The Jiankang Empire

I don’t usually post book reviews here, and this is not really a book review, but I got a lot out of Andrew Chittick’s new book The Jiankang Empire in Chinese and World History. This is a book that integrates South China into Chinese history and world history by both emphasizing the unique and interesting aspects of Southern culture and systems and analyzing how some of the same categories used to explain Northern history and Southeast Asian history can be used to explain the South.

One of the things the book is good for is helping people like me, who don’t really know Early China, but have to teach it, to understand the South in the Age of Disunion. The whole Age of Disunion name is a problem, of course, and more modern treatments like Lewis  or Holcombe call it the Age of Cosmopolitanism and talk about the diversity of Chinese culture during this period etc.

Chittick claims that

“the Jiankang Empire’s (his new term for all the Southern dynasties) military and political culture both are seen as a ‘dead end’ that did not obviously lead to any period of greater glory for the Chinese people, or have decisive impacts on later Chinese, much less world, history.” (pg 8)

Chittick is -not- saying that other scholars who work on the period are writing old-fashioned Chinese nationalist “5,000 years of pure Chinese culture” history, where the great Chinese culture assimilates all the detritus of Asia, and the whole period is just an embarrassing gap between Han and Tang. He -is- saying that almost all of these works focus on the North. He is talking about many of the same things as these other books. Things like the difficulty of defining Sinitc (Chinese) culture during this period, the problematic relationship between the court and great families, the role of Buddhism in creating a unified polity etc.

This things all happened in the south, although in different ways. For instance, the “ethnic” division in the South was between the Zhongren (people claiming decent from the central plains) and the Churen and Wