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

By Nicola Di Cosmo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Beasts and Birds
The Historical Context of Early Chinese
Perceptions of the Northern Peoples

Introduction

Is it true that, during the Spring and Autumn period, a clear consciousness emerged of a moral and cultural divide between the Chou states and a nebulous external world of alien peoples? Several passages in the Ch'un ch'iu and its commentaries, which later entered the Shih chi and other historical works, show foreigners being compared to animals and being represented as subhuman. A certain mythology of the external world and an idealized representation of geographic space in terms of its moral and political order contribute to the impression that, during the Chou period, a notion of “China” as a territory — Chou states, chung-kuo — and of “the Chinese” as a people — Hua or Hsia — crystallized sufficiently to make China's external boundaries deeper than internal boundaries between the various polities that comprised the Chou political and cultural universe. The evolution of an inner Chinese core differentiated from an outer non-Chinese one was already seen by Fu Ssu-nien in the opposition between the mythical Hsia dynasty and the so-called Yi peoples.1 Nonetheless, although both the Shang and the Western Chou fought against foreign polities, the few dry records of their expeditions, triumphs, and defeats fail to convey a clear sense of this differentiation between a “Chinese” world of shared principles, revolving around a real or assumed source of moral and political authority (the Chou dynastic line), and a “barbarian” world whose inhabitants were placed at various degrees of distance from that central source.

____________________
1
K. C. Chang, “Sandai Archaeology and the Formation of States in Ancient China, ” in The Origins of Chinese Civilizations, ed. David Keightley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 498.

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