Historiography as politics in Yang Wei-chen's 'Polemic on Legitimate Succession'

Richard L. DAVIS

T'oung Pao © 1983 Brill

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In an empire where the historical traditions is both long and deep-seated, it seems ironic that imperial China's largest single historiographical undertaking should be assumed by alien conquerors; yet, it was under the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty (1926-1368)) that official chronicles for the Sung (960-1279), Liao (907-1125), and Chin (1115-1234) empires were compiled, together representing nearly 750 sections, or chuan. Initiated by Qubilai Qaran (r. 1260-94) during the early years of his reign, the ambitious project soon propelled a violent intellectual and political storm centering on the legitimacy of the three coexisting states and the consequent structure of their planned histories. So heated was the debate, in fact, that the government's History Bureau was effectively reduced to little more than a storehouse for documents; and the passage of time, rather than defusing the controversy, only served further to polarize official opinion. Some eighty years after the project announced and six decades after Sung rule had vanished, political legitimacy for the pre-Yuan period was still in dispute and the bureau was no closer to histories to their completion, choosing to avoid any definitive statement on the political standing of the three controversial empires. The matter of assessing the legitimacy of long-defunct dynasties may, on its surface, appear to be purely academic; but, in reality, it mirrored a fundamental cleavage between the alien Yuan court and its Chinese officials, for Chinese nativism had come to challenge the validity of the most basic of Mongol political values.