Imperial Chinese Family
Cong Ellen Zhang
The Mechanics of a River: Patricia Ebrey's Study of the Po'Ling T'suis
A good story usually flows like a stream: soft, light, easy to read, and clear. On the other hand, research papers, even very good ones, usually sit like deep silent pools above hidden underground springs: they do not always move forward with leaps and bounds, but they break new ground and must still remain clear if they wish to provide safe drinking. Patricia Ebrey's “The Aristocratic Families of Early Imperial China” flows like a stream, and this contains advantages and disadvantages for her presentation. In general, she analyzes and explains her points with deep evidence, but sometimes, as she streams forward, she skips over defending her arguments against opposing views. The story-like flow and structure do lend remarkable readability and reflect the intimacy with which she studied her subject. Always, throughout the text, she remains stylistically clear and wonderful drinking for the thirsty mind.
Ebrey dives right into her research and its methodology with a chapter on the problems in the field and the need for her particular study. She explains the manner in which lack of sources and unpredictable variety in aristocratic families make historical generalization in analysis difficult, and then justifies the place of a case study in the current research scheme by demonstrating that if one chooses a family that according to the early Chinese would have fit the bill, then a case study allows for concrete analysis of some of the general characteristics of aristocratic families, especially concerning their “dual nature...as bureaucrats and aristocrats.”1 She then solves the obvious problems of using only one family and of selecting this family from an bygone, misunderstood and culturally distant era that “had if anything too many different terms” to define status. 2 She does not look for a “typical” family, but merely a family that by the admission of the day fit the standards of the day for high class behavior. Finally, she explains her choice as compared to other families with more common surnames leading to more frequent name-fraud, and sets up for the next chapter.
Her second chapter contains a long narrative of historical background fraught with general analysis of aristocratic families in general. She quickly and briefly runs through the general history, making claims about families that she does not yet support, and leaves the reader with a great deal of extra information about “big picture” historical figures. It almost seems as if she puts forth all her arguments in this chapter with the intention of supporting them in the following chapters that contain her actual case study. However, in the chapters of the case study, she includes her conclusions about the families after every segment about the T'sui family history, rendering this initial second chapter unnecessary for anything except for historical background.
Throughout this historical background Ebrey strays into claims which her research really does not justify. For example, she includes in this chapter a section comparing the Northern and Southern aristocrats. She mentions that she does not see the Northern Wei aristocrats following a stricter social code than the Southerners, and indeed posits that they seemed more likely to intermarry lower on the social hierarchy than the Southern aristocrats did.3 Other authors, such as David Johnson, have seen an opposite trend, claiming that social mobility in the North during that period presented even more difficulties under the T'o-pa Wei than in the South.4 While this may seem a minor issue, certainly her section detailing the differences between North and South should at least have addressed the opposition. Besides, her research has no way of proving either way differences between the North and the South because her Po'ling T'sui family all come from one Northeastern area. She probably did not need to address these variations, but as she did, Johnson's research occurred around the same time as Ebrey's and his work, published a year before, must have been familiar to her considering her inordinately thorough research.
Thorough and comprehensive research is Ebrey's strong point, and the real beauty in her work lies underneath the surface in her stunning bibliography. The most striking evidence of the author's care in source selection lies in the appendices, in which she gives all of Appendix II to description of one branch of the family. These extensive and entertaining records really hit home after Appendix I, where Ebrey carefully analyzes how she double-checked her use of genealogy tables against an incredible variety of other primary material. The story of one branch of the family alone must have taken a great deal of time to compile from so many different sources; the research for the entire great family seems like a magnum opus. Ebrey had the enthusiasm and effort to track down as much information as she could about the life of each man, even extending into the obscure and hard to find, like T'sui Ch'eng-fu.5 She provides an intriguing connection between him and the poet Li Po that illustrates not only her her wide background of knowledge, but also sheer dedication to finding material on a man about whom admittedly little information remains.
Despite the problems with the inclusion of the second chapter, within that segment Ebrey makes strong claims. She importantly points out that along the evolution of the families into the Tang, they began to emphasize their own supposed achievements and moral superiority rather than holding to their previous obsessions about the pedigrees and successes of their ancestors.6 Later on, in her specific discussion of the T'sui family, she backs up this assertion by demonstrating that as they transitioned from the Sui into the T'ang the old age of their family alone could not defend them; thus, they had the emphasize their current achievements as shih-ta-fu.7 She also interestingly attributes the decline of the great families primarily to the loss of their local power base, and only to a much lesser degree to the decline of the T'ang dynasty.8 Her late chapters clearly illustrate the validity of these points at least in the case of the T'sui family, and the real strength of this case study lies in the ability to follow the development of the family throughout the dynastic transitions.
In Ebrey's narrative, the T'sui family begins before the Han with the legend of a usurper, threatening the lord of his pre-Han era and ultimately giving his family a bad name later on in the Warring States period. The first historical T'sui, however, appears in a Han official document as an upstanding character who had sufficient funds to secure an education and an office post. Ebrey posits that the early Han T'suis did not gain power by office holding, but that some, such as T'sui Yin and his descendants, held the most prestige in their literature and sage-like scholarly qualities. Later on, during the divided period of the Northern Wei, the T'sui family needed official positions to maintain their status mainly as an occupation; the main power base still rested at home, and the T'suis did not have much role in court politics at all, transitioning from dynasty to dynasty as bureaucrats who simply did their duty.9 Finally, during the Sui and the transition into the T'ang, as already mentioned, the T'sui relied entirely on demonstrating their worth in court, mostly because they had lost their local power base and their unity during the many wars. As they became more reliant on the central government for their power, they declined after the end of the T'ang.
The analytical ground Ebrey covers in her deep pool of research contains a certain beauty, but the real enjoyment in this book came purely from the descriptions of the T'sui people. Ebrey writes in detail about the Han T'sui who complained about land owners who cheat their tenants and people who spent too much money10. Readers meet the later Northern Wei T'suis who would kneel before their mother every day to inquire after her health, tasting her food to evaluate if it met standards for her, and reporting to her anything they did and anywhere they went.11 Ebrey introduces us to the brave Chu-lun who, upon losing to the rebel Ko Jung, feigned incompetence so that when Ko Jung would have forced him into battle against his earlier master, he instead escaped to the capital.12 Page after page of real, personal lives play before the reader, until the quiet pool begins to move and flow into actual history. Ebrey's analysis conceived a deep pool; her intimate research birthed it as a river.
1Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, The aristocratic families of early imperial China : a case study of the Po-ling Tsʻui family Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York : 1978 8-9
4Johnson, David. The Medieval Chinese Oligarchy. Boulder, C.O.: Westview Press, 1977. 31
5Ebrey, Patricia. pg. 186