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Nicholas D. Kristof...thoughtful and highly readable....[I]t is stimulating and refreshing, and the history itself is sensibly organized and engagingly told.
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Between the years 629 and 645, during the Tang dynasty (618-907), a Chinese monk named Xuanzang traveled to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. On his return he translated more than a thousand rolls of text from the Sanskrit and wrote an account of his journey that remains an invaluable description of Central Asia at that time. Xuanzang's epic journey, soon dramatized for stage performance and recounted by storytellers all over China, became a standard theme of popular literature. In the sixteenth century it formed the centerpiece of the great Chinese novel Journey to the West, in English sometimes known as Monkey after the adventures of the magical monkey-king who in the novel accompanies Xuanzang on his travels and protects him from peril. As the saga of Xuanzang's journey was told and retold, it embedded the idea of international exchange into the Chinese tradition from a very early period.
In the early twentieth century Xuanzang unwittingly played a part in illuminating once more some early links between China and the civilizations to its west. In 1907 a Hungarian-British explorer, Aurel Stein, traveled across Central Asia as far as the west China oasis of Dunhuang. Dunhuang was an important staging post on the old Silk Road, along which, since time immemorial, traders and religious believers had traveled between China andpoints west. Nearby was a huge temple complex whose walls had been lavishly decorated over the centuries with frescoes depicting Buddhist paradises. Within the complex also were thousands of ancient manuscripts and decorated textiles, concealed in a side room walled up almost nine hundred years earlier. Wishing to persuade the priest in charge to allow him access to these ancient texts, Stein described how he had retraced Xuanzang's footsteps across Asia. His evident familiarity with and admiration for this popular figure of the Chinese past successfully established a bond with the priest, who that same night showed the explorer a small sampling of the treasures under his care. The first texts to emerge from the walled-up library in this way turned out to be none other than some of the scriptures Xuanzang had brought back from India and translated into Chinese so long before. These documents were followed by many more. Most, like the frescoes, were Buddhist, but there were also Confucian, Daoist, Zoroastrian, and Nestorian Christian materials showing links to Persia, Tocharia (in modern Afghanistan) and Sogdiana (in modern Uzbekistan), as well as to China, and still other texts that had little connection to religion. Some were in languages never before encountered. Paintings on silk from Dunhuang also testified to an abundant blending of cultures. They depicted figures whose faces showed traces of the so-called Greco-Buddhist tradition—that is, in an Indian style known to have been influenced by Hellenistic art—while the drapes of their clothes and the landscapes they dwelt in were done in distinctly Chinese style. Probably these paintings were done by several different artists. Thus the heritage of the Tang priest Xuanzang, himself a representative of the rich interchange between China and the rest of Asia, helped in this century to expose to the light the cultural diversity these exchanges brought about more than a thousand years ago.
Early Chinese contact with other civilizations occurred in three broad overlapping categories of equal importance: politics, including both diplomacy and warfare; religion and intellectual exchange; and trade, in which Chinese silk and later porcelain figured prominently. Chinese diplomacy and warfare usually involved programs of national security and expansion, which often created trade opportunities. At the same time, peaceful commercial exchange often resulted in expansion without any fighting or negotiation—for instance, when Chinese merchants involved in long-distance trade settled permanently in outlying areas and founded new communities. Trade was further linked to politics because of the preferred Chinese method of conducting foreign relations; since this involved the formal exchange of goods with foreigners, it was in effect a politicized form of international trade.
Similarly, international trade was tightly interwoven with the flow of ideas into and out of China. Buddhism, for instance, an originally Indian religion, entered China both with priests and missionaries and with merchants who came across Central Asia. Other religions, including Islam and Christianity, followed in Buddhism's wake, but none proved able to match its tenacity. In this realm of intellectual transmission too, much more than religion crossed the world with the caravans and carracks of international trade. Many travelers carried with them news of the latest breakthroughs in astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and technology. Nor was China simply the passive recipient of imported goods and ideas. Over time countless elements of Chinese culture, both material and spiritual, and including such originally foreign aspects as Buddhism, found their way to other parts of Asia, notably Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
The final overlap between categories of early contact with other civilizations was between the realms of religion and politics. In China, as in Europe, these were sometimes associated in the realm of early foreign policy—for instance, when missionaries doubled as ambassadors to other countries—but unlike in Europe, wars of religion were virtually unknown. This was because there was no single established state religion and because those religions that at different times were prevalent in China lacked Christianity's strong evangelical element. Nor was the emperor considered divine in China, as was his counterpart in Japan, but his position as the Son of Heaven gave him special qualities that contributed in important ways to the environment of international trade, as we shall see in the next section.
