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Accueil > Publications > Ouvrages parus > Ouvrages des membres de SPHERE : 2015–... > Monographs in Tang Official Historiography

Monographs in Tang Official Historiography

Perspectives from the Technical Treatises of the History of Sui (Sui shu)

Daniel Patrick Morgan (CNRS), Damien Chaussende (CRCAO), (dir.)

with collaborationof Karine Chemla, Why the Sciences of the Ancient World Matter book series (WSAWM, volume 3)

“This book examines the role of medieval authors in writing the history of ancient science. It features essays that explore the content, structure, and ideas behind technical writings on medieval Chinese state history. In particular, it looks at the Ten Treatises of the current History of Sui, which provide insights into the writing on the history of such fields as astronomy, astrology, omenology, economics, law, geography, metrology, and library science. Three treatises are known to have been written by Li Chunfeng, one of the most important mathematicians, astronomers, and astrologers in Chinese history.

The book not only opens a new window on the figure of Li Chunfeng by exploring what his writings as a historian of science tell us about him as a scientist and vice versa, it also discusses how and on what basis the individual treatises were written.

The essays address such themes as (1) the recycling of sources and the question of reliability and objectivity in premodern history-writing ; (2) the tug of war between conservatism and innovation ; (3) the imposition of the author’s voice, worldview, and personal and professional history in writing a history of a field of technical expertise in a state history ; (4) the degree to which modern historians are compelled to speak to their own milieu and ideological beliefs.


  • Introduction : Daniel P. Morgan, Damien Chaussende, pp. 1-25
    The brief introduction to this volume begins by introducing the sources, authors and questions with which the subsequent chapters will be dealing, namely the ten ‘treatises’ (zhi 志)—histories of technical subjects—now contained in the History of Sui (Sui shu 隋書)—a state history of the Sui dynasty (581–618) written in 636—three of which we know to be written by Li Chunfeng 李淳風 (602–670). After that, it explains how the book is structured and the four underlying themes uniting the contributors’ chapters : (1) the recycling of sources and the question of reliability and objectivity in pre-modern history-writing ; (2) the tug of war between conservatism and innovation as regards generic exemplars ; (3) the imposition of the author’s voice, worldview and personal and professional history in writing a history of some field of technical expertise in a state history ; (4) the degree to which the modern historian is implied in the same cycle of writing histories from older histories to speak to her own milieu and ideological contentions. Lastly, we introduce the conventions, symbols, etc., adopted in the following chapter.

