Academic journal article The Historian

Southern Integration: The Sui-Tang (581-907) Reach South

Academic journal article The Historian

Southern Integration: The Sui-Tang (581-907) Reach South

Article excerpt

SOUTH CHINA HAD BEEN independent for roughly four centuries when it was conquered by the Sui dynasty (581-618) in 589. (1) Much of the south, moreover, had scarcely been Chinese in any meaningful sense at all prior to the initial (Qin) imperial unification in the third century BC. Yet after the Sui conquest, and under the more enduring Tang dynasty (618-907) that followed, the south was successfully and permanently incorporated into the empire, and increasingly even central to it. In hindsight, this "reunification of China" appears both natural and inevitable. But it was not simply inevitable, as the contemporary counterexample of the permanent dissolution of Roman imperial unity in the Mediterranean illustrates. The Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC-AD 220) had established an early precedent for unified empire in China, but there was no guarantee that their model would ever be duplicated again. This article will examine the intricate process by which long-independent, and far from homogenous, territories and peoples came to be integrated into the single political entity we now call "China." It needs to be appreciated from the outset that the concept of "China," as we understand it, did not yet exist in the sixth century. Not only is "China" not a Chinese language word, but the nearest Chinese language equivalents also still had somewhat different significations. The Chinese term that is today most nearly synonymous with the English word "China"--Zhongguo, or Middle Kingdom(s)--rather than being the proper name of a country, was more literally a geographic description, indicating the country or countries occupying the central portions of the known world. It referred, moreover, specifically to only part of what we now consider to be China--chiefly the so-called Central Plain area in the Northeast. Huaxia, a term that is difficult to translate into English other than as "China," nevertheless was neither the name of a country nor a nation, but an elastic cultural marker distinguishing literate agriculturally-based "civilization" from the radically different lifestyle of preliterate and, especially, nomadic peoples. The Huaxia label could, furthermore, embrace a surprising amount of internal ethnic diversity, and multiple independent countries. (2) Therefore, while there has indeed been very much continuity of Chinese civilization over time--notably of the written language and texts--we need to be careful of what we mean when we speak of an enduring "China."

The remarkable longevity of the Chinese empire (which, however, could alternately be described as a succession of different empires occupying roughly the same space) has been examined by Mark Elvin in The Pattern of the Chinese Past. Elvin's emphasis, however, was on developments in the North prior to the Sui and Tang dynasties, and, especially, on the post-Tang "economic revolution" and subsequent "high-level equilibrium trap" that sustained the late imperial order. By contrast, Prasenjit Duara sought "to decouple the ... repressive connection between history and the nation," and questioned the linear continuity of any unitarily permanent "China." Most studies of the expansion of the Chinese state and civilization into the south, meanwhile, such as Herold Wiens's China's March to the Tropics, and Laura Hostetler's recent work on the early-modern Southwest, have focused upon long-term Chinese southward migration and interaction with aboriginal peoples. Miyakawa Hisayuki sketched "The Confucianization of South China," but the spread of Confucianism did not necessarily preclude the possibility of independent Confucian states surviving in south China (as they did in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam). None of this explains why centuries of southern independence were followed by enduring reunification. (3)

Chinese scholars have long recognized that the Age of Division between the great unified Han and Sui dynasties poses a special challenge to the continuity of Chinese history, although the pivotal importance of the era remains underappreciated among English-speaking Sinologists. …

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