THE IDEALIZED CHINESE WORLDVIEW
Ancient Chinese, as represented by their monarch, claimed to hold a Mandate of Heaven according to which they had a valid claim to preside over everyone else by virtue of their unequivocal political, cultural, and moral authority. That principle remained intact even under an alien ruler; it was moral integrity and benevolent leadership rather than ethnic origins that were important. Originally this cultural self-confidence had perhaps been in some degree justified by the relatively high level of ancient Chinese civilization and its sophisticated political organization, in comparison with the peoples surrounding it. For at least in antiquity China's neighbors were in most cases unsettled tribes; many were nomads rather than sedentary farmers like the Chinese. Their culture was not well developed—for example, few had written scripts of their own—and their political organization was unstable enough that none could describe itself as a state.
By the time of the early empire (second century B.C. to second century A.D.), the premises underlying this worldview had been many centuries in the making. They envisaged a universe divided into an inner and an outer zone, sometimes conceived of more specifically as a series of graduated concentric circles. Within this universe one's degree of civilization depended on one's relationship to the center of the inner zone. In common with many other societies, China placed itself at the center; in other words, it regarded itself as the most civilized and regarded those farthest away as the most barbarous. At least in theory, the assumption was that most outsiders aspired to be "more like Chinese" and would eventually become assimilated to a greater or lesser extent. There was a fatal weakness in this argument, however, for taken to its logical conclusion, it implied that most, if not all, Chinese were descended from outsiders who had previously undergone the process of acculturation.
Han China (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) established an ideal formula for dealing with outsiders that, it hoped, would overcome the disagreeable reality that some of them showed no particular inclination to assimilate or to abandon their own cultures. The formula became known to historians as the tributary system. This was in effect a bundle of practices intended to symbolize outsiders' submission to Chinese overlordship. Its most important features were as follows. First, the tributary ruler or his representative had to go to China to pay homage. In particular the envoy had to prostrate himself before the Chinese emperor, in ritual acknowledgment of his vassal status. Second, the tributary state had to send a significant hostage, such as its crown prince, to the Chinese court. Third, the tributary state had to send gifts of native goods, always described as the payment of tribute, to the Chinese emperor.
The system functioned reciprocally. In return for the tributary's symbolic submission, China guaranteed its security, although actual military intervention tended to depend on China's stake in the tributary's stability. China also bestowed extravagant gifts, together with elaborate honors and titles. These were intended to buy off the tributary, and although often cripplingly expensive, they still cost less than raising and maintaining a standing army that could compel submission. Finally, the foreigners were permitted to engage in carefully controlled trade for a few days before being conducted back to the frontier and sent on their way.
This formula was, however, optimistic, for although China claimed that the ritual homage and the offering of local goods demonstrated submission to Chinese political overlordship, the tributary did not necessarily see it that way. Rather, for tributary states the entire process primarily represented a peaceful way to acquire essential Chinese goods without having to steal them in border raids. The question of relative status did not much concern them, although in some cases recognition by the Chinese emperor may have enhanced a leader's prestige in local disputes.
Moreover, a fundamental paradox flawed the tributary framework. For it functioned properly only when others acquiesced in it or at least agreed not openly to dispute the Chinese version. Such acquiescence was possible only when China was strong enough to compel compliance. When, as frequently happened, this was not the case, China simply adapted to reality. Indeed, Chinese leaders were well aware from early times that their empire and its environs formed only a small part of the civilized world and that other comparable cultures existed. For instance, the Han accorded the easternmost territories of the Roman Empire, in contemporary Syria, the respectful title of Great Qin, dispensing altogether with the patronizing vocabulary that they preferred to use in all their dealings with other states.
Many of the preconditions of China's assumed superiority over its neighbors simply withered away over time. Particularly after the fall of the Han in 220, China itself often was politically divided into a number of small states, none of which had sufficient power to demand deference from any other. Moreover, although it claimed that foreigners longed to revolve in China's political and cultural orbit, the reality suggested otherwise. This was not least because the surrounding states were becoming much stronger and more stable, with highly literate elites whom it was no longer feasible for China to patronize.
In short, while the ideals embodied in the tributary system have endured down to the present century, China has necessarily, and often, departed from that ideal since very early times. That is, China's approach to relations with other states and civilizations has been highly pragmatic, whatever its theoretical underpinnings and however firmly it may have asserted its superiority in public.
THE EARLY IMPERIAL AGE
206 B.C.-A.D. 581
Traffic between China, Southeast Asia, the kingdoms of Central Asia, and India, if not farther afield, certainly began informally in the preimperial age. But our story begins with the Han empire, which about the year 200 B.C. established its capital at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, located at Chang'an (on the site of which contemporary Xi'an stands) in northwest China. This was around the same time that both Rome and Alexandria were rising to political and cultural prominence, respectively, in the Mediterranean world.
Han China was distinctly interested in establishing political and commercial relationships with other states, through diplomatic missions and both official and unofficial trade. In the latter part of the second century B.C. the expansion-minded emperor Wudi (r. 141-87) twice sent his emissary Zhang Qian (fl. ca. 125 B.C.) to explore the diplomatic and commercial prospects to the west. Zhang Qian spent some years in captivity among China's longtime enemies, the Xiongnu confederation of nomads, who rightly regarded him as a spy. Eventually he returned home, bringing a great deal of information about living conditions in Central Asia and in places farther to the west that he either visited himself or sent his agents to investigate. Partly as a result of his journeys and those of later Han emissaries to the "Western Regions," China began trading with Central Asia on a regular basis.
Han China's primary exports were silk and gold. In return China imported spices, woolen fabrics, and the horses essential to its military projects. On occasion, inevitably, foreign germs sneaked in with foreign commodities; smallpox, for example, is thought to have reached China from India sometime in the first century.
Warfare and trade fed on each other in a variety of ways. For one thing, Han armies sometimes recruited Central Asian merchants to join their forces as they advanced westward. For another, ordinary soldiers stationed on the frontier certainly exchanged some of their government issue clothing for cash; probably they also smuggled arms and other goods across the frontiers between China and its hostile neighbors, but we do not know about these activities in any detail. Knowledge of the distant regions in which these far-flung campaigns took place also inspired, in at least one instance, the urge to acquire exotic foreign luxuries, as we know from an exchange between the Ban twins, one an eminent historian and the other a senior general campaigning in Central Asia. The historian urged his brother to get him some of those fine local rugs and send them on home.
It was sometimes hard to distinguish diplomatic from commercial missions, for the exchange of goods formed an important part of Han relationships with other states, and the roles of merchant and official envoy could be interchangeable. Several delegations came to China from Parthia in northern Persia, which the Chinese called Anxi. One such embassy, which appeared in A.D. 10, was renowned for having presented an ostrich to the Chinese emperor; it followed a seaborne mission from an unidentified state eight years earlier that had brought the no less remarkable gift of a rhinoceros. Later that century a Chinese envoy was said to have been prevented from reaching Rome by the Parthians, who, according to Chinese tradition, tried hard to maintain their role as middlemen between the two great empires by luridly painting the difficulties of the journey to any who sought to make it himself. The Roman upper classes greatly desired Chinese silk and referred to China as Seres, the "land of silk," while the Chinese valued Mediterranean glass and coral.
Although the Parthians seem to have been largely successful in their efforts to discourage direct contact between the Chinese and Roman empires, in 166 a famous embassy did reach Han China from "Antun," who has been identified as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180). The envoys brought gifts of ivory, rhinoceros horn, and tortoiseshell, perhaps acquired in North African ports they passed through on their long voyage.
By the end of the Han, China had begun to consolidate its earlier sporadic connections to those states accessible by sea. This development derived both from the growing uncertainty of the overland route (the Silk Road) as the Hah empire retracted and from the fact that after the Han collapse the reconstituted states in southern China were, in any case, cut off altogether from direct access to the Silk Road, so they had to find some other way to reach the source of the imported luxuries they wanted. For these reasons, by no later than the third century Canton (Guangzhou) had become a flourishing port for overseas trade. At the same time, Chinese started to migrate overseas, especially to Japan and Southeast Asia, as well as along the overland trade routes. From this period, as the result of migrations, commercial exchange, military expeditions, and the growing numbers of Buddhist priests and pilgrims journeying between China and India, a considerable literature about foreign countries and their cultures began to appear, making it possible for those at home to learn more about the world.
Buddhism was first recorded in China in the first century, although Chinese may have been aware of it earlier. It came by way of Dunhuang on the Silk Road, home of the frescoed temples with which this chapter opens. At first it had few Chinese converts and primarily served the foreign community of merchants and others, but as the Han empire began to disintegrate toward the end of the second century, a Buddhist establishment had been set up in the capital at Luoyang, systematic translation of texts into Chinese had begun, and the foreign religion was steadily becoming more widely accepted.
The central tenet of Buddhism was that the world was neither fixed nor real and that the self did not exist. Buddhism held that such illusions lay at the root of human suffering, causing people to be mired in such worldly emotions as envy, lust, hate, and pride. This led them to carry out those evil actions that caused suffering to others, which in turn condemned them to an endless cycle of rebirths into horrendous misery. Claiming to offer a path to salvation from this inexorable process, Buddhism called for people to renounce this world of illusion and adopt a monastic existence given over to devotion, spiritual purification, and good works.
Many of Buddhism's tenets, originating in the profoundly different culture of India, were incompatible with traditional beliefs associated with Confucianism concerning the harmonious functioning of the family and society. These beliefs, already prevalent in China, later became permanently incorporated into the predominant state ideology. For instance, Buddhism's call for a monastic existence and for celibacy ran directly counter to Confucian requirements of filial piety within a family-oriented social structure, including the important obligation to perpetuate one's family line. Just as important was the fact that Confucianism focused on this world, not the next; compellingly the sage had asked: "You are not even able to serve man; how can you serve the spirits ... you do not understand even life; how can you understand death?" By contrast, one of Buddhism's central concerns was the endless cycle of life, death, and reincarnation to which humans were committed; it taught that what one did in this life directly affected what happened to one in the next. For some Chinese, the subordination of the here and now to a theoretical future existence was unacceptable, while the notion of perpetual reincarnation was profoundly subversive because it implied that a person's position in life, as a monarch or a beggar, a human or an ant, was not fixed.
Early Buddhist missionaries tried, with some success, to persuade Chinese that Buddhism was akin to the indigenous Chinese religion of Daoism, which similarly called for spiritual purification as a means to transcend the evils of the world and attain a golden age. Thus they used certain Daoist ideas and vocabulary to introduce Buddhist notions. This strategy of "grafting the alien onto native roots" was fairly successful in that it helped Buddhism spread among existing Daoist communities, which in turn probably helped spread Buddhist symbols and ideas farther afield. In time Buddhism established an independent existence and became one of China's major religions. Its particular attraction was precisely that it filled a gaping vacuum of spiritual support left both by this-worldly Confucianism and by Daoism, which for a time became increasingly abstract.
Buddhism was especially successful in making inroads into China after the fall of the Han in 220. The profound social dislocations of the ensuing civil wars indirectly promoted Buddhism's growth by securing the monasteries' position in local communities as agencies of social welfare, making it possible to refute the criticisms of those who questioned Buddhism's social utility. For instance, many women widowed in the fighting resorted for protection to religious life in Buddhist nunneries. Numerous other needy people availed themselves of the programs Buddhist establishments began increasingly to operate, providing food and shelter for the destitute. In short, women and the lowly, to whom traditional Chinese society offered little in the way of material or spiritual benefit, often found that Buddhism and the monastic life could offer greater opportunities for self-fulfillment than life within a Confucian framework.
