Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History

By Nicola Di Cosmo | Go to book overview
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Ancient China and Its Enemies

It has been an article of faith among historians of ancient China that Chinese culture represented the highest level of civilization in the greater Asia region from the first millennium B. C. throughout the pre-imperial period. This Sinocentric image which contrasts the high culture of Shang and Chou China with the lower, “barbarian” peoples living off the grasslands along the northern frontier is embedded in early Chinese historical records and has been perpetuated over the years by Chinese and Western historians. In this comprehensive history of the northern frontier of China from 900 to 100 B. C., Nicola Di Cosmo investigates the origins of this simplistic image, and in the process shatters it.

This book presents a far more complex picture of early China and its relations with the “barbarians” to the North, documenting how early Chinese perceived and interacted with increasingly organized, advanced, and politically unified (and threatening) groupings of people just outside their domain. Di Cosmo explores the growing tensions between these two worlds as they became progressively more polarized, with the eventual creation of the nomadic, Hsiung-nu empire in the north and Chinese empire in the south.

This book is part of a new wave of revisionist scholarship made possible by recent, important archaeological findings in China, Mongolia, and Central Asia that can now be compared against the historical record. It is the first study investigating the antagonism between early China and its neighbors that combines both Chinese historical texts and archaeological data. Di Cosmo reconciles new, archaeological evidence of early non-Chinese to the north and west of China who lived in stable communities, had developed bronze technology, and used written language with the common notion of undifferentiated tribes living beyond the pale of Chinese civilization. He analyzes the patterns of interaction along China's northern frontiers (from trading, often on an equal basis, to Eastern Hun–Chinese warfare during the Ch'in dynasty) and then explores how these relations were recorded (and why) in early Chinese historiography. Di Cosmo scrutinizes the way in which the great Chinese historian, Ssu-ma Chi'en portrayed the Hsiung-nu empire in his “Records of the Grand Historian” (99 B. C.), the first written narrative of the northern nomads in Chinese history. Chinese cultural definitions are explained here as the expression of political goals (for example, the need to cast enemies in a negative light) and the result of historical processes.

Herein are new interpretations of well-known historical events, including the construction of the early walls, later unified into the “Great Wall”; the formation of the first nomadic empire in world history, the Hsiung-nu empire; and the chain of events that led Chinese armies to conquer the northwestern regions, thus opening a commercial avenue with Central Asia (to become the Silk Road). Readers will come away with an entirely new, more nuanced picture of the world of ancient China and of its enemies.

Nicola Di Cosmo is Senior Lecturer in Chinese History at the University of Canterbury (Christchurch, New Zealand). He has been a Research Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge, and has taught at Indiana University and Harvard University. He is a contributing author of The Cambridge History of Ancient China (Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy, eds., 1999) and State and Ritual in China (Joseph McDermott, ed., 1999). He is a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Asian Studies, Asia Major, and the Journal of East Asian Archaeology.

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