How Changes in Textual Culture Shaped Tang Dynasty Discussions of Ethnocultural Identity and Difference

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Lucas Rambo Bender



The Tang has often been considered the historical high point of Chinese “cosmopolitanism.” Recent scholarship, however, has been divided on the questions of just how tolerant the era actually was of ethnocultural difference and of whether it represented a turning point in Chinese history toward increasing xenophobia or, on the contrary, toward a less exclusive conception of Chinese identity. This essay suggests that surviving evidence is susceptible to contradictory interpretations on account of its preservation in textual genres characterized by complex motivations that, moreover, changed dramatically over the course of the dynasty. We should not, therefore, uncritically accept statements concerning ethnocultural identity and difference in preserved texts as representative of the thoughts or feelings of even the literati class. A better understanding of the evolution of Chinese attitudes on these questions, instead, will require attention to the ways Tang ideas about texts shaped the attitudes literati felt worthy of expression in them, and how they did so differently in different periods.

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