AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 84

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Session 84: Lord, I'm Southbound: the World as Seen from Wu and Yue

Organizer: Andrew S. Meyer, City University of New York, Brooklyn College, USA

Chair: Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Discussant: John S Major, Independent Scholar, USA

The non-Chinese kingdoms of Wu and Yue have long fascinated both scholars and lay people. Their swift rise and epic conflict during the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C.E. has been the stuff of legend, romance and allegory for millennia. For all the well-worn familiarity of these stories, however, the societies in which they are set remain poorly understood; shrouded in the biases and fantasies of sources reflecting the perspective of the North China Plain. The study of Wu and Yue has thus generally been constructed around questions of their degree of “civilization” or assimilation to Chinese culture. Working in several different disciplines, this panel attempts to examine Wu and Yue on their own terms, making them the focal point of study rather than peripheral adjuncts of a larger “Chinese” domain. Erica Brindley deconstructs the rhetorical strategies that consigned Wu and Yue to subaltern roles in early historiography. Olivia Milburn uses the bronze record to generate a more authentic picture of Wu politics and culture than can be gleaned from transmitted texts alone. Andrew Meyer rereads the Wu-Yue saga as depicting these states’ active role in reshaping the world of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1045-221 B.C.E.). Finally, Eric Henry uses various techniques of linguistic and ethno-historical analysis to demonstrate the scope and persistence of Yue culture into imperial times. Altogether, we hope to suggest new modes of literary, historical, and anthropological exploration that might restore Wu and Yue to centrality and agency in the study of the ancient world.

Elite Writers and the Rhetoric of Central States Superiority
Erica Brindley, Pennsylvania State University, USA

This paper examines rhetorical strategies and conceptual structures used by ancient historians, thinkers, and Ru advocates to depict the Yue “other” in terms of a dominant-subordinate relationship. I look at three different spheres in which writers asserted Central Plains dominance, analyzing each in terms of the way in which authors exaggerate the role and agency of the self in relationship to the Southern other. These areas concern the political; the cultural, social, and ethnic; and the gendered presentation of the self. Building on such an analysis, I gauge the extent to which such biased self-presentations affect overall interpretations of the relationships between “China” and the “Yue” in historiography, and the ways in which they may exaggerate the influence of Central Plains culture in Southern life and history. This allows me to provide an alternate understanding of early frontier history in which Central Plains and Yue agents interacted in complex, overdetermined ways, and not merely in terms of models of sinicization.

The Royal Bronzes of Wu: A New Interpretation
Olivia Milburn, Seoul National University, South Korea

The ancient kingdom of Wu (destroyed in 473 BCE), inhabited by the Gouwu people, represents the northernmost branch of the Bai Yue peoples, and the first to come into extensive contact with Central States civilization. Of the thousands of Wu bronzes known, inscribed vessels form only a small fraction. However, given that there are no surviving contemporary written documents from Wu, and the earliest historical and philosophical texts to describe the kingdom were written many centuries after Wu had ceased to exist by authors far removed in both culture and place, they constitute a major resource for understanding this short-lived but important state. In total sixty-nine inscribed Wu bronzes are known: ritual vessels (16), weapons (29), and bells (24). Over time, significant changes occurred in the nomenclature and format used for Wu royal bronzes, indicating significant cultural assimilation had already occurred in the reign of King Zhufan of Wu (r. 560-548 BCE) and his brothers, though texts suggest a much later date for this process. These bronzes indicate that unlike in the Central States the right to make an inscribed bronze was a royal prerogative, that the nomenclature of the Wu kings seen on bronzes differs markedly from that known from transmitted texts, and that changes in this nomenclature seem to be linked to the development of standard formulaic inscriptions, derived from Zhou models. Though ancient Chinese texts describing the kingdom of Wu emphasize the close association between its royal house and the Central States, bronze inscriptions provide a much more nuanced portrayal of assimilation and cultural difference.

Postcards From the Future: Reading the Wu-Yue Saga Outside of a “Sinicization” Paradigm
Andrew S. Meyer, City University of New York, Brooklyn College, USA

In the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C.E., the Lower Yangzi region shook the Zhou world. In a short time, the state of Wu rose from obscurity to formidable power, only to be destroyed by Yue, which was in its own turn destroyed by Chu. The sources cast these rapid geopolitical fluctuations into a melodrama of fathers and sons, betrayal and revenge; a saga of archetypes rather than historical individuals. It has been common to read these narrative flourishes as portraying, from the perspective of the “Central States” of the Yellow River Plain, the failure of Southerners to properly assimilate to the norms of Zhou civilization. This paper will present an alternate reading of these narratives, however. From this perspective, the Wu-Yue saga is not driven by actors who failed to understand or implement Zhou cultural institutions, but by the failure of Zhou institutions themselves to achieve desired political ends. Within its mythopoeic fabric, the Wu-Yue saga thus expresses an awareness that Southerners had been living in a future that would eventually overtake the rest of the Zhou world. The alienness and fallibility of the saga’s protagonists reflects its authors’ own sense of living in a world grown unfamiliar from rapid change, and their disappointment with the moral shortcomings of their own society. Read in this light, the Wu-Yue saga does not evince that the South was imperfectly “Sinicized,” but that its people actively participated in a process that transformed Zhou civilization as a whole.

The Persistence of Yuè in Southeast China
Eric Putnam Henry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

The history of the ancient state of Yuè is poorly understood for several reasons. The time of Yuè’s greatest strength, prestige, and territorial extent fell in a sparsely documented period of history: the latter 5th and early 4th centuries BCE. Another difficulty arises from linguistic and cultural factors. Three Yuè kinglists survive, but they are mutually contradictory, and many Yuè kings go under a variety of names, some of which are evidently Chinese transliterations, and some Chinese translations of the names they bore in their own language. Shǐjǐ has two mutually irreconcilable accounts of the 4th and 3rd century history of Yuè. Ancient communication across the Yuè-Chinese language barrier was evidently poor. Moreover, the tendency to situate the Wú-Yuè saga within a body of Chinese lore distracts readers from the distinctive cultural markers that place its main actors, Gōu Jiàn and Fū Chāi, clearly within a non-Chinese ethnicity. The persistence of Yuè culture is also poorly understood. Despite contradictory reports placing the destruction of the state of Yuè in either 334 BCE or 221 BCE, there is ample evidence that the entire southeast coastal region of China remained, culturally and linguistically, a Yuè domain until well into the Three Kingdoms period. This situation most likely remained little altered until the time of the large-scale southward Chinese migrations occasioned by the fall of the Northern Sòng. My paper enumerates the principle characteristics of Yuè culture and demonstrates that it remained the dominant culture of Southeast China throughout the early imperial period.