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China Humanities Seminar featuring Franciscus Verellen – The General and His Scribe: The Fall of the Tang in Contemporary Sources

April 22 @ 4:00 pm 5:30 pm

Speaker: Franciscus Verellen, Professor Emeritus, École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO); Vice President, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Institut de France

The understudied end phase of the Tang dynasty (618–907) is mainly known through official accounts dating to the tenth and eleventh centuries. This lecture examines the process that led to the empire’s breakup from the vantage point of a key protagonist, the general and military governor Gao Pian 高駢 (821–887), whose trajectory provides a step-by-step record of the empire’s military, fiscal, and administrative unraveling.

Soldier, statesman, engineer, and poet, Gao Pian was one of the most intriguing characters to shape events in ninth-century China. He left a deeply conflicted legacy. Challenging the portrait Song official historians painted of him as an “insubordinate minister” and Daoist zealot, contemporary sources show the general as a loyal and effective defender of the empire.

The talk introduces a neglected trove of court, military, and administrative communications that Gao’s Korean secretary Ch’oe Ch’iwŏn 崔致遠 (855–949) redacted on his behalf. After returning to Silla in 885, Ch’oe compiled these documents into an extensive collection titled Tilling with my Brush at Cassia Grove 桂苑筆耕集, an archive that throws a compelling light on Gao Pian’s governance and the declining years of the Tang.

          After doctoral studies at Oxford and Paris, Franciscus Verellen taught Chinese religions and humanities at the École pratique des Hautes Études and Columbia University. He joined the EFEO in 1991. Alternating between its Headquarters in Paris and affiliate centers in East Asia, he served as the School’s director from 2004 to 2014 and occupied the chair in History of Daoism from 2002 to 2021. Verellen held visiting appointments at Princeton, Berkeley, and Hong Kong. He is a former Edwin C. and Elizabeth A. Whitehead Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and Life Member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge.

Franciscus Verellen’s book manuscript Famed and Defamed: General Gao Pian and the Fall of the Tang is currently under review at Cambridge University Press. Earlier publications include Imperiled Destinies (Harvard University Asia Center, 2019), The Taoist Canon (edited with Kristofer Schipper, Chicago University Press, 2004), and Du Guangting (Collège de France, 1989).


April 22
4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Event Category:


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


Common Room, 2 Divinity Ave.

2 Divinity Ave.
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 United States

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