Clothing the emperors anew

Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors
December 4, 1998

Recently, historians of imperial China have considered the past in studies confined to ever more localised settings. Their work has relied tellingly on the most humdrum sources, written far away from the capital of the day and bespeaking levels of activity that were barely measurable on the former court annalist's scale of priorities. Ann Paludan's court-focused account provides a welcome redress in favour of the more intimate histories of 157 rulers spanning two millennia (221 BC-AD 1911). Too often these high personages are ignored either as faint "noises off" amid the number-crunching processes of modern historiography or as figures overshadowed by the more freely told biographies of their own ministers.

However, Paludan's Chronicle is clearly an account largely informed by the court annalists of each reign. So much so that it is curious to read a glowing account of emperor Taizong (626-49) with a concession "even allowing for the partiality of his own historians". This is one of several suggestions that imperial historians wrote partial accounts. But of course, working for the most powerful man in the world, they drew their pay cheques for being professionally biased in almost every respect.

If this is a historical chronicle of China's emperors, then Paludan's inclusion of mythical culture heroes is confusing. Her preface claims that the Chronicle is drawn from historical records and archaeological discoveries. But, the archaeological record is treated particularly lightly. Exactly what textual or material evidence leads the author to remark that "the achievements of the legendary rulers are reflected in neolithic remains"?

Nor has any fieldwork proved the widespread fable that dead corvee labourers were immured within the pilings of north China's hundreds of ancient defence-lines, best known as the fictional "Great Wall". The advent of such proof is unlikely - decomposing cadavers do not strengthen walls. On the other hand, archaeology in Korea and Japan has furnished tangible evidence to dispute the extraordinary claim that printing was a "purely Chinese invention".

The book's strongest impact derives from illustrations and discussions of stone monuments erected along the approaches to imperial tombs. Paludan has published on statuary all over China, particularly on the imposing courtiers, soldiers, ambassadors and auspicious fauna that still survive within numerous sites of imperial necropolises. To visit, photograph and publish so much neglected yet evocative stonework must rank among the greatest, single-handed documentary efforts in China this century.

The book is further illustrated with imperial portraits or historical scenes featuring past emperors. But any conceptual distinction for these and other kinds of artistic production is not made explicit. The main text and the picture captions do not provide all artists' names and dates, which is regrettable, since an English publication of so much Chinese imperial iconography between two covers is an original contribution to western studies of China.

Paludan's attention to sculpture, painting and other art has produced as much a cultural history of China as a chronicle of her rulers. Given the huge role of Chinese courts in sponsoring so much of China's surviving artistic heritage, this conjunction of regnal and cultural chronologies makes the Chronicle a most valuable informant for all students of China's past.

Oliver Moore is lecturer in the art history of China, University of Leiden, The Netherlands.

Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China

Author - Ann Paludan
ISBN - 0 500 05090 2
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £19.95
Pages - 224

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