2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 172: Before Reunification: Military and Socio-Political Aspects of Sixth-Century China

Organizer: Charles W. Holcombe, University of Northern Iowa

Chair: Victor Cunrui Xiong, Western Michigan University

Discussant: Patricia Ebrey, University of Washington

Keywords: China, Inner Asia, history, military, Northern and Southern Dynasties.

The sixth century was a pivotal moment in the history of imperial China. For many years there were three sovereign states (and multiple ethnic identities) in the heartland of the vanished Han empire, while the old Han frontiers had become fluid and ill-defined. In north China, formerly nomadic Tuoba Xianbei rulers simultaneously invoked ancient Chinese ideals, and—amidst a broad process of "Xianbei-ization"—actively reasserted their own language, traditions, and power. Further north in Mongolia a mighty Türk empire arose through interaction with power centers on the Central Plain. In south China, where the non-Chinese aboriginal population may have still been an absolute majority, ethnic strife intensified.

Such disunity and diversity within the previous Han borders had, moreover, been the norm now for three or four hundred years. The "reunification of China" that was achieved by the Sui and Tang dynasties after 589 was not predestined or inevitable. It was not just another twist in an interminable dynastic cycle. Rather, it was the contingent result of specific situations, events and policies, and its outcome was profoundly shaped by the conditions of the day. This panel will examine selected questions of military life and practice, interstate relations, cross-border mobility, and national identity formation in the sixth century, in the hope of better understanding the momentous Sui-Tang achievement.

The Role of the Tuoba Kingdoms of North China in the Imperial State Formation of the Early Türks

Michael R. Drompp, Rhodes College

The creation of the first Türk empire in 552 C.E. was an event of tremendous historical importance. From their base in Mongolia, the Türks rapidly expanded their power throughout Eurasia; the state they created was powerful enough to influence their neighbors, including China, Persia, and the Byzantine Empire.

This paper examines the role of the Tuoba states of north China in the creation of the Türks’ imperial polity. In the years leading up to the Türk victory of 552, north China was politically unstable. The split of the Tuoba Wei empire into rival states in 534 created an unusual power structure at the frontier when the Türks began their rise to power in the 540s. As the Türks, vassals of the Rouran, began to assert greater autonomy on the steppe, much of this was done in the context of relations with the Tuoba states. As the Rouran proved incapable of containing Türk ambitions, the Türks and the Tuoba created relationships that would be most beneficial to them. An examination of these relationships reveals the significance of the Tuoba states to the rise of Türk power.

Finally, the paper considers these events in the light of recent theories of nomad state formation. The Türk case reveals several factors (economic, political, ideological) that were crucial to the rise of this new nomad power, and shows that both internal and external forces were important in the creation of the Türk empire. It thus supports theories that see state formation as stemming from particular multiple causes.

Li Jing’s Antecedents: Continuity and Change in the Pragmatics of Medieval Chinese Warfare

David A. Graff, Kansas State University

The origin of key Sui and Tang military institutions, most notably the fubing or so-called "garrison militia" system, in the sixth century Western Wei/Northern Zhou regime is well known, even if many details are still but dimly understood. In contrast, the problem of continuity and change in the pragmatics of warfare in early medieval China has received relatively little scholarly attention despite the pioneering work of Benjamin Wallacker, Yang Hong, and Albert Dien. This paper will examine the tools and techniques of warfare in north China in the middle decades of the sixth century, focusing in particular on the conduct of major campaigns such as the Zhou conquest of Northern Qi in 576–77. It will also compare the weaponry, tactics, logistics, and operational principles of the mid-sixth century with those encountered in historical accounts of early Tang campaigns and the fragmentary early seventh-century military manual of Li Jing. With the exception of the eclipse of the heavy cavalry, the military transition from the Northern Dynasties to Tang was characterized more by continuity than change. This, I will argue, is because the culturally mixed society of the North, drawing from both its Chinese and steppe antecedents, had long possessed a set of proven and effective methods for dealing with nearly all of the military challenges it faced.

A Blurring of the Borders: Interstate Mobility in Sixth-Century China

Charles W. Holcombe, University of Northern Iowa

In the sixth century there were multiple states and peoples in the region we call China. Most shared a broadly common literate civilization, yet sharp distinctions sometimes remained between various groups within China, while the zone of cultural exchange and ferment also extended beyond China to include both Inner and East Asia. There was, in other words, no one single, well-defined, "China." It will be argued that in this fluid age of transformation, the very weakness of any sense of national identity (in either the ethnic or political sense) actually helped facilitate the restoration of a unified Chinese empire after 589.

This paper will examine the prevalence of various forms of (non-transient) border-crossing in the sixth century, through capture, forced relocation, exile, and voluntary defection. Such activities tended to make both members of the elite—notably including royalty—and their subject peoples politically and culturally interchangeable. For example, in the mid-sixth century the southern Liang Empire was rocked by the rebellion of a commander, possibly of nomadic descent, who had previously defected from the north. Other defectors rallied in defense of the Liang, but the episode resulted in much of the southern elite being led north in captivity. Among them was a child who, after "repatriation," became the last southern dynasty emperor. Such border permeability reduced the barriers between states and peoples, and helps explain why a division of several centuries duration did not become permanent.

The Way of the Warrior of the Northern Dynasties

Scott Pearce, Western Washington University

Under the Northern Dynasties (386–581), the army—at least the effective army—was more than an assembly of called-up troops; it was a militarized community that had taken shape over generations of protracted warfare, in the course of which youngsters learned from more seasoned warriors how to fight, and how to view themselves. A subset of the medieval Chinese world, these groups played a vital role there in the recreation of empire. They were not, however, much given to the brush and we know them largely through the writings of outsiders, of Confucian scribes.

This paper will mine our scanty sources to gain a clearer sense of the symbols and code of conduct that bound these men and their families together. Drawing upon essays and the standard histories, pictorial art and popular poetry, I will discuss the cults of the sword, and of the horse; the songs these men sang and the oaths they swore; the ways in which they displayed loyalty, and brotherhood, and valor.

The paper will close with an overview of the garb of the fighting man. Originally the attire of conquering Xianbei war bands, over time this military dress came to be worn by men of diverse background serving in regimes’ growing armies. Identity had come to be stated as much by the clothes a man wore, as by his ancestry.