Buddhist monasteries also began to play an important economic role. For example, they held religious festivals for which Buddhist paraphernalia were in demand. Many such commodities could be obtained only abroad, so that fragrant plants for incense, jewels, and precious metals came to form an important sector of the long-distance trade. In other words, Buddhism helped bolster trade and raise prices. The monasteries also operated pawnshops and mutual financing associations and actively boosted handicrafts industries by, for example, sponsoring the production of thousands of statues. These multiple roles served both to integrate the Buddhist establishments in Chinese society and, almost imperceptibly at first, to strengthen their political significance.
Buddhism's growing influence in China spread to the world of art and architecture. Gradually the distinctively Indian artistic forms and styles of the earliest Chinese Buddhist temples, with the place of worship focused in a central tower, began to undergo a long process of adaptation to China. For example, what in India was a Buddhist stupa eventually transmuted into the multistory Chinese pagoda that came to epitomize a classic Chinese landscape. Along with the new architecture came monumental stone sculptures and highly elaborate paintings and murals, often incorporating Buddhist motifs. In the earliest of these representations the features of Buddha and his disciples and the statuary style show traces of Indian, Persian, and even Greco-Roman influence, but in the course of time this evidence of foreign origin dwindled away. The Dunhuang murals, painted over a period of centuries, offer one illustration of this tendency.
The Buddhist religion benefited in other ways from the post-Han political division of China. The southern kingdoms, which regarded themselves as more "purely" Chinese, used it as a tool in the assimilation of "wild natives" previously little exposed to Chinese culture. The northern kingdoms, often dominated by alien groups, found Buddhism a convenient alternative to existing Chinese ideologies to which they were often hostile. In general, rulers openly employed Buddhism to bolster their claims to legitimacy because Buddhist legend offered highly appealing models of kingly behavior, in which devotion to the religion ensured earthly success as a ruler while generous donations to its institutions purchased semidivine status. Such models neatly complemented ancient Chinese theories of universal rulership.
In practical terms, monarchs struck deals whereby in return for their investment in religious institutions and for letting the Buddhist establishments operate more or less without restriction, they arranged for prominent clergymen to declare them incarnations of the Buddha. They hoped of course that this assumption of divine status would make them politically unassailable as rulers, while the Buddhists hoped that the imperial imprimatur would make them unassailable by Daoist and Confucian competitors. To a considerable extent, these strategies worked for both sides. This political cooptation of the Buddhist religion made it extremely difficult for rulers to restrain the growth of Buddhism on any level. In sum, the foreign religion became both widespread as a belief system and extremely powerful as an institution, and it spread into China simultaneously among members of the ruling classes and a wide range of ordinary people.
THE MULTICULTURAL AMBIENCE
OF TANG CHINA, 618-907
Historians describe the Tang empire as a "native" empire, to align it with the Han and distinguish it from some of the "non-native" kingdoms of the preceding centuries of division and from the later Mongol and Manchu dynasties. Yet such a description is deceptive partly because it implies the existence of a fixed "Chineseness" unsullied by foreign influence and partly because of the complex origins and habits of the Tang imperial family itself. Descended from the Tuoba Xianbei, a Turco-Mongol group that had ruled much of north China a century earlier as the Northern Wei dynasty, Tang emperors preferred to speak the language of their forefathers among themselves, rather than Chinese, and their matrimonial and clan practices and social customs differed from the indigenous Chinese tradition. They shunned close association with the native aristocracy, which in turn for some time resisted forming any imperial connections. Anxious to demonstrate their legitimacy, Tang rulers successfully established their credentials as a thoroughly Chinese house and suppressed evidence to the contrary. They were also highly receptive to foreign influence, appreciating imported goods and freely making use of foreigners' services.
For example, foreigners abounded in the Tang military. Imperial expansion in the seventh century, an important component of Tang China's power and prestige, owed much to the destruction of China's external enemies by the great emperor Taizong (r. 627-649), under whom China imposed political control over the numerous kingdoms along the Silk Road almost as far west as the Persian frontier. Among other foreigners in Taizong's armies, for instance, were several thousand Nepalese and Tibetan troops serving under a Chinese commander in northern India. A century later a Tang general of Korean origin defeated a Tibetan army on the frontier at about the same time as, in the heartland, another multinational Tang army under a Khitan general from the northeast defeated a major rebellion led by a Tang military governor named An Lushan (703-757). An himself was part Sogdian and part Turkish; his armies included numbers of non-Chinese frontier forces. One of the major problems with which the shattered Tang had to contend after suppressing the rebellion was the restlessness of many of these foreign troops.
