project . 2010 - 2011 . Closed

Continental Asia and monsoon China, 600-1400

UK Research and Innovation
Funder: UK Research and InnovationProject code: AH/H037721/1
Funded under: AHRC Funder Contribution: 84,584 GBP
Status: Closed
05 Oct 2010 (Started) 04 Jul 2011 (Ended)

China is widely conceived as centring on 'China Proper', running from the Great Wall to the south coast, its civilisation contrasted, still, with the 'barbarian' pastoral nomads north of the Wall. I propose that a more useful division is between 'monsoon China', a tropical, mountainous land that in the Middle Period (c. 600-1400) became one of padi fields and maritime trade, and a continental zone that had long comprised a range of ecologies mixing varying degrees of agriculture, stock-rearing and overland trade. This places the transitional zone 800 miles further south, in the River Huai basin, between the Yellow River and the Yangzi, undermining the environmentally determinist contrast between 'civilised' China and 'barbarian' nomads, and offering new ways of viewing the northern zone in particular.\n\nFrom 600 to 1400 the dynasties of imperial China progressively lost control over the continental zone, but a sinocentric scholarship has suggested that little of consequence happened north of the Chinese empire. Now new and ongoing research suggests that the continental zone, already extensively interconnected for centuries before 600, continued to enjoy complex interactions throughout the Middle Period. This project traces a shared repertoire of practices, beliefs and material culture that was drawn on from the Yellow River valley to the Mongolian steppe and from the Silk Road oases to Japan. Similar ideas of loyalty, which underpinned fluid and adaptive political structures, are found in regimes listed in China's dynastic sequence and in nomadic political units from the grasslands. Buddhist practices travelled from the Silk Road to the Liao (907-1125) and Xi Xia (1038-1227) dynasties and on to Japan. The same unglazed grey pottery is found in the Gansu corridor, throughout Mongolia and in Manchuria down to at least 1200.\n\nBy contrast, in the Song dynasty (960-1276), increasingly focused on the monsoonal zone, we know that ruling elites embraced newly rigid ideas of loyalty and political organisation, and responded to Buddhism's hold on the populace by sponsoring an anti-Buddhist neo-Confucian orthodoxy that prescribed behaviour, while technological advances produced new and distinctive types of fine ceramics. This research will argue that monsoon China not only grew apart from the continental zone but also sought to define itself against the 'barbarian' northerners. Both regions also appear to have directed their trade more towards their other neighbours - across the South China Sea and the overland Silk Roads respectively - than towards each other.\n\nThis radical rethink of China's geography opens up vast new areas of research, particularly in the continental zone. It aims to transform ways of thinking about the place we call China, not only in the past but also in the present. This will be of interest not just to scholars but to policymakers, the media, those needing to understand China for business purposes, and the general public.\n\nThe project reinterprets existing scholarship in light of my own primary research on loyalty, political networks and material culture, and new findings in archaeology and historical analysis relating to China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, the Silk Roads and the South China Sea. The approach emphasises the social aspects of political history, including the relationships between individuals within ruling groups, between central decisions and what happened in the borderlands, and between elite and everyday life. Nine months of analysis and writing will produce a 60,000-word contribution to Volume 2 of five comprising a New World History, an unprecedented international undertaking to write an integrated history tracing the evolution of global society from prehistoric times to the present, to be published in English and German by C.H. Beck and Harvard University Press. There will also be conference papers, an article, a public lecture and pieces for scholarly and policy websites and the press.

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