The Work of Li Chunfeng

  • The Life and Intellectual World of Li Chunfeng (602–670) : Howard L. Goodman, pp. 29-49
    The exact authors of the Sui shu 隋書 treatises are unknown with but the exception of one name : Li Chunfeng 李淳風 (602–670), the author of the ‘Lü-li zhi’ 律曆志, ‘Tianwen zhi’ 天文志 and ‘Wuxing zhi’ 五行志. This chapter provides a biographical sketch of the man whose treatises will occupy the first half of this book, putting these ‘histories of science’ in the context of his life, his family, his networks and his various scholarly and political endeavours. The picture that shall emerge of him is that of a contentious and complex polymath, whose footprint in ‘numbers and technics’ (shushu 數術) may have outweighed that which he left in politics, but who was, nonetheless, and in his own way, a politically-engaged member of court. As much as it is this man’s voice, or, at least, editorial hand, that we shall be exploring through the various fields treated in Chaps. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, this chapter aims to provide a touchstone to understand that voice.
  • Numbers with Histories : Li Chunfeng on Harmonics and Astronomy, Daniel P. Morgan, Howard L. Goodman, pp. 51-87
    Focusing on Li Chunfeng’s 李淳風 (602–670) Sui shu 隋書 ‘Lü-li zhi’ 律曆志 (Treatise on Harmono-metrology and Mathematical Astronomy) and its predecessor in the Han shu 漢書, this chapter questions the universality of the marriage between these fields in Chinese thought, arguing instead that it is the product of specific compilers’ grappling with generic conventions and the messy course of history. The joint treatise appears first in the Han shu, a natural consequence of its reliance on Liu Xin’s 劉歆 (ca. 50 BCE–23 CE) synthetic writings, and culminates in Li Chunfeng’s treatises, after which subsequent histories abandon the model. Whatever the initial strength of this marriage, we argue, the common impulse to accuracy and empirical testing began to drive the two fields apart from both one another and from the promise of an elegant universal order as early as the Eastern Han. Framing his presentation on Liu Xin’s, and drawing heavily from his and others’ work, we attempt to show how Li Chunfeng’s editorial hand acts to address the unravelling of this order by imposing a telos upon the history of harmono-metrology and shifting the basis of the two fields from Book of Changes number symbolism to Nine Chapters number ratios, freeing number from the realm of timeless, petrified truth to allow it its own history in the face of progress.
  • Scholarship and Politics in Seventh Century China from the Viewpoint of Li Chunfeng’s Writing on Histories : Yiwen Zhu, pp. 89-116
    In writing the Jin shu 晉書 and Sui shu 隋書 ‘Lü-li zhi’ 律曆志, Li Chunfeng 李淳風 (602–670) uses the medium of state history to advance his own lü-li 律曆 system and theory of dynastic legitimacy. This system includes seven items : numbers, mathematical lü 率, harmonics, mathematical astronomy and metrologies of length, capacity and weight. Li places numbers (including mathematics) first and stresses that a dynasty’s legitimacy depends upon the ‘completeness’ of its lü-li system. On one hand, I argue, Li Chunfeng holds the Tang dynasty as the direct successor of the Han while, on the other hand, emphasising the importance of mathematics in its rise. In the early Tang, mathematics had seen considerable development and institutionalization, not the least of which was Li Chunfeng et al.’s edition and commentary of the Ten Mathematics Classics, which later served as textbooks in the Mathematics School of the Imperial University and a subject of the Imperial Examination. All of these developments closely relate to Li Chunfeng’s political stance in the Jin shu and Sui shu, the present chapter thus revealing a previously unexplored tie between scholarship and politics in seventh century China.
  • The Compilation of the Astronomical Portion of the ‘Treatise on Harmono-Metrology and Mathematical Astronomy’ and Its Impact : Liang Li, pp. 117-141
    This study examines the characteristics of Li Chunfeng’s historical writing through the astronomical portion of the Sui shu ‘Lü-li zhi’ 律曆志 (Treatise on Harmono-metrology and Mathematical Astronomy). There Li Chunfeng devotes special praise to the Huangji li 皇極曆 (Sovereign Pole system) and a whole volume to its preservation, all despite the fact that it was never adopted by the Sui court. This shows that, as a scholar specialised in the astral sciences, Li Chunfeng prioritised the excellence of astronomical achievements over their official status, setting his treatises apart from official histories up to that point. Li Chunfeng’s strong opinions on the various astronomical systems of the Sui, this study argues, was probably decided by his social environment, personal experience and his own attempt at astronomical reform, not to mention his personal preferences in astronomical models. Li Chunfeng attaches great importance to the summary of previous astronomic and astronomical knowledge and the precedence of his predecessor’s failures gave him food for thought. Li Chunfeng’s later success in the astral sciences, this study argues, would seem to have benefitted from his historical inquiry. Having examined what Li is doing in (and doing with) the astronomical portion of the Sui shu ‘Lü-li zhi,’ lastly, this study will discuss the reception of this treatise and its impact on the field of historical literature and the history of astronomy in later generations.
  • Heavenly Patterns : Daniel P. Morgan, pp. 143-179
    The ‘Tianwen zhi’ 天文志 (Heavenly Patterns Treatise) is a repetitive and fractured genre. Much of the contents from one treatise to another are the same, and the treatise’s typical division into a history, a star catalogue and an annals of observed phenomena make it difficult to read as a whole. To approach the question of Li Chunfeng’s 李淳風 (602–670) hand in shaping the Sui shu 隋書 ‘Tianwen zhi’, this study avails itself to collation. Isolating what contents Li’s Sui shu treatise shares word for word with the Jin shu 晉書, Song shu 宋書 and Han shu 漢書, I focus on the handful of passages that Li Chunfeng has added, excised and rearranged on the basis of his sources. In doing so, several patterns emerge, the most notable among them being that Li has taken Shen Yue’s 沈約 (441–513) regressivist history of ‘heaven’s form’ (tianti 天體) cosmology in the Song shu and rearranged it, without acknowledgement, into a progressivist argument against its author. This and other evidence of Li Chunfeng’s editorial hand serves as a reminder of how what we often treat as a reference work should be read more carefully as a piece of historiographical argumentation.
  • The ‘Treatise on the Wuxing’ (Wuxing zhi) : Michael Nylan, pp. 181-233
    Most researchers in Chinese studies shy away from the ‘superstitious’ material in the Sui shu 隋書 ‘Wuxing zhi’ 五行志 (the History of the Sui ‘Treatise on the Wuxing’), preferring to reduce the messages it would convey to the purely political and invoking Liu Zhiji’s condemnations of such treatises in his Shitong 史通 (Generalities on History). This essay suggests that such treatises in the official histories may provide some of the best entry points into the distinctive cast of mind of their compilers in their ventures into world-making. After all, both rulers and officials often subscribed to the belief, reiterated in the Five Classics, that history’s patterns, as reflected in the resonant cosmos, could be read not only for possible insights into past events but also as reliable guides to the future. The Sui shu ‘Wuxing zhi’ therefore becomes an important part of the educational plan for princes and those who serve them. The essay also attests the great flexibility of the formal aspects of such treatises, whose categories grow, shrink and change to adapt to new realities on the ground.

The Anonymous Treatises

  • The Treatise on Economics and Its Influences : Béatrice L’Haridon, pp. 237-257
    This chapter develops a reading of the Sui shu 隋書 ‘Treatise on Economics’ (Shihuo zhi 食貨志) in the light of a comparison with the equivalent treatise in the Han shu. Far from reducing the Sui shu treatise to an ideological piece following the intellectual and rhetorical thread of the Han shu model, such a reading allows us to better understand the questions raised by the author(s), which pervade not only the long introduction but also the body of the treatise. One of the more central questions will prove to be the paradoxical nature of imperial economic policy, especially as concerns the management of granaries and canals—the guarantors of sufficiency, circulation and, at the same time, the interests of the imperial clan and its display of power.
  • The Treatise on Law : Frédéric Constant, pp. 259-286
    The Sui shu 隋書 ‘Xingfa zhi’ 刑法志 (Treatise on Law), together with the respective treatises of the Wei shu 魏書 and Jin shu 晉書, represents a precious source for our understanding of the history of Chinese law between the Han and Tang, as no other legal documents from this period have come down to us. Of the Five Dynasties (502–618) legal institutions described in the Sui shu ‘Xingfa zhi’, those of the Northern Dynasties are of foremost importance as they directly influenced the content of the Tang Code, the culmination of traditional Chinese law. Considering the uniqueness of this type of source and the objectives of their authors, the ‘Xingfa zhi’ genre must be read with a careful eye. It is necessary to go beyond the moral lessons displayed there so as to grasp essential information on the process in action during this period that led to the consolidation of Chinese law. As such, we will focus on two main issues discussed in the ‘Xingfa zhi’ : the portrayal of a good lawmaker and the definition rightful punishments.
  • Intertextuality, Customs and Regionalism in the ‘Geographical Treatise’ : Alexis Lycas, pp. 287-322
    After an introductory overview of the treatises on geography and their content in official histories prior to the seventh century, my analysis will focus on the general introduction of the Sui shu ‘Geographical Treatise’ in order to understand the historical information given behind the geographical description of the empire. Basing further comments on readings from the concluding remarks and judgments of the ‘Treatise’ together with a close study of the middle Yangtze region, its customs and its integrating process in the empire, I will attempt to discuss how history can be written through the representation of space (here, the administrative and cultural structure of the empire).
  • The Art of Producing a Catalogue : The Meaning of ‘Compilations’ for the Organisation of Ancient Knowledge in Tang Times : Pablo Ariel Blitstein, pp. 323-341
    The Sui shu 隋書 bibliographical treatise (‘Jingji zhi’ 經籍志) gives us an example of how knowledge was organized in Medieval China. In this chapter, I focus on the meaning of the last section of this treatise, the ‘Compilations’ (ji 集), and attempt to explain the rationale behind this particular bibliographical classification. Many scholars have argued that the category is a sign of the ‘discovery’ of literature in the Chinese Middle Ages. However, as this chapter will show, ‘Compilations’ were unrelated to ‘literature’ in the narrow sense we give to this word in modern times : ‘Compilations’, as a category, I argue, was a repository of exempla for ministerial learning. My analysis will have three layers : first, I will focus on the moral and political inspiration of the cataloguing activities ; second, I will contextualize the four categories in general, and of ‘Compilations’ in particular, within the history of cataloguing ; third, I will analyze the rationale of this category as it is given in the bibliographical treatise of the Sui shu. After the analysis, I will hopefully have contributed to describe the category of ‘Compilations’ in terms which are closer to the experience of the actors.
  • Epilogue : Treatises According to Tang Historian Liu Zhiji : Damien Chaussende, pp. 343-357
    In his Shitong 史通 (Generalities on History), composed at the beginning of the eighth century ce, Liu Zhiji 劉知幾, an official historian, evaluates, comments and criticises numerous historical texts, among which are many standard histories. He dedicates a whole chapter of his work to the treatises that these histories contain, and offers his perspective about their nature, their types and the information that they should, in his opinion, contain. Notably, Liu Zhiji’s focus is on the Han shu, and he argues that the ‘heavenly patterns’ (tianwen 天文), bibliography and ‘five phases’ (wuxing 五行) treatises must go, offering capitals, clans and regional/foreign products as more deserving alternatives. As a near contemporary of the Sui shu treatise project, Liu’s critical take on the Han shu treatise model at the core of said project provides us interesting food for thought about the tension between tradition and innovation in this genre and how it was received and modified in later times.

Back Matter, pp. 359-371

: : Springer, Cham, Part of the Why the Sciences of the Ancient World Matter book series (WSAWM, volume 3)
: : DOI
: : Print ISBN-978-3-030-18037-9
: : Online ISBN-978-3-030-18038-6
: : Date of Publication : 01/11/2019
: : Pages / Size : 162 / A5