At its height in the decades before An Lushan's rebellion, the Tang capital at Chang'an was the largest, most sophisticated, and most cosmopolitan city in the world, with a taxable population of nearly two million people. Only Baghdad and Constantinople even remotely approached it. Chang'an's population came from all over the world. There were western and eastern Turks from Central Asia (sometimes called Turkestan); Persians from the collapsing Sassanian empire; Uighurs from China's northwest frontiers; and Sogdians from the Samarkand area, whose language was the lingua franca of the Silk Road. There were also Arabs and Jews; Indians, both Hindu and Buddhist; Koreans; Tibetans; Malays; Japanese; and a host of other foreigners of sometimes uncertain origin. With them they brought their merchandise, religions, languages, customs, and cultures. When they returned to their own countries, they took back with them Chinese artifacts, institutions, and systems of belief.
Many journeyed overland, from Syria and Persia along the various routes of the Silk Road through Central Asia. These well-beaten tracks went either north, by way of Samarkand in Sogdiana and Kokand in Ferghana, or farther to the south, by way of Bactria, to the edges of contemporary Xinjiang. From there it was again possible to take a northern or southern route. The northern route skirted the great Taklamakan desert and ran along the edges of the Tianshan mountain range, onward to the oases of Turfan and Hami. The southern route went from the Pamirs via Khotan along the foothills of the Kunlun Mountains and intersected with the northern route at the Dunhuang oasis. There were other, less traveled routes. One went much farther south, from India through Burma to Yunnan in southwest China, at least until the rise of the hostile kingdom of Nanzhao in the eighth century made this route too dangerous. Another, especially favored by Buddhist pilgrims, went by way of Nepal and Tibet.
Others came by sea, from Siraf and Ubullah in the Persian Gulf and from southern India and Ceylon, going by way of Malaya, Java, and other Southeast Asian entrepôts. Still others sailed south from Korea and Japan. Canton continued to be the major port for overseas trade, but foreign merchant communities sprang into existence all up and down China's eastern seaboard.
As in Chang'an, Tang Canton's foreign population ran into the tens of thousands. There were Khmers from present-day Cambodia, Javanese from modern Indonesia, Singhalese and Tamils from what is today Sri Lanka, Chams from what is now Vietnam, Indians, Arabs, and Persians. Canton could claim with some justification to be a truly multicultural city, with a veritable babel of languages, among which Persian, the sailors' common language, probably came second only to Chinese.
From Canton it was possible to travel all over China by an extensive network of roads and waterways, many newly built to accommodate the burgeoning traffic. Most proceeded to Yangzhou, a thriving commercial center at the intersection of the Yangzi River and the Grand Canal connecting north and south China, through which almost all seaborne imports passed. From Yangzhou they went on to the great political centers of north China. As in towns such as Turfan and Dunhuang along the Silk Road and in the seaports, settlements of foreigners plied their wares in many of the towns along the way. These communities played a considerable role in the spread of towns and cities beyond the old administrative centers, and helped disseminate foreign objects and ideas throughout the land.
Tang Chinese, for all their cosmopolitanism, seem to have felt some ambivalence about foreigners. They were fascinated and enthused by what the strangers brought, whether intellectual excitement or material culture, but they did not always like or trust the messenger. Sometimes, like so many others, they took refuge in stereotypes. Thus they tended to characterize Persians as "wealthy (and therefore enviable)," Malays as "black (and therefore ugly)," and Chams as "naked (and therefore immoral)."
For the literate it was possible to gain some considerable sense of the world beyond China from the accounts of soldiers, merchants, and religious travelers. Such works—still only in manuscript in this preprinting age—must have been available in the bookstores of large Tang cities, along with multilingual dictionaries and imported books in translation. Some accounts were of course more well informed and less fanciful than others. For example, the imperial archivist and collector Duan Chengshi (d. 863), who delighted in learning about strange and wonderful matters, reported about the people of East Africa that they "do not eat the Five Grains, but only meat. They arc given to sticking a needle into the veins of their cattle and drawing out the blood, which they mix with milk and consume raw. They wear no clothes, but merely use goatskins to cover the parts below their waists. Their women are clean and of proper behavior."
