AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 465

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Session 465: Approaches to Legitimacy in Early Medieval China - Sponsored by Early Medieval China Group

Organizer: Andrew Chittick, Eckerd College, USA

Chair: Keith N. Knapp, The Citadel, USA

Discussant: James A. Benn, McMaster University, Canada

The early-medieval period (2nd-6th centuries CE) was one of great transformation in Chinese politics, society, and culture. The authoritative system of the Han empire was challenged and found wanting, and consequently a variety of legitimizing rites, formulations, and policies were promoted; they drew both on aspects of Chinese tradition that had never been used in such political contexts and on foreign traditions such as Buddhism. This group of papers explores different approaches to early-medieval political legitimation, from the wide-ranging ritual reforms of Western Jin, to Buddhist formulations of the Tuoba regime, to ideals of praise-worthy conduct offered by provincial administrators in the Southern Dynasties.

From Buddhist Borderland to Heartland
Pokan Chou, National Taiwan National University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

This paper examines a major paradox in the history of Buddhism in China: Chinese Buddhists of the late 3rd century bemoaned that they lived in a Buddhist borderland where people had little chance of understanding the Dharma, and thus, of emancipating themselves from cycles of suffering; by the late 6th century, however, China had become a Buddhist heartland that exported Buddhist doctrines to neighboring countries. The complicated and interwoven factors in this development that my presentation investigates are: (1) political turmoil in Buddhist countries of Central Asia from 400 to 550 AD, which stimulated the prevalence of the idea of the Dharma’s decline, and (2) the Buddhist concept of madhyadesha, or Middle Land, in connection with the wholehearted worship and study of the Lotus Sutra, which precipitated the rise of a new religious center where the Buddha was willing to be re-presented constantly. I use Chinese Buddhist travelogues, epigraphic inscriptions and historical accounts to account for the shifting of Buddhism’s center from India to China. These documents confirm that doctrinally negative conceptions turned out to be religiously positive forces for the flourishing of Buddhism in China.

Legitimation through Delegitimation: Western Jin’s Anti-Wei Musical Scale and Anti-Wei Bamboo Slips
Howard Goodman, Independent Scholar, USA

Legitimation studies remain important because they demonstrate that the enduring civilizations expressed a will to be governed. The governed opined on what a new regime should seem like, subscribe to, and do. Legitimation studies ought to make East-West comparisons, and in China studies they can examine reinvention and replication across dynasties. Studies of early-medieval China increasingly point to a shift in legalistic, social, and ritual practices during the Wei-Jin period. The assertion of governing ideals was acute for the Jin both during its run-up and founding, and later, in holding on. My paper views the Jin’s ritual reforms through the history of Chinese legitimation. Besides age-old questions of territorial legitimacy, Jin scholars were concerned with mind-numbing details of harmonics, literature, and archeology. They implicitly asked: what bits of the Wei culture should be kept or rejected? One tactic taken had no precedent in 250 years of legitimation models: the cultural destruction of the previous dynasty. Part of it was mild – deemphasis of Wei’s oracle-texts and new religious communities. But one part was strident – a technological correction of music plus the editing of antiquarian evidence. The latter occurred unexpectedly through the discovery of a pre-Qin tomb of a Wei-state noble. In both cases, natural philosophy and techniques were devoted to eliminating Wei-era correctness in rites, arts, territory, and even historical boundaries and memory. Delegitimation however can be ugly. I see it as a destabilizing force in Western Jin that contributed to loss of loyalties and interest in continuing the Jin regime.

Buddhism and the Early Tuoba Northern Wei Rulership (386-494 CE)
Chin-Yin Tseng, Oxford University, United Kingdom

Buddhism in the early Tuoba Northern Wei will be explored for its capacity as an instrument of rulership endorsed by imperial patronage, as these nomadic rulers from the steppe grappled with their new empire. It was to the benefit of these new rulers that the monastic order and secular kingship shared a common interest in regarding the reigning emperor as a Buddha incarnate, resolving the conflict of interest between monastic and state power. Of an equally foreign origin, Buddhism socio-politically reinforced the Tuoba’s legitimacy to rule in this land, and presented an administrative structure which allowed for a more effective and unified dynastic rulership to be implemented. At the same time, Buddhism brought with it entirely new visual designs and material forms from the Near East, which were fully explored, as a new set of cultural vocabulary, by patrons and workmen who contributed to the projects at the Yungang cave temples. Physical representations of deities and kings were very new to the Chinese, and together, the availability of material, transfer of technology, and training of skills made up the package of essential requirements that allowed for an individual material “intrusion” to turn into a lasting cultural tradition. That the Tuoba deployed a new set of cultural and material repertoire introduced by Buddhism to construct a hybrid belief system, one which bound them with their Han Chinese subjects in a common social identity and facilitated their transition into the Chinese arena, is the hypothesis to be tested in this paper.

Xie Tiao and the Persona of Recluse-Administrator
Cynthia L. Chennault, University of Florida, USA

The ideal of reclusion was a recurrent motif in Southern Dynasties writings, and to declare the intention of resigning office in order to pursue an eremitic lifestyle was a standard closure in poems by fifth and sixth-century officials. The verses that Xie Tiao (464–499) wrote while he was grand warden of Xuancheng commandery (in Anhui) departed from the norm by claiming to experience the benefits of reclusion while also expressing a dedication to fulfill the responsibilities of a rural governor. It is the latter concern of Xie’s hybrid persona that presents a subject matter unique for his times. My paper focuses upon the glimpses that his works give of the daily routine of a grand warden, and the good governors of the past whom he identified as models. The contexts of Xie’s allusions suggest personal ambition was a factor in the self-image he created; he aspired to become known as an honest official. There is no evidence, however, that this poetic persona helped further his career. Nor did writers of Xie’s age remark upon it. The second part of my paper documents the strong appeal that Xie’s persona began to exert during the High Tang. Li Bo and Du Fu coined the epithet “Xie of Xuancheng,” making Xie the earliest poet in literary tradition to be named by a place where he served. In prose writings as well as poems from the Tang, he was also finally recognized as a good provincial administrator.

The Liang Princes and the Western Command
Andrew Chittick, Eckerd College, USA

Discussions of legitimacy and rulership usually start and end with the way the ruler and his entourage present themselves to a relatively small coterie of educated administrative elites within the confines of the imperial court and capital region. In the early medieval southern dynasties, however, the most important challenges to stable rule came from military coups organized in the provinces, especially the western command, the garrisons of the central Yangzi region in what is now Hubei and Hunan. This paper looks at the forms of patronage and cultural appeals used by the princes of the Liang regime (502-557) to win the hearts and minds of the unruly inhabitants of this area. Patronage of Buddhist temples, support for literary projects, the erection of stele and paintings of past governors, and support for military campaigns were all used to try to build popular allegiance for the regime. The relative lack of success of these appeals helps us to understand the limits of legitimation propaganda when faced with the more concrete problems of empire-building.