From Warhorses to Ploughshares: The Later Tang Reign of Emperor Mingzong. By RICHARD L. DAVIS. Hong Kong: HONG KONG UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2014. Pp. xvi + 219. $60.
This book is Richard Davis's latest contribution to the study of China's Five Dynasties period (907-59). Its focus is the reign of one emperor during this period of political division. Specifically, Davis has set out to produce an assessment of the career of Emperor Mingzong of the Later Tang dynasty (926-33). This is a most welcome effort. Although there has been a recent increase in the amount of scholarship on the Five Dynasties period (including publications by Hugh Clark, Glen Dudbridge, Peter Lorge, and Naomi Standen, to name just a few), the period still draws relatively little attention despite its chronologically central place in the Tang-Song transition. Davis, first with his translation of a significant portion of Ouyang Xiu's Historical Records of the Five Dynasties and now two volumes on Later Tang imperial reigns (the current volume and a volume on the preceding emperor Zhuangzong published in Chinese), has emerged as a major contributor to the held.
In the current volume, Davis presents Mingzong's reign as a high point in Five Dynasties political history. His account emphasizes three dimensions of Mingzong's career. First, he argues that Mingzong's own aspirations, which were to craft a "regime of reasonable taxes, modest expenditures, minimal corruption, and vigilant oversight" (p. 1), led directly to his subsequent reputation for responsible government. Second, Davis interprets Mingzong's reign as "a microcosm of the trend toward civilian rule" (p. 3), laying the foundation for developments in the allocation of power between the late Tang and the subsequent Northern Song period. Finally, by integrating a discussion of the cultural background of the Later Tang emperors as members of the nomadic Shatuo ethnic group, he argues that Mingzong adjusted the practice of government by "weaving nomadic cultural and religious practices into the fabric of imperial life" (p. 3). Indeed, Davis sees this last dimension as an important responsibility given the subsequent disappearance of the Shatuo from history, describing it as a "sacred trust" (p. 2).
To support these propositions, the book is divided into six chapters with an epilogue added as a conclusion: (1) People and Places; (2) Royal Passage; (3) Political Events: The Tiancheng Reign, 926-30; (4) Political Events: The Changxing Reign, 930-33; (5) Institutions, Reforms, and Political Culture; and (6) Volatile Periphery. These chapters essentially constitute two large sections. After chapter one introduces the main dramatis personae, the next three chapters (two through four) provide a narrative of Mingzong's rise to power and his reign. The final two chapters analyze thematically the domestic political dynamics of the reign and its main security challenges. Mingzong is compared favorably to other rulers of both the Later Tang dynasty and its rival states and portrayed throughout as an able ruler who keeps the interests of the dynasty and the livelihoods of the common people ever in mind. Davis uses accessible language to present his evaluation, so the work will appeal to those in the growing field of global medieval history. Yet both these efforts--to evaluate a premodern emperor and to articulate the evaluation in non-specialist terminology--entail risks. It is to those risks that I would now turn.
Let me begin with the decision to use language and concepts that are not standard in Sinological circles. This has the...