Although Duan's work was grounded in reality, others produced imaginative works that included the names of actual places or events to lend an air of veracity. Duan himself wrote fiction as well as descriptive geographies. His fairy story "The King of Persia's Daughter" was set in a foreign place and reflected his sense of the magical potential of the outside world.
Tang poetry abounded in references to foreigners, foreign styles, and foreign ways. Some poets were neutral but others condemned the apparently wholesale embracing of foreign cultures:
Ever since the alien horsemen began raising smut and dust,
Fur and fleece, rank and rancid, have filled Xian and Luo.
Women make themselves alien matrons by the study of alien makeup,
Entertainer present alien tunes, in their devotion to alien music.
In this poem by Yuan Zhen (799-831) the term "alien" (hu) was used in the pejorative sense of "uncivilized." Xian and Luo referred to the two Tang capitals, Chang'an (anciently Xianyang) and Luoyang. "Alien music" refers to a type of music called faqu introduced during the Sui (581-607) and extremely popular during the Tang. Another poem, by Yuan Zhen's contemporary Bai Juyi (Po Chü-i), explicitly blames Xuanzong's passion for this type of music for the decline of the Tang.
Foreign residents in Tang China lived and conducted business in specially designated areas. They were somewhat independent of local authority. They had their own community heads, and they enjoyed some degree of extraterritoriality, applying their own rather than Chinese laws in cases that affected only members of their own community. They were allowed to worship their own gods, as we shall see. But so far as commerce was concerned, they were given far less latitude.
TRADE AND INTERNATIONAL EXCHANGE
UNDER THE TANG
By Tang times China was beginning to build ships capable of undertaking long journeys. Their vessels excited admiring comment in southern India and the Persian Gulf and may even have traveled as far as the Americas. Tang coins and fragments of porcelain have been found on the north and east coasts of Africa, although we cannot tell if they got there on Chinese ships. Other Chinese goods, especially written texts and artifacts connected to Buddhism, found their way to Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia in great quantity with the steady trickle of migrants and with the envoys and merchants who traveled to and fro.
Trade expanded enormously, for a number of reasons. The first was simply the magnetism of the prosperous and cosmopolitan Tang court and society. The second was an increase in seafaring skill and adventurousness on the part of the Arabs, who still dominated the maritime trade. The third was a change in the goods China was exporting. Silks had once been China's most wanted product, but ceramics now began to compete as a leading category of exports, to compensate for China's loss of the world monopoly on silk production. This loss had occurred when silkworm cocoons were smuggled out to Syria, where Damascus provided the English name for the fine-quality fabric known as damask; sericulture had soon spread across Asia Minor and parts of southern Europe, and from the seventh century the silk industry, centered in Constantinople, had become a mainstay of the Byzantine economy. Although fine Chinese silks remained in great demand and were still traded around the world, both the need for diversification and technical advances leading to the development of a true porcelain that was much finer than earlier products greatly boosted the trade in ceramics. Because of their bulk and weight, it was much more practical to transport them by sea than by the well-worn camel route overland. As a result, by the latter part of the Tang, China's entire orientation had begun to shift from the plains of the northwest and the continental routes across the Silk Road toward the southeastern seaboard. Increasingly, maritime trade became as important as that carried overland.
Tang China regulated foreign commerce strictly. In Canton all foreign imports and all Chinese goods destined for sale abroad were supposed to pass through a Bureau of Merchant Shipping (shibosi), headed by a customs inspector. This system enabled the government to maintain its lucrative monopolies on such expensive imports as pearls, gold, fine silks, and tapestries; to collect customs duties, which sometimes ran as high as 30 percent, and hence were a major source of revenue; and to limit smuggling of such valuable commodities as gold and fancy silks or iron, which alien states could use to forge weapons they might one day use against China.
