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The Transformation of Medieval Chinese Elites

The Transformation of Medieval Chinese Elites

The Transformation of Medieval Chinese Elites (850-1000 CE)

By Nicolas Tackett

PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 2006

Abstract: Scholars of medieval China agree that between the late Tang (618-907) and the early Song (960-1279), Chinese society underwent a remarkable cultural, social, political, and economic transformation. One of the most dramatic aspects of this “Tang-Song transition” was the upheaval in the composition of Chinese elites, marked by the complete disappearance of the great aristocratic clans that had once surpassed even the emperors in prestige. This dissertation examines the evolution of Chinese elites during the multi-decade political interregnum between Tang and Song—a period that is a virtual black hole in Chinese studies yet holds the key to understanding the changes that revolutionized Chinese society. One thousand tomb epitaphs and a similar number of dynastic history biographies form the basis of a biregional (Hebei vs. Huainan/Jiangnan) prosopographic study that explores the disappearance of the medieval aristocracy; the social and cultural impact of the endemic migration that accompanied the circulation of roving armies; and the relationships between different elite types (civil bureaucrats, military officers, merchants, non-officeholding landowners).

The data reveals that successful elite families turned to survival strategies that might involve professional diversification, expansion of social networks, and long-distance migration. The collapse of Tang authority brought about the immediate decline of the political oligarchy that had dominated metropolitan society until the end of the ninth century, and the Turkish-led invasion of north China in 923 led to the mass relocation to the northern capital cities of provincial elites (and, I propose, the concomitant spread of new ideologies). Nevertheless, the prestige of the state survived almost intact: non-officeholding elites were generally restricted to regions away from political power centers; the capital cities of the multiple empires and kingdoms during the period of division continued to attract elites, who often travelled between regimes in search of office; and enduring and widespread claims of great clan descent represented, I hypothesize, a “trickle-down” model of elite circulation whereby descendants of capital officials used their ties to the state to reestablish themselves at the sites of provincial appointments, thereby displacing “native” elites.


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