Old epitaphs for insights on the present

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Professor Nicolas Tackett of the University of California, Berkeley, recently visited ANU for the China Seminar Series and shared his paper 'A new perspective on the great clans of the late Tang'. Drawing on his interest in the transformation in the socio-political elite between the Tang and Song dynasties, Prof Tackett challenged the notion that the rise of the new meritocracy was based on civil service examinations and, later, the establishment of provincial governments. He argued that this social mobility was more perceived than real, and the established elite were very effective at utilising these new avenues for their own purposes. In establishing the elite’s continued hold on power and the violent episodes that brought them down, Prof Tackett used large collections of epitaphs. His collection of 4,000 Tang epitaphs (some several hundred words in length) is freely available for download at www.ntackett.com and lists 30,000 individuals. Saved as MDB files, this data can be opened using programs such MS Access and has also been shared with the China Biographical Database Project. Prof Tackett cautioned those aspiring to undertake such massive projects that, with the voluminous data entry requirements, one should be very clear from the start about the goals of the project. Epitaphs are materially durable and textually important. The inscriptions on many of the epitaphs unearthed thus far have been preserved over the centuries by protective stone coverings. In reconstructing the genealogies of the late Tang elites through the information on these epitaphs, Prof Tackett was able to develop a sense of how the elites adapted to changing socio-political conditions before the calamity of the Huang Chao Rebellion (874-884) heralded their downfall. Prof Tackett’s research differs from that of archaeologists in that he seeks to use epitaph data to generate a big picture of Tang society and the patterns within it, rather than provide commentaries on single texts. The stories and patterns that emerge from pre-modern historical research such as Prof Tackett’s remains extremely important. “The value of pre-modern history in general is that is gives one a perspective on the contemporary world simply as being, in principle, something very different”, Prof Tackett remarked, before continuing “There are interesting ways in which the Chinese state today uses its history to make arguments about what China’s future should be. All countries do this to some extent, talk about history as a way of making arguments for the present. Pre-modernists are critical for keeping one honest on this point”.

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