The Eternal Frontier of China’s Cosmopolitan Empire:
Changing Attitudes Towards Ethnocultural Others in Tang-Dynasty Texts
The seventh and early-eighth centuries have often been considered the period of “China’s Cosmopolitan Empire” on account of their relative tolerance of religious and ideological diversity, their acceptance of significant “foreign” populations in the capital and on the borderlands, and their active recruitment of non-“Han” ethnicities into the military and civil ranks. At the same time, however, surviving texts from this period also evince attitudes no less xenophobic than those found in texts from the ninth through eleventh centuries, when scholars have often claimed that China became less open to ethnocultural others. This talk will argue that what changes between these periods are not, in fact, contemporary attitudes towards “the barbarians,” who were almost universally reviled in surviving texts from throughout the Tang. Instead, changing ideas about texts themselves, and about the ways that texts should ideally operate within the world, produced a transformation in how longstanding and relatively unchanging tropes about ethnocultural others were understood and deployed. The apparent decline of elite “cosmopolitan” attitudes from the seventh century to the tenth thus reflects, in significant part, a shift in literary theory.
Lucas Rambo Bender is Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages & Literatures at Yale University. He graduated from Harvard's Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations in 2016. His book on the great Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu is forthcoming in the summer of 2021 from the Harvard University Asia Center Press, and he is currently at work on a second project, about the oft-remarked but rarely-interrogated "pluralism" of the late Chinese middle ages.