In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Middle-Period China

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies of Contemporary Scholarship
  • Journals

Chinese Studies Middle-Period China
John Chaffee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0003


The Middle period (c. 100–1500 CE) occupies a special position in the history of China. Coming neither at the formative beginning of the imperial period nor at the end, when the imperial structures collapsed from stresses within and without the country, the Middle period was framed by the reunification of the empire in the 580s and the final chapter of the Mongol conquest in the 1270s and can lay claim both to one of the most expansive and brilliant of Chinese dynasties—the Tang—and the period of perhaps the greatest intellectual and socioeconomic dynamism and creativity—the Song. The modern study of the history of this period had its origins with Japanese scholars in the early 20th century—most notably Naito Kōnan (b. 1866–d. 1934)—who argued that the changes that occurred from the Tang to the Song dynasties were among the most fundamental in all of Chinese history and who pioneered in studies of the political, economic, and social structures of the period. Following World War II, many Euro-American and Taiwan scholars joined the Japanese in turning their attention to the period, attracted by the political successes and multicultural brilliance of the Tang and by the profound social, economic, and intellectual changes of the Song. To this mix has been added a host of historians in China, who, once they were liberated from a Marxist insistence on focusing on peasant uprisings, class struggles, and the like, proceeded with wide-ranging research and large-scale bibliographical and digitizing projects that have significantly increased the number and kinds of sources available to historians. The result of these activities has been to establish China’s Middle period as critically important in Chinese history, one that shaped many elements of the Late Imperial period intellectually, institutionally, and socially, and as a period of increasing interest to world historians.

Historical Overviews

Because of its great length and the fact that it encompasses three dynasties and one period of division, there are few treatments of the Middle period as a whole, apart from general histories of China. With a few exceptions that are noted here, broad historical overviews have generally focused on individual dynasties. A number of historians have followed the lead of the great Song historian Sima Guang (Sima 1976) in offering a broad narrative sweep ending at the beginning of the Song. By contrast, Mote 2003 begins its study with the fall of the Tang (900) and continues it well into the Qing (1800). Holcombe 2001 presents the Tang as the culmination for the spread of an East Asian civilizational consciousness from China to Japan, while Wang 2003 likewise centers its treatment on the Tang and those dynasties that directly preceded and followed it. Clark 2015 presents another kind of overview, that of southeastern China through the first millenium, thus ending with the beginning of the Song. Ebrey and Smith 2016 addresses overarching issues related to state power in the Liao, Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties.

  • Clark, Hugh. The Sinitic Encounter with the Southeast through the 1st Millennium. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015.

    A pioneering study of China’s southeastern coastal region and its gradual though never total absorbtion into the sinitic world from the Han to the early Song.

  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, and Paul Jakov Smith, eds. State Power in China, 900–1325. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016.

    The nine essays in this volume explore the uses of state power in the major East Asian states—Liao, Song, Jin, and Yuan—from the 10th through 14th centuries from a multitude of disciplines: institutional history, political thought, and social history as well as art history and literary studies.

  • Holcombe, Charles. The Genesis of East Asia, 221 B.C.–907 A.D. Asian Interactions and Comparisons. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001.

    A pathbreaking study that places the history of imperial China, through the Tang, within the framework of the spread of a Sinocentric East Asian civilization.

  • Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China: 900–1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

    Mote’s massive study provides an accessible political history that is not bound by dynastic divisions. Although it covers only the latter portion of Middle-period history, that section takes four hundred pages. Its focus is on political history and it is especially informative in its treatment of the peoples and states along the borderlands.

  • Sima Guang 司馬光. Zizhi tongjian (資治通鑑). 20 vols. Edited by Hu Sanxing. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1976.

    English translation of the title: Comprehensive mirror for aid in government. This magisterial chronicle of China’s history from 403 BCE to 959 CE remains perhaps the greatest history of imperial China down to the Song and continues to be used by historians dealing with the periods it covers. The “comprehensive mirror” (tongjian) of the title reflects the author’s conviction that the past served as a mirror for understanding the present.

  • Wang Zhongluo 王仲犖. Sui Tang Wudai shi (随唐五代史). 2 vols. Zhongguo duan dai shi xi lie. Shanghai: Renmin chubanshe, 2003.

    English translation of title: A history of the Sui, Tang, and Five dynasties. A comprehensive treatment of the history of the Sui, through Five Dynasties, by one of the major contemporary historians of this period.

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