Going for a Song

Wang Zengyu has a historian’s frustration with the media, irked beyond words by some of the liberties taken by authors who think “ancient China” just means a few thees and thous. “Few producers,” he fumes, “bother to pay attention to historical facts and detailed nuances of a specific historical period, so that a large number of productions are so carelessly made that they simply drive historians crazy.”

Wang is credited last on the cover, but appears to be the prime mover behind this superb collection of essays about all aspects of life in China’s Middle Ages. A Social History of Middle-Period China: The Song, Liao, Western Xia and Jin Dynasties is an incredible 700+-page guide to marriage customs, rituals, forms of address, food, hairstyles… pretty much any topic you care to consider. It is a veritable Dungeon Master’s Guide for anyone seeking to plunge into recreating the world not only of the Song dynasty, but of the several other polities that jostled for supremacy in the area we now call China.

Because Wang his co-authors refuse to take the shilling of the grand narrative of one dynasty following another, and argue that the Tibetans, the “Savages” of the south, the Jurchen invaders and the Tangut neighbours all had just as much a claim of being part of Chinese history as the better-remembered Song dynasty. Separate sections outline the wide diversity in China between the 9th and 12th centuries and it’s all brilliantly, cogently translated into English by Bang Qianzhu. The result is one of those books that makes me wish I was writing about the Song dynasty, because I’d have all the local colour at my fingertips.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

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