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

By Nicola Di Cosmo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Bronze, Iron, and Gold
The Evolution of Nomadic Cultures on the
Northern Frontier of China

Introduction: The Northern Complex

Scholars have long recognized that a cultural frontier, understood as an area of contacts among carriers of different material cultures, existed to the north of China as early as the Shang dynasty.1 The origin of this cultural complex, its connection with China and areas in Central and northern Asia, and the characteristics of the separate cultural enclaves recognizable within it have been objects of much debate. Yet two critical questions remain unanswered: When do we begin to see a clearly delineated frontier between China and the north? More importantly, how do we define the northern frontier?2

China's frontier has been often understood as an ideal line dividing two ecological zones: the steppes and deserts of the north and the farmland of the south. Although this line may have shifted north or south in response to climatic variations over time, from the viewpoint of human agency this interpretation of the frontier remains fundamentally static and tells us little about cultural exchange and political interaction.3

____________________
1
For an early and still excellent analysis of the northern frontier, see William Watson, Cultural Frontiers in Ancient East Asia (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971), pp. 96–124.
2
This chapter is based in part on Nicola Di Cosmo, “The Northern Frontier in Pre-Imperial China, ” in Cambridge History of Ancient China, ed. Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 885–966.
3
Kathryn Linduff has suggested that the relationship between the Central Plain and the northern cultures emerging in the early Bronze Age evolved into one of core-periphery, thus surmising a relationship of dependency of the “frontier” upon the core. See her “The Emergence and Demise of Bronze-Producing Cultures Outside the Central Plain of China, ” in The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia, ed. Victor H. Mair (Washington: Institute for the Study of Man, 1998), 2: 619–43.

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