizong, however, ignored the failures of the previous Sui court in fighting Goguryeo, the very failures that had accelerated the downfall of the Sui dynasty. He decided to seize Goguryeo in order to control the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. The Tang court underestimated the costs of conquering Goguryeo, and went to war without a comprehensive deliberation of its strategic objective and military plan. As a result, these wars became a huge burden on its coffers, and the post-war restoration of orders turned out to be surprisingly challenging, forcing Emperor Gaozong to eventually withdraw Tang troops from Goguryeo in 676 AD.
For those of us who believe in learning from history, the Tang court’s success in the effective use of soft power (in the form of ji mi), and its failure resulting from the abuse of its hard power (in the form of military strength), have left us with much to reflect upon against today’s geopolitical backdrop.
Wang Zhenping is a retired Associate Professor from the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore. He received his Master’s degree in History of Chinese Economy from the University of International Business & Economics, China in 1981, and obtained his Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from Princeton University in 1989. Besides NIE, he has also taught in Rutgers University and the University of Toronto.
Assoc Prof Wang’s research interest is in the diplomatic history of pre-modern China, particularly the Tang dynasty (618-907). His major publications include《汉唐中日关系论》(1997), Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period (2005), Tang China in Multi-polar Asia (2013) and《唐代宾礼研究》(2017).