The Southwestern Frontier of Early and Medieval China

Re-envisioning the Dynamics of Empire
11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room 2

  • Organised by Chun Xu
  • Jörg Hüsemann, Chair
  • Chun Xu, “The Collapse of the Imperial Frontier in Yunnan (300–750)”
  • Alexis Lycas, “The Southwestern Frontier in Tang China: Bureaucracy and Ethnography in the Man shu (Book of the Southern Barbarians)”
  • Lia Wei, “Highlands Meet History: A Comparative Study of Burial Caves along the Upper Yangzi River at the Fall of the Han Empire”

In the study of early and medieval Chinese peripheries/frontiers, one may identify three major problems: 1) an obsession with dichotomies: Han/barbarians (huayi 華夷), the raw/cooked, or sedentarism/nomadism, which leads to the notion of linear borders (physical, figurative and imaginary alike); 2) a Sinocentric (meta)narrative that adopts models of acculturation; and 3) an over-emphasis on the political and institutional, and geographically on the North and the Northwest. These perspectives often fail to address the place-based evidence of empire-building in the peripheries, and, in particular, the interrelations between ecology, culture and political power. A holistic and decentred approach to early imperial frontiers is necessary to understand the dynamics of empire, and indeed what it means to refer to China as an empire. This panel examines the southwestern frontier of early and medieval China in modern-day Sichuan and Yunnan not as a defensive line (jiao 徼) or simply a “buffer/contact zone” of fuzziness, but as converging and overlapping networks of military posts, administrative centres, information gathering, ecological relations, belief, and ritual systems and ethnolinguistic communities, in which the imperial state was by no means the only or even the major actor. The panel places at the centre of the analysis the role of merchants, local great families, allied chiefs, rice, and cast iron. In doing so, we argue that the establishment, consolidation, and decline of imperial power in the southwestern frontier is often dictated in response to changing circumstances in the networks, rather than simply by political actors.

Chun Xu, “The Collapse of the Imperial Frontier in Yunnan (300–750)”

This paper addresses the local cultural and political dynamics that culminated in the demise of imperial power in Yunnan during the Six Dynasties and gave rise to the Nanzhao-Dali kingdom in the following centuries. It sets out to examine the decline of imperial power from a local perspective, by seeing early imperial Yunnan as an imperial frontier comprising of networks of Han military posts, farming settlements, trade routes, and allied native tribes, with which the Chinese empire projected its power and on which local elites, Han and indigenous alike, capitalised to maintain a socio-political order. The imperial frontier collapsed when 1) trade networks were dismantled and rebuilt by new ecological and economic relations in Yunnan; 2) relocation and concentration of population removed the manpower base for imperial institutions, and, more importantly, 3) local elites started to forge new identities that no longer depended on imperial titulature, among other traditions of the political culture, and started to adopt new ideologies. The paper serves as a reminder of that, in terms of strategy, ideology, and practice, perspectives from the periphery differ substantially from those from the centre and calls for a more integrated approach to the frontiers as a whole in the study of the early Chinese empire.

Alexis Lycas, “The Southwestern Frontier in Tang China: Bureaucracy and Ethnography in the Man shu (Book of the Southern Barbarians)”

My contribution to this panel will address issues of bureaucratic management in the frontier territory through the double lens of historiography and ethnography by focusing on the little-studied Man shu 蠻書, or Book of the barbarians, a ninth-century work by the official Fan Chuo 樊綽. The tumultuous history of Yunnan under the Tang, and the fact that “Man shu” is only one of the retrospective titles attributed to Fan Chuo’s work—alternative titles include Yunnan zhi 雲南志 (Gazetteer of Yunnan) and Yunnan shiji 雲南史記—suggest that this work was as much an ethnographic account of frontier/unruly people as it was a bureaucratic attempt at ordering the information known at the time about a zone that was not politically integrated in the Tang empire. Specifically, I will explore two intertwined directions. First, I will probe whether this ethnographic account could or should be understood as a proxy for an actual administrative and fiscal survey of a frontier territory. Second, this will help assess the importance of this text for the history of geographical knowledge, as it was produced during a period when local writings underwent important changes, from Six Dynasties accounts on local customs and oddities to Song and later local gazetteers.

Lia Wei, “Highlands Meet History: A Comparative Study of Burial Caves along the Upper Yangzi River at the Fall of the Han Empire”

This research is located in the peculiar environment of the upper Yangzi River (Changjiang 長江), under the weakening rule of the Eastern Han dynasty. Cultural exchanges between plain and highlands are addressed through a comparative survey of rock-cut cemeteries along with minor and major southern tributaries of the Yangzi. While most surveyed caves date to the late Han period, this article does not lose sight of the wider phenomenon of cliff burials in South China. Correlations are proposed between burial typologies and the nature of southwards routes, which are crucial for a period that predates detailed accounts of the area in historical sources. This article is part of an effort to refine our understanding of the regional network routes on the Southwest frontier, what we could call a “proto-historical geography”, by avoiding the a priori attribution of burial practices to cultural groups. To the narrative of imperial occupation in the Southwest, this research opposes the consistency in type and the distribution of an alternative type of funerary landscape over a 500km belt south of the Yangzi. The funerary landscape uncovered allows us to further understand locational strategies, riverine routes, and the role of frontier groups.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 2
Re-envisioning the Dynamics of Empire