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A good emperor in troubled times

From Warhorses to Ploughshares: The Later Tang Reign of Emperor Mingzong - Richard L. Davis

Despite the rich documentary record available for students of Chinese history, biographies of its many emperors are surprisingly thin on the ground. This reflects the focus in Chinese historical thinking on institutions, which in turn emphasizes the continuity and unity of the Chinese empire. A very different picture of China emerges, however, when the rulers are studied, as a more narrow focus often highlights disagreements and disunity among the Chinese that are papered over in the official accounts.

 

One of the eras which is often marginalized for this reason is the period of the Five Dynasties, the name given to the years between the Tang and Song dynasties. During these years China was not one kingdom but several, with all of the attending squabbles and struggles that resulted. One of the more successful rulers of this era was the Emperor Mingzong (r. 926-933 CE), who was an emperor of the later Tang dynasty and whose reign stands out as an island of stability in what were often tumultuous times. Richard L. Davis's biography provides an examination of his life and times, and in doing so offers a better understanding of the man and his age.

 

A member of the nomadic Shatuo Turks, Mingzong was adopted as a teenager by a military governor in the Shanxi region. He enjoyed a distinguished military career and was a senior commander when he came to the throne as the result of a military rebellion. Succeeding an emperor better known for his cultural patronage than his ability as a ruler, Mingzong was able to provide the stable rule that so many desired. Unfortunately, having taken the throne at a relatively advanced age, his reign was cut short by illness and his dynasty ended within a few years of his death, falling to renewed insurrection and warfare.

 

Davis uses his extensive command of the available sources to provide readers with the first modern biography of Mingzong available in any language. It's one that anybody interested in Chinese history should read, not just for its study of a remarkable leader but for its account of the politics and government of China during an unjustly disregarded period. In the process, he demonstrates both the very different ways in which Chinese history can be studied as well as the fresh insights that can be gained as a result.