Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Han Frontiers: Toward an Integrated View

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Han Frontiers: Toward an Integrated View

Article excerpt

The cornucopian flow of excavated materials in the past half century has made systematic analysis of material culture and other aspects of everyday life from religion to ritual and art a daunting task for any period of Chinese history, but in particular for one so dependent upon both material and textual sources as ancient China. (1) Archaeological work conducted on the peripheral regions of China has redefined issues of culture contact along the frontiers of the Han empire, but the sheer quantity of the excavated materials and the dominance of regional models have made systematic analysis beyond territorial or cultural boundaries problematic. (2) Moreover, theoretical approaches based on the interaction between competing socio-economic systems, and possibly subordinated to a late imperial and modern perspective that tends to see frontiers in terms of colonial policies stemming from a "civilizing mission," continue to dominate, resulting in attempts to inscribe frontier history within models based on binary oppositions: steppe and sown, Han and non-Han, natives and foreigners, and--usually wrapped in quotation marks--"barbarians" and "civilized." (3)

In point of fact, while interest in frontier dynamics has been prominent in the works of archaeologists and historians alike, a holistic view of frontiers is still lacking in the panorama of China's early imperial history. A cursory comparison with a field such as Roman history, where the study of the frontiers of the Roman empire has become a central and fundamental part of the very conception of an imperial space and of its evolution in time, makes it evident that unless such an integrated approach is taken seriously we shall be limiting our comprehension of the Han empire. The political transition from the Warring States to the Qin, and from the Qin to the Han involves radically different conceptions not just of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, but also between different types of subjects, not to mention debates over the circumstances, opportunity, and methods of military expansion. Geographic and ethnographic concepts changed in relation to the central government's reach beyond the original states of the Central Plain, and knowledge about the world was intimately connected with the Han dynasty's projection of its power into remote and unexplored areas.

Looking at Han "imperialism" from a different angle, the apparent variety of circumstances as well as rough synchronicity of the expansion of Han rule along the full are of its frontiers must also take into account the question of frontier management and government as a general issue, regardless of specific frontier regions and local peculiarities. An additional desideratum stems from the need to put order in the mass of information today available about frontiers, and to establish research questions that combine cultural history with social, political, and military history. In other words, the often two-dimensional approach to frontier studies, whereby the frontier is constructed as an encounter between local and imported features, should be replaced with a three-dimensional view that places that dynamic relationship within the context of the construction of imperial frontiers. It is worth recalling that the imperial frontier system established by the Han was also a living administrative organism that changed over time in response to both local and central pressures, and that the experimentation carried out by the Han along the frontiers impinged upon later theories, debates, policies, and practices.

A practical strategy to develop a more integrated approach to Han frontiers is to focus on questions that have been raised in relation to their process of formation, and extrapolate from them similarities and differences, while maintaining chronological consistency. First, the question of Han expansionism has long been linked to political history and placed under the dual rubric of "motives" and "circumstances. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.