2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Early Tang Thought as Seen in Epitaphs

Jo-shui Chen

Department of History, National Taiwan University

With the continuous publication of epitaphs from the Tang era in recent years, this type of material has gained considerable importance in research on Tang history. Yet mainly owing to the epitaph’s eulogistic nature, scholars have not linked these sources to the study of intellectual history. Epitaphs in fact contain a great deal of information in this regard. With the existence of a large number of Tang epitaphs and the fact that a substantial portion of them deal with average literati, they are particularly helpful for detecting the general frame of mind of their age. On the basis of these materials, this article explores the basic intellectual conditions of the early Tang, one of the most obscure periods in the history of Chinese thought. My main finding is that a “dualistic” worldview prevailed at that time. That was a view that divided the world into two spheres, one concerning family and social life, and the other concerning personal life and extramundane pursuits. The former area was guided by ancient classics, Confucian thought, history, and various schools of thought originating in the Warring States period. The personal and interior dimension drew its sources from ancient Taoism, xuanxue ideas, Buddhism, and religious Taoism. Diversity is another salient feature of the early Tang mind. Even on the questions of family and social lives, values of many kinds flourished and the orthodox status of Confucianism was not firmly established. However, amidst all these ideas, I also found, particularly in the early eighth century, signs of what may be called a consciousness of “pure Confucianism,” that is, a tendency to consider Confucianism to be a comprehensive set of binding principles for human life. These signs anticipated the emergence of a great challenge to the conventional medieval mindset less than a century later.


Keywords: early Tang thought, Tang intellectual history, medieval Chinese thought, dualistic worldview, pure Confucianism