2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 221

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The Origins and Nature of Militarized Societies in Early Medieval China

Organizer: Scott Pearce, Western Washington University, USA

Chair: Albert E. Dien, Stanford University, USA

Discussant: Peter Lorge, Vanderbilt University, USA

Human beings are by nature violent, but as the sociologist Sinisa Malesevic has pointed out, much of that violence is "profoundly social in character." While such systematized group violence appears in all societies, in some it has become a defining element of culture, of that which they "learn, share and pass down" to their young. In such societies war is celebrated in word and action and thus, generation after generation, the youth is taught not only to participate in fighting, but as Martin Van Creveld has said, take it as "the greatest joy of all." Frequently these sorts of groups are -- or become -- part of a larger society to which they add a new, unwelcome, complexity: establishing a coercive hierarchy through which they extract food from those who actually produce it. This phenomenon is regularly seen in human history, in many different forms. In the three papers offered here we narrow the focus to the origins and nature of such groups in both the north and the south during China's Period of Division. The general reluctance in the Chinese literary tradition to describe war -- much less delight in it -- has been well described in recent work on this subject. In these papers we will find what we can in the creases of our texts, while also drawing upon the burgeoning discoveries of archaeologists, to describe more fully and clearly the martial cultures of early medieval China.

Ties That Bind: Ways of Building and Sustaining Comradeship Among the Fighting Men of the Northern Dynasties
Scott Pearce, Western Washington University, USA

Many sets of relationships serve to create and maintain a militarized society, a nation organized for war. One would of course be the son and his mother, who is impelled by the nature of her world to teach the boy that he must come home with his shield, or on it. Equally important, of course, are the ties that bind men who together fight -- and possibly die -- on the field of battle. Despite the biases of the literati tradition, there are preserved in the Northern Dynasties' histories many anecdotes describing various ways in which comradeship unfolded among the men -- most originally of Inner Asian extraction -- who formed the core of these armies. I will look at five. For the first category, I focus on ties between two individuals, looking at frequently seen (perhaps formulaic) tales of a loyal subordinate soothing his lord in the night after a defeat. The next four involve bonding rituals for groups of men: these are hunting, drinking, collective oath-making, and the ritual expression by a group of grief for a fallen comrade. Found of course in many societies -- including the Jiankang regimes to the south -- these were the ties that bound together the fighting men of the Northern Dynasties.

Militarized Society of the Northern Zhou Under the Xianbei Rulers: An Archaeological Perspective
Mandy Jui-Man Wu, Hanover College, USA

This paper describes the mixture of burial goods from the Northern Zhou tomb of Emperor Wu and explores what these goods tell us about martial culture and manifestations of power as displayed in imperial tombs during the Northern Zhou. The Northern Zhou was ruled by Xianbei, a non-Han pastoral people, who created a dual governmental model that combined their own pastoral military structure with the established Chinese bureaucratic system. To this end, they proclaimed the Great Zhou as their dynastic title and claimed to revive the ancient Zhou government system, while integrating their native tribal military organization into the new government. In this centralized military system, the Northern Zhou elite enjoyed the highest social status while also standing at the top of the political hierarchy. According to the Book of Zhou (Zhoushu), the burials of the Northern Zhou elite were modest, in accordance with burial edicts enacted by Northern Zhou Emperors Ming and Wu. Evidence in Emperor Wu’s tomb challenges this statement. In the tombs of the non-Han Xianbei rulers of Northern Zhou were collections of entombed jade bi discs, symbols of Heaven based on the written text in the Zhouli, used as a claim of descent from the ancient Zhou. At the same time, these Xianbei conquerors consciously chose steppe-style objects and burial practices as a way to display their military authority, which had been played down in the official documents.

Military Culture in the Southern Dynasties
Mark Ed Lewis, Stanford University, USA

The Southern Dynasties are generally identified as culturally sophisticated regimes dominated by an elite that cultivated the refined arts, in contrast to northern neighbors dominated by military men of steppe background. This talk will elaborate how in fact southern society and politics were dominated by military men, and how the military values of these men fundamentally shaped southern culture. I will examine three aspects of this phenomenon. First, I will look at what scholarship has revealed about the fundamental importance of local military garrisons, and of the populations who provided the manpower for the southern armies. Second, I will examine the military origins of all the dynastic houses in this period, and show how their attempts to maintain power led these rulers to play a permanent, substantial role in commanding armed forces, even while also attempting to adopt some of the refined cultural forms that defined the old “great families”. Finally, I will examine how major works of literature in the fifth century gave a central place to military action, even while not explicitly acknowledging the importance of this theme. After sketching these diverse ways in which military lifestyles and armed power were crucial between 400 and 600, I will conclude with a brief reflection on the reasons for the longstanding distortion of actual nature of power in the Southern Dynasties, and how these provide a precedent for the repeated distortion of subsequent Chinese history involved in the willful ignorance of military affairs.