Seminar CLVI: mandarin vs. vizier

While I was there, and presumably still since, Oxford’s History Faculty was making a determined attempt to `go global’, and to its credit, this included what seems to me now an unusual amount of people who study non-European places coming to talk to people who study European ones, and possibly also vice versa though I didn’t check. On 21st January 2013, however, this took an unexpected turn in as much as I came directly from the Medieval Archaeology Seminar paper just mentioned to the Medieval History Seminar in order to hear none other than Professor Chris Wickham (who is seemingly never absent from this blog) present on the topic, “Administrators’ time: the social memory of the early medieval state in Iraq and China”. This is, you might think, somewhat off his usual patch, and he described it at the outset as ‘combining my ignorance’, but it was as you might also expect still very interesting.

The restored al-'Ashiq palace at Samarra

The restored al-‘Ashiq palace at Samarra, more or less familiar territory to one of this paper’s sources

In order to mount his comparison, Chris took a small body of writing from comparable people high in the administration of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate and in the Tang and Song Empires. For Iraq this was a verbose administrator by the name of al-Tanūkhī who died in 994, for China it was a fellow named Ouyang Xiu who died in 1072 and one Wang Renyu from slightly later.1 The paper consisted basically in characterising these two samples and drawing out careful points of comparison. Al-Tanūkhī’s unstructured collection of anecdotes, as Chris told it, is mainly concerned with cleverness and the pursuit of money. By this stage of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate the flow of money (bent by such things as the building of Samarra perhaps) was somewhat unofficial. Although al-Tanūkhī condemns corruption, it is clear that he also expected it to be happening on a massive scale, and so did the administration, which at the change of a régime or the retirement of a vizier would routinely torture the outgoing high functionaries to make them reveal where they had stashed the profits of peculation they were assumed to have amassed. This had reached the point where it was in fact prudent, in al-Tanūkhī’s lights at least, actually to have made sure to have been at least a bit corrupt so as to have something to hand over, and that of course raised the game to how much you could hope to hold onto beyond such a sacrificial restitution. Al-Tanūkhī was certain that this was immoral but was still amused and impressed by people who carried it off. Nothing of this occurs in the Chinese sources: if there was corruption in their administrations it certainly wasn’t a joking matter, indeed it wasn’t even mentionable. This was the aspect that got the most questions, but it also showed the value of comparison. Chris talked up al-Tanūkhī in terms we could perfectly understand, and it would have been all too easy to conclude, “well, that’s just how people are really isn’t it?” were it not for the fact of having a different situation explicitly put against it to show that this behaviour was not actually universal.

The Tang Dynasty's Da Ming Palace, Xi'an, China

The Tang Dynasty’s Da Ming Palace, Xi’an, China

That opened up other comparisons, of course. In the ‘Abbasid stories, the notable absence is the Caliph, who appears only at the appointment of viziers and not always then; his military role is acknowledged but the actual operation of the state seems to have little to do with it. By contrast the emperor is omni-present in the Chinese writers, despite having no less a military role; he makes or breaks administrators’ careers, even though the prospect of régime change was so much larger here that an administrator’s career could plausibly outlast a dynasty. On the other hand there were definitely similarities: a strong group identity within the writers’ classes, constituted by education (individual in Iraq, but literate, and quite standardised in China because of the entry examinations for the civil service though quite as literate even so), a great respect for competence that would excuse many other defects of conduct and, what had given Chris his title (though this was a riff on an earlier paper of his, too2) a strange absence of chronology: al-Tanūkhī’s stories are occasionally positioned in one reign or other but they don’t need to be, their point is moral or anecdotal, Ouyang Xiu’s official chronicling still more or less ignores anything any previous régime had done and Wang Renyu is more interested in astrology and good stories than any kind of historical perspective.

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

A candidate presenting an examination paper to the Song Emperor in the civil service examinations, from Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t quite sure this made for a common feature here, but my ignorance of any of these sources is pretty much total and this was a while ago now, so I can only react to this summary of what we were told. Certainly, I suppose, there is implicit in a functional administration the belief that it works, that its system is therefore adequate and that its past or future are therefore of little relevance to its current operation, a feature of such systems that greatly annoys historians and long-established Oxford dons who want people to understand that things were not ever thus and that the old situation might have been better. That also brooks a comparison with our current culture where bureaucracy is automatically assumed by government to be (a) the answer to all problems and (b) to be wasteful and in need of regulation, and makes one wonder if we aren’t currently more comparable to the kind of paranoid state with no option but to escalate its correctives that Levi Roach has seen in the government of Æthelred the Unready2 But I digress. Chris’s points were from far less close to home!

1. Chris didn’t cite particular editions or translations, but I find the following with some quick searches: Abu ‘Alī al-Muḥassin al-Tanūkhī, The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, transl. D. S. Margouliouth, Oriental Translation Fund New Series 27-28 (London 1921-1922), 2 vols, of which there are a sad number of cruddy reprints available on the web it seems; Ouyang Xiu, Historical Record of the Five Dynasties, transl. Richard Davies, Translations from the Asian Classics (New York City 2004); and Wang Renyu, A Portrait of Five Dynasties China from the Memoirs of Wang Renyu (880-956), transl. Glen Dudbridge, Oxford Oriental Monographs (Oxford 2013).

2. Chris Wickham, “Lawyers’ Time: history and memory in tenth- and eleventh-century Italy” in Henry Mayr-Harting & Robert I. Moore (edd.), Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis (London 1985), pp. 53-71, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 275-293; others of his works pretty obviously flying about in the intellectual æther during this paper were his “The Uniqueness of the East” in Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 12 (London 1985), pp. 166-196, repr. in T. J. Byres & Harbans Mukhia (edd.), Feudalism and Non-European Societies, Library of Peasant Studies 8 (London 1985), pp. 166-196 and rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 43-74 and James Fentress & Chris Wickham, Social Memory, New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford 1992).

3. Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready'” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258-276.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s