The numerous restrictions and controls on foreigners sometimes provoked protest and even on occasion led to violence. In the late seventh century, for instance, a foreign shipowner murdered a Canton official whose depredations, thinly disguised as government regulation, had become intolerable. But for most foreign merchants the vast profits of the China trade apparently outweighed the expenses and inconveniences of doing business in China on Chinese terms.
Under the Tang, imported objects became so fully absorbed into Chinese material culture that their foreign origins were sometimes forgotten. One example of such incorporation was the chair, adopted from Central Asia and by Tang times regarded as quintessentially Chinese as well as something of a status symbol. Its use was thought to distinguish Chinese from those who continued to sit on mats on the floor—for instance, Koreans, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese.
The most elaborate of all imported objects were those presented by visiting dignitaries to the emperor. These included peacocks from India; ostriches from Tocharia; goshawks, sables, and leopard skins from the northeast, brought by Koreans and Mongolians; elephants from Indochina; hunting mastiffs from Tibet; and the reputedly blood-sweating horses of Ferghana. These last China coveted mainly for military use, for it had no breed to match them.
Within the cities, especially Chang'an, specialized bazaars sold exotica of all kinds. There were aromatics, such as Arabian or African myrrh and frankincense; pigments and dyes, such as indigo and henna; weapons, in which there was a considerable clandestine commerce; and jewels, such as pearls and corals, lapis lazuli and malachite, jade and cornelian, sold by Persian merchants. There were new foods: such plants as spinach, and sesame buns similar to those that Muslim restaurants now serve in Beijing. There were peach trees from Samarkand; date palms from Persia, whose fruits were not only savored but also used to enhance the complexion; grapes for wine, a pleasure newly learned or relearned from abroad; Indian cotton, still something of a luxury in China; cloves for toothache; aloe for salves; and saffron, a highly valued import used as a perfume, as a dye, and for medicinal purposes.
Foreigners themselves came into the category of exotic imports, though this was controversial. A few foreign slaves, Africans, Turks, and Malays traded by Arabs or Southeast Asians, appeared in the major cities and at court. Dwarfs of uncertain origin titillated the court's passion for curiosities. Foreign prostitutes were quite widespread, including young Korean women in the imperial harem and boys from the "Western Regions," perhaps Sogdiana or Tocharia:
The Western boy with curly hair and green-irised eyes
In the high tower, when the night is quiet, blows the transverse bamboo.
Surviving pottery figurines of the period include many foreigners—soldiers, grooms, magicians, exorcists, musicians, dancers, and so on—with the bushy hair or large, hooked noses of western Asians. Their draperies reveal Persian or Turkish influences, including lapels; leopard-skin hats; tight-sleeved tunics; close-fitting dresses; long scarves; long, pleated skirts; boots, for women as well as for soldiers in the field; headdresses shaped like the characteristic Turkish onion domes; small Turkish-type caps; and piled-up hairstyles and "Uighur chignons." Soon imported styles became quite fashionable in Chinese high society.
This trend aroused some objections. Conservatives accused modish Chinese of both sexes of an unseemly lack of decorum, especially deploring the tendency of some women to show themselves bare-headed in public, and in general they criticized the trend away from traditional Chinese modes of dress and decoration. The renowned ninth-century poet Bai Juyi condemned the fashion, popular among contemporary women, of applying orange beauty spots in the style of the Turfan oasis. Yet Bai himself was not immune from the allure of foreign exotica and had a Turkish-style blue felt tent erected for a garden party.
Chinese enjoyed foreign dance styles, often highly erotic, accompanied by unfamiliar melodies with strange musical notations. They watched performances by all-female orchestras and troupes from the "Western Regions." They acquired a taste for the Persian game of polo, played on horseback by men and women alike, and sent it on to Japan and Korea. Even those who could not afford to purchase luxury goods for themselves were able to see and hear people from other cultures and to gain a sense of the world beyond their own civilization.
|1||Early Chinese Cosmopolitanism||11|
|2||China and Catholicism in the Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries||55|
|3||Foreign Goods and Foreign Knowledge in the Eighteenth Century||92|
|4||The Turning of the Tables, 1796-1860||129|
|5||Shields and Swords, 1860-1914||166|
|6||Overcoming Habits of Mind, 1914-1949||207|
|7||Culture and Conflict, 1949-1997||247|