Meanings of “Barbarian” and “Chinese” in China, 600-1300


A review of Reinventing the Barbarian: Rhetorical and Philosophical Uses of the Yi-Di in Mid-Imperial China, 600–1300, by Shao-yun Yang.

What does it mean to be “Chinese”? How is it defined? Shao-yun Yang’s dissertation looks at the Tang and Song periods and concludes that then, as now, there was no easy answer to this question The way the difference between Chinese and barbarian was constructed shifted over time, with an important, new conceptualization of the dichotomy emerging in the late Tang and Song eras. The boundary between the two sides became fluid and permeable, instead of strictly geopolitical or ethnic. Barbarianism came to mean a deviation from ideological orthodoxy and morality, yet without letting go entirely of the ethnocentric component. Chinese could become barbarians when displaying a lack of ritual and moral duty, but barbarians could not become Chinese through correct behavior. Throughout the dissertation, Yang shows that this change was ultimately more about defining Chineseness than Otherness.

This is a lengthy, in-depth study, covering a wide variety of texts and many different aspects of this complex issue. Tang and Song scholarship on the Chunqiu 春秋 and Lunyu 論語, political legitimacy in the Chinese dynastic sequence, and the transmission of the Mandate of Heaven are explored in addition to debates on foreign policy and treatises specifically addressing the Chinese-barbarian dichotomy. Translations form a significant portion of the main text of this dissertation, bringing these voices from a distant past to the modern reader with as little mediation as possible.

In the “Introduction,” Yang defends his choice of the word “barbarian” as a translation of Yi , Di , Man , Rong , and the various combinations of these terms. The inherent moral inferiority of these people in premodern Chinese discourse, with connotations similar to the English word “barbarian,” has been grasped in twentieth-century Chinese and Western scholarship as the basis for a claim that the Chinese-barbarian dichotomy was culturalist, rather than (proto-)nationalist or racist. If any evolution of this discourse from Tang to Song is acknowledged in generalist narratives, it is usually depicted as a change from an open and cosmopolitan attitude to xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Against these ideas, Hoyt Tillman (“Proto-Nationalism in Twelfth-Century China? The Case of Ch’en Liang,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 39.2 [1979]) and Rolf Trauzettel (“Sung Patriotism as a First Step toward Chinese Nationalism,” in John Winthrop Haeger ed., Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1975) have proposed that the Song period provides the first glimpses of a Chinese nationalism, but Yang finds this suggestion problematic, too (p. xxiv). This still relies on modern, Western concepts for which there are no pre-modern Chinese equivalents. Instead, Yang focuses on a close reading of the texts from the Tang and Song dynasties and investigates in detail the rhetorical and intellectual context, the intentions of the author, the intended audience, and the internal or intertextual inconsistencies. By engaging with the authors and their texts on their own terms, rather than trying to read them through our modern/post-modern lens, he hopes to arrive at a more accurate representation of the Tang and Song thinkers’ views on what exactly separated Chinese from barbarians.

The main text of the dissertation is structured in four parts, each containing a preamble, two chapters, and a conclusion. Each part corresponds to a distinct period in the Tang-Song intellectual climate: the early Tang (with a focus on Taizong) in Part 1; the ninth century (focus on Han Yu and his influence) in Part 2; Part 3 covers the Ancient Prose revival of the Northern Song; and the daoxue thinkers and Southern Song feature in Part 4. In addition to an Epilogue, there are also three Appendices. These are essays on Chen Yinke’s theory of Hebei’s barbarization, Han Yu’s position about longevity elixirs, and exchanges between Shi Jie and Ouyang Xiu on the Ancient Style revival.

Part 1, “The Rhetoric of Barbarophilia and Barbarophobia at Tang Taizong’s Court,” presents the early Tang as a touchstone for the later chapters. Only by showing these earlier notions of the Chinese-barbarian divide is it possible to appreciate the enormous change that took place by the end of the Song. But the closer investigation of this period also shows the many misconceptions in our understanding of the early Tang. Questions about the value of the empire’s expansion surfaced in debates about the war with Goguryeo and the resettlement of the Turks. Yang traces many of the references in these debates to Han dynasty precedents and the Classics. It is important to note, however, that these references to the canonical corpus were used by both opponents and supporters of military action and expansionism when debating very specific cases. The same trope, for instance the lack of trustworthiness among barbarians, could be called upon as an argument against expansion, or equally in support of military conquest, but should not be seen as reflective of an overarching view of all barbarians. Stock images and tropes were marshaled for rhetorical purposes. This also has consequences for the general view of the early Tang as an open and cosmopolitan society. Despite the prevalence of foreigners in early Tang society, there was no common idea of “generic” foreigners or barbarians. Instead, different ethnic groups were subject to different essentializations or stereotyping. Talking about foreigners and thinking about them were two different things.

In Part 2, “‘Before We All Become Barbarians’: Han Yu’s Ancient Style Rhetoric and the Accidental Invention of ‘Culturalism’,” Yang looks at the ninth century, with Han Yu as the central figure in Chapter 3 (“Barbarians and Barbarization in Han Yu’s Anti-Buddhist Rhetoric”). Han’s influence in the ninth century is the subject of Chapter 4 (“Barbarians and Barbarization in the Rhetoric of Han Yu’s Ninth-Century Imitators”). Modern scholarship in East and West has interpreted Han Yu in many different ways, a reflection of his central position in the intellectual climate of the time and the complexity of his work. Yang suggests we separate the ideological message from the rhetorical devices Han used in his work, and that leads to new insights even for very well-known texts such as the famous memorial on the Buddha relic. Han’s main concern in his writings about Buddhism or barbarians was not with arguments against this religion or foreigners per se. Han used these topics as rhetorical strategies to underline the paramount importance of ideological orthodoxy, in this case adherence to the Classics and a return to Antiquity. It seems that Han was the first to suggest a fluid, permeable boundary between barbarians and Chinese. The distinction Han saw was based on behavior, more than ethnicity or geography. Deviation from Classicism could lead to literal barbarization, that is Chinese people becoming barbarians, rather than merely “like barbarians” (a subtle but important distinction). Yang suggests that Han Yu’s writings with “inconsistent, muddled or incomplete analogies reflect a general pattern in Han Yu’s writing: rhetorical effect takes precedence over intellectual coherence” (p. 143).

Yang also clarifies that Han’s influence in the ninth century was much more limited than we may understand from the general narrative about the Tang-Song intellectual transition. At this early point, only a few supporters took up his cause for ideological orthodoxy or rhetoric of barbarization in the ninth century. Placing these few pieces in their wider context shows that some of the polemics can potentially be interpreted as satire (Neiyi xi 内夷檄 “A Call to Arms against the Inner Barbarian”) or personal attacks (Dongjin Yuan-Wei di zhengrun lun 東晉元魏帝正閏論Discourse on the Legitimacy of the Eastern Jin Emperors and the Illegitimacy of the Northern Wei Emperors”), and should not be taken as indications of wider trends in late Tang thought and society on the Chinese-barbarian divide.

Han Yu’s influence became much wider in the Song dynasty, when the rediscovery of his work led to the Ancient Style revival. This is dealt with in Chapter 5 (“The Revived Ancient Style Rhetoric of Ideological Barbarism”) from Part 3, “Uses and Interpretations of Barbarism in the Ancient Style Revival, ca. 970–ca. 1070.” Chapter 6 (“Discourses on Barbarism in the Chunqiu Exegesis of Sun Fu, Liu Chang, and Su Shi”) looks at the Chunqiu scholarship of this period. It may be tempting to interpret these decades of the Northern Song in light of the very different geopolitical situation of the Song, compared to the Tang. Yang shows that the main concern of the scholar-officials in their thinking about the Chinese-barbarian dichotomy lay with defining Chineseness and a perception of moral decline and not necessarily with a threat from the Khitan in the north. Modern interpretations of an increased ethnocentrism and xenophobia during the Northern Song’s first century, as a result of the permanent threat of barbarian invasions, are not backed up by Yang’s analysis of the Ancient Style revivalists.

Questions of how to determine political legitimacy and moral decline led scholar-officials to look for answers in the works attributed to Confucius, among them the Chunqiu. This led to a proliferation of commentaries on the text and differences in interpretation. Yet when commenting on issues pertaining to the Chinese-barbarian dichotomy, most Song commentators agreed. According to them, the cause of the problems of the Chunqiu period lay with the Chinese lords: their lack of respect for the Zhou king opened the way for the barbarian incursions, not the other way round. Gradually, among Song scholars a view of the divide between barbarians and Chinese was emerging which placed more emphasis on adhering to correct ritual and moral standards rather than descent. In other words: the seed had been sown for a definition of Chineseness based on culture, defined as morality.

Part 4, “The Universalist’s Dilemma: Daoxue Philosophy and the Problem of Chinese Identity, ca. 1072–ca.1223,” continues this development of a more relativist view of Chineseness in the scholarship of the daoxue thinkers. Their discussions centered around the concepts of li and qi and how these could be different between barbarians and Chinese. Only inside the Central Lands was qi perfectly balanced and gave rise to civilization; qi in the barbarians’ homelands was not properly aligned and thus they were denied the benefits of civilization. These ideas had circulated for many centuries, but now found renewed vigor through the daoxue theorizations on li and qi. Daoxue scholars were reluctant to let the development of their ideas on these issues come to their logical conclusion, and this has—for the observant reader—internal contradictions as a result. The premise was that Chineseness was defined by adhering to ritual and moral standards. As Han Yu had first suggested, Chinese would become barbarians by not observing proper ritual and morality. But this suggested that barbarians could become Chinese by practicing the correct ritual and moral behavior. By the twelfth century this was no longer just an interesting hypothesis which could be worked out through the study of the Chunqiu (dealt with extensively in Chapter 8, “The Daoxue Discourse of Barbarism in Zhu Xi’s Generation, 1161–1223”), but had become a burning political question after the Jurchen Jin’s occupation of the northern Central Lands. These were not barbarians as described in the classical sources: they studied the Chinese Classics and observed ritual. Were these really barbarians, or was there a possibility that they could become Chinese? Yang shows how the daoxue scholars struggled to accept the logical outcome of their theoretical views, because this universalist, morality-based identity could lead to the conclusion that there was no inherent difference between barbarians and Chinese. The alternative view was a more pragmatic interpretation which maintained an ethnocentric component, and thus posited an insurmountable difference between the Song and the northern barbarians. The Classics provided no clear guidance on this thorny issue, and scholars wrestled with the tension between these two very different views.

In the epilogue Yang shows how these two views—universalist-moralist and ethnocentric—continued to influence scholars who had to choose sides in the transition from Song to Yuan. Three centuries of creative thinking about what exactly made the Chinese different from the peoples around them had completely changed the nature of the debate since the early Tang, and the consequences still reverberate in our engagement with this chapter of premodern China’s history.

This dissertation will be of interest to scholars of intellectual history in the premodern period for its methodological approach, with its careful analysis of the historical context and rhetorical intentions of documents. Those studying race and ethnicity in premodern and modern East Asia will also find much of interest in these pages: the overview of modern scholarship debunks many commonly held misconceptions and steers us away from thoughtless generalizations and static views of “premodern China” by pointing out the evolution in the definition of Self and Other through these crucial centuries. For the study of Tang and Song in particular, this is a welcome addition to the field through its combination of political, military, and intellectual history, at the intersection with rhetorical use of language.

Tineke D’Haeseleer
Society of Fellows
Princeton University

Primary Sources

Cefu yuangui 冊府元龜
Han Changli wenji jiaozhu 韓昌黎文集校註
Ercheng ji 二程集
Culai Shi xiansheng wenji 徂徠石先生文集
Su Shi quanji jiaozhu 蘇軾全集校註

Dissertation information

University of California, Berkeley. 2014. 446 pp. Primary Advisors: Michael Nylan and Nicolas Tackett.

Image: detail from Li Gonglin (attributed), “Guo Ziyi rides to meet the Uyghurs alone,” from the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This Song-era painting depicts a famous episode from Tang history in which the general Guo Ziyi (697-781) defeated an invasion of Tibetans and Uyghurs by going unarmed to the Uyghurs’ camp and securing their submission with his fearsome reputation.

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