Looking East: T’ang China c. 600-c. 900

The increased interest in world and global history means it is a good time to start thinking about how to compare the Merovingian and Carolingian worlds to cultures to the East. And by ‘the East’, I don’t just mean Byzantium and the Arab world. What do we do if we want to look further afield?

Below are some very basic starting points for T’ang China which you might enjoy exploring. For the world between China and the Middle East, you can start with the material on the Silk Roads mentioned below, but I will probably post again when I have a better sense of what’s going on myself.

Warning: all comparison should be conducted ‘carefully’…

Primary Sources in Translation:

Neither of the two official histories of the T’ang – one tenth-century, one eleventh-century – have been translated into English, and the early-seventh-century ‘Eight Historiographies of the T’ang’ remain untranslated too. (You can find stimulating recent surveys in Foot & Robinson’s Oxford History of Historical Writing vol. 2). Still, there are few interesting sources to get you going:


  • One of the most famous is the story of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India (629-45) to obtain books for monasteries [here]. This was the inspiration for the sixteenth-century story Journey to the West – later known in English as Monkey.
  • There are a number of accounts of visits to T’ang China. The oldest is probably The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law, the account of a Japanese Buddhist’s trip to China from 838 to 847. The text was translated as Ennin’s Diary by Edwin Reischauer in 1955. A little late for us, the account of Abu Zayd al-Sarafi’s journey has recently been translated in a new volume by Tim MacKintosh Smith (combined with James Montgomery’s new translation of Ibn Fadlan’s famous mission to the Volga).
  • For law, the best source is the T’ang Code, composed in several stages between 624 and 653. It was translated in two volumes by Wallace Johnson (1979 and 2014).
  • The An Lushan rebellion in 756 was a crucial turning point in T’ang history. A biography based on the tenth-century Old Book of Tang was translated by Howard Levy in 1960 but roundly criticised for both its accuracy and its working principles by Edwin Pulleybank, whose own The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu Shan (1955) includes translations of some relevant documents.
  • The most famous poet of the period is probably Du Fu (d. 770), many of whose poems reflect on the turbulence following the An Lushan rebellion. A number of translations of his works exist in various combinations, including Burton Watson’s Selected Poems of Du Fu (2002).
  • In fiction, there is The Tale of Li Wu by Bai Xingjian (d. 826), translated by Glen Dudridge in 1983. This is the story of a young man named Zheng who ruins his life in pursuit of the titular prostitute, who then helps Zheng restore his fortunes.

Secondary Literature:

For T’ang China, the standard reference work in English remains Dennis Twitchett (ed.), The Cambridge History of China 3.1 (1979). Mark Edward Lewis of Stanford wrote a solid introduction to the period called China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty (2012). The book I have enjoyed most so far is Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History (2012), which takes a tour of various sites and documents linking China and the Middle East, including the famous caves of Dunhuang – the site of the discovery of an early-medieval ‘library’ in the late nineteenth century. More on the rich finds from the site can be found through the website of the International Dunhuang Project. This will no doubt all be useful should I get around to reading Peter Frankopan’s much-lauded The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015).