AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 329

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Session 329: Political Culture, Identity, and Legitimacy During the Northern Dynasties, Sui and Tang

Organizer: Mandy Jui-Man Wu, Hanover College, USA

Chair: Nicola Di Cosmo, Institute for Advanced Study, USA

Discussant: Albert E. Dien, Stanford University, USA

In Northern China at the onset of the medieval period a dramatic and rapid change of political systems, along with economic and cultural transformations of local society, prompted the construction of new identities –ethnic, religious, family-based or class-based—that could serve as a way of legitimating groups for political purposes. In the Northern Dynasties, Sui and Tang, the formation of states based on group identities, and the consequent development of new strategies for legitimating authority, are especially important for understanding processes of political networking and interaction among these multi-cultural and multi-ethnic communities. Evidence for these wide-ranging changes can be found in texts, material culture, burial practices, and other remains of the period. The questions raised by historical evidence related to identity construction and political legitimacy will be analyzed by the panel participants in terms of how they modify our conventional perception of social position, gender, age, and ethnicity in medieval Northern China. Moreover, this panel looks at the modes of expression of legitimated authority, discusses different interpretations of kingship, and examines perceptions of foreign leaders and political agents. Different methods of analysis will be applied as the participants come from various disciplines. In sum, we hope to offer contributions that revise our understanding of this politically dynamic and relatively understudied period of Chinese history with a new sensibility towards issues of identity and legitimacy brought to the surface by archaeological and literary evidence.

The Nation as Army, the Lord as Warrior-King: Definition and Redefinition of the Nature of the Northern Wei State
Scott Pearce, Western Washington University, USA

While it might be a mistake to refer only to regimes of Inner Asian extraction as “conquest dynasties” (in what sense was the Qin not such an entity?), the early stages of the Northern Dynasties clearly do deserve such an appellation. The militarized nation created in the early centuries AD by the Tabgatch (Tuoba) lords in the frontier regions of northern Shanxi and southern Inner Mongolia took shape in the midst of struggle with other Inner Asian groups. And the successes of the Northern Wei regime (386-534), which grew out of that nation, rested squarely on the soldiering of the guo ren, the “people of the nation,” who from their base in the region of Dai (mod. Datong) pushed south in the late 4th and early 5th centuries to conquer the northern territories of the old empire. This nation was defined by the symbols and substance of war. So were its early leaders: Daowudi (r. 386-409), the “emperor of the Way of war,” and Taiwudi (r. 424-452), “the great warrior emperor,” who regularly on horseback took the field with their troops. In this paper, I will examine the various real and metaphorical “war cries” used by the early Tabgatch monarchs to bind together the guo ren, and how this system was from the mid-fifth century incrementally and selectively abandoned in efforts to broaden the monarchy’s base of support within the empire.

Fraught Identities: Visual Tensions in Northern Dynasties Tombs
Bonnie Cheng, Oberlin College, USA

Discussions of Northern Dynasties identity inevitably raise the question of ethnicity as a compelling factor motivating changes to cultural practices. While narratives of interaction inform analyses of historical change, the paradoxical impulse to make groups distinct persists. In the tomb, identity and ethnicity are marked in diverse ways: by a deceased’s lineage, by an item that indicates a distinct cultural practice, or by a figure with notable physical features or wearing clothing favored by a particular group. The challenge of examining this subject in relation to tomb art is complicated by the fact that these cultural or ethnic markers intersect in the tomb space. Taken together, these sometimes-contradictory markers come into potential conflict with a network of preexisting artistic traditions. How do we reconcile cultural markers within diverse burial assemblages? How do we determine which identity dominates in a culturally diverse era or the pluralistic space of the tomb? Funerary portraits might seem a logical focus to questions of identity, but self-representations appear to draw heavily on convention, so individuality is subsumed by attributes of station. My paper examines Northern Dynasties tomb furnishings to highlight visual tensions. I argue that while ethnic affiliations could indeed be marked, ethnicity was less a pressing concern than the expression of social status. I approach this question from two perspectives: one addresses the specific moment and region of late sixth century Jinyang and the tomb of Xu Xianxiu; the other situates these visible tendencies across the broader Northern Dynasties trajectory of change and interaction.

Sociopolitical Network and Legitimated Power: Sogdian Merchants and Their Xianbei Rulers in Mid-Six Century China
Mandy Jui-Man Wu, Hanover College, USA

For centuries, Sogdians were merchants and traveled along the Silk Road. Some of them migrated to China as early as the third century. In Sogdian society wealthy merchants were regarded as aristocrats and had high social status. Chinese merchants, however, held low social status in traditional Chinese society. With new archaeological evidence from Sogdian tombs of the Northern Zhou (557-581 CE), it is possible to examine what role the Sogdians played in the Northern Zhou society ruled by non-Han leaders. How that sociopolitical system affected their social position and thereby legitimated their authority is a question that can now be addressed. Previous scholarship has focused on the iconography of the Sogdian funerary stone couches and sarcophagi in relation to religion, trade, and the social activity of the sabao. This paper will use mortuary arts and epitaphs, and written texts to examine the social position of the Sogdians in relation to political culture, and proposes that the Northern Zhou government under the Xianbei rulers used certain occupations and official titles such as sabao or datianzhu, not included in the Northern Zhou bureaucratic system, to segregate them and maintain their outsider status. The dynamics of creation of multidimensional Sogdian identities was complex and related to age, ethnicity, cultural roots, and religion. The various subjects and styles represented on funerary furniture show how the Sogdians responded to the political propaganda promoted by the Xianbei rulers of the Northern Zhou and to other ethnic groups—including the Chinese, Hephthalite, and Turks—in their midst.

Politics of the Fictive Family: Tang Surname Bestowal, Fosterage and Adoption
Jonathan K. Skaff, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, USA

The Tang dynasty provides interesting examples of political networking in the guise of fictive kinship--involving fosterage, adoption, and imperial surname bestowal. Emperors and Empresses bestowed their surnames (cixing), symbolically adopting politically important domestic subjects or foreign allies. Adoption and fosterage of sons appeared among palace eunuchs, who could not father children, and intermittently among military men from North China and various parts of Inner Asia. Fictive relations drew together people of various social backgrounds and ethnicities under a symbolic patriarch or matriarch to bolster political bonds. This paper offers the hypothesis that surname bestowal, fosterage, and adoption are related phenomena with roots in the intercultural politics of medieval North China. The Tang emperors adopted surname bestowal from the preceding Western Wei and Northern Zhou dynasties, and selectively deployed this practice in situations of political uncertainty or danger, especially civil war, factional conflicts at court, and foreign relations. Tang surname bestowal began during the Sui-Tang transition (618-25) seemingly to counter rival warlords in North China who were creating their own foster or adoptive relationships with warrior “sons.” Thereafter surname bestowal remained a favored strategy to form alliances with foreign leaders, allies at court, and non-Chinese rebels during the An Lushan rebellion. In addition to bolstering political relationships with a shared family identity, surname bestowal seems to be connected to the traditional belief that names had magical properties that might influence the behavior of recalcitrant allies.