Governing by writing: applying imperial calligraphy in Tang administration

Lecture Room 8 - Arts Building
Wednesday 13 November 2019 (14:15-16:00)

Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Seminar series 2019/20 - Writing and Records

  • Speaker: XIE Chen (Birmingham)

We welcome anyone who is at all interested in the research and concerns of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages. Each paper will be followed by a pause for refreshments, then questions. After that anyone who wishes will retire for more relaxed conversation, and then we take the speaker out for an early dinner. If you would like to join the speaker for dinner please let the convenor know (Naomi Standen, by the end of the Monday before the seminar.

XIE Chen is a fourth year PhD student, under the supervision of Professor Naomi Standen and Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange, at the Department of History, University of Birmingham. This September, she has submitted her thesis “The Social and Political Life of Calligraphy at the Tang Courts”. Now she is waiting for her viva examination.

The Song dynasty (960-1279) imperial calligraphic collection catalogue – Xuanhe Calligraphy Catalogue lists seven Tang dynasty (618-907) emperors as acclaimed calligraphers, and among their exemplary works there were imperial edicts. However, the assumption that these works were written in the emperors’ own hands seems to contradict the institutional regulations that stipulated imperial edicts proclaiming the ‘the Ruler’s Words’ must be composed and executed by ministers serving in the Secretariat.

A large amount of existing research has contributed to the topic of ‘the Ruler’s Words’ from the perspective of administrative procedures. This study attempts to explore the implications of imperial edicts that bear the calligraphy of Tang emperors by not only situating them in the examination on the Tang institutional practice but also embracing a largely unadopted prism of writing and calligraphy. I will examine with a combination of visual and literary analysis a group of Tang imperial edicts that have been preserved in the form of Dunhuang manuscripts, stone inscriptions, and calligraphy modelbooks collected by the court of the Song dynasty.

Focusing on the interaction between the emperors as calligraphers and the ministers as recipients of these imperial edicts, I argue that applying personal calligraphy on imperial edicts was a pivotal technique by which the rulers sought to build personal bonds with their subjects; facilitate their agenda in the confrontations with the authority of the ‘state’ in the form of the administrative system; consolidate their personal authority and foster the image of being civilised rulers with cultural accomplishments. In the process of achieving these goals listed above, both aesthetic and extra-aesthetic factors played a role in determining the efficiency of these edicts in mediating social relations.