The Pragmatic Craft of Governance: Alternative Strategies of Chinese Medieval Rulership
2: The Gesture of Closeness: Revisiting Courtier-ship and Factionalism in Early Tang
Friday, March 25, 2022
9:30am – 11:00am EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 313B
Debby Chih-Yen Huang
Academia Sinica, Taiwan (Republic of China)
This paper examines Tang rulers’ discourses on courtier-ship in the seventh century. I argue that the emperors considered closeness an essential element of ideal courtier-ship. An ideal courtier should be attached to his sovereign while keeping a proper distance from his cohorts. Closeness as a politically sensitive issue contributes to scholarly discussions on factionalism. Previous scholarship regards factionalism as a negative form of fellowship, assuming factions to be a kind of grouping purely based on ideological polarization. However, in reality, an accusation of factionalism was usually made by men outside the group—such as the emperor, political rivals, and historians—even when the accused officials did not have a sense of fellowship with each other. It was the rulers who took signs of excessive closeness between officials as threatening to the regime. This concern is well represented in Emperor Taizong’s remarks on his high officials and in Empress Wu’s treatise on courtier-ship, a textbook for Civil Service Examination aspirants. I find in the sources that a minister’s sociality, ability, and awareness to socialize with their cohorts properly and effectively became a yardstick for ideal courtier-ship. I also find that once the quality of affection in relationships among officials exceeded that between a courtier and the emperor, their social intercourse would be deemed problematic. My discoveries demonstrate that closeness can be a useful category of historical analysis. Varied ideas on closeness in the court politics, such as factionalism, favoritism, and fellowship, augment our understandings of sovereign-minister relationships in the seventh century.