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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty

Daily Life In Traditional China:  The Tang Dynasty/Online - Charles Benn
The Goodreads cover is here.
This is so unapologetically dry that I imagine my hypothetical loathing for it with relish, had this been required reading. I wasn't surprised to find that it was part of a college course. Luckily I read it of my own accord, and said loathing did not occur.

I drew several interesting takeaways, the most memorable of which was the Tang legal system. Despite being heavily stacked against the lower classes, the Tang had one of the greatest reputations of its time for clemency; the death penalty would often be dialed back to exile, and exile to a limited number of years of penal servitude. Theoretically, an empire-wide edict of amnesty for all criminals was issued every twenty-two months. This overall tendency was tempered by variation among the ruling emperors; Xuanzong, for example, banned the death penalty during his reign, but it was restored after the An Lushan Rebellion.

Some smaller details were engaging as well. Female jewelry contained almost no gems, the preferences being jade, pearls, and kingfisher feathers. Principal cloths consisted of wool, linen, and silk, the last being the most expensive and a mark of superior class. Diagrams of costumes unique to men, women, dancers, casual vs. formal situations, and headdresses brought clarity to descriptions.

This book is organized into chapters each titled with a specific topic: food, clothes, cities and urban life, travel, crime and punishment, sickness and health, life cycle, death, etc. etc. and goes about investigating each one in a very systematic, textbook-like style that tried my patience. Details are often trotted out one after another with little contextual import. It should prove informative for those looking to get a basic grasp on Tang dynasty life, as Benn is a very even-handed, methodical writer who doesn't hesitate to grapple with specifics--or, as he says in the preface, "'nitty-gritty' of ancient China."

One major disappointment was a very light exploration of daily life between people of different 1) classes, 2) genders, and 3) ages. Obviously women lived very distinct lives from men, merchants (who were disenfranchised politically, but rich) from aristocrats, peasants from the upper classes, parents from the children. For instance, I would have loved to learn about the prospects of a palace concubine versus the day-to-day subsistence struggles of the peasant farmer. This is a book with a stronger interest in putting encyclopedic information in a certain order, less so with exploring the social, economic, and personal concerns of each group of people in Tang dynasty China, which common sense would tell must have widely varied on even the most basic level.

There is also an extremely heavy use of anecdotes, some of which are extraordinary and none of which are given citations. A few I was already familiar with, most of them I was not. One story of a wooden automaton who could play musical instruments and pour wine for guests I would have especially wished to see a source for (come on, that's interesting!) Source analysis of any kind will not be found here. However, the bibliography is impressively long-ish, so I will trust that even the most unbelievable of accounts have some historical basis, despite having to slog through way too many ghost stories.

(As a note, Benn does make distinctions as to which anecdotes are myth and which are real...sometimes.)

Altogether it is an informative and detailed work. Part of me wishes Benn had taken less of a sweepingly neutral view and delved more empathetically, past the dry facts into what life was like for different groups of people, how circumstances controlled the course of their lives. Perhaps, however, this was necessary to imagine the level of scholarship I should look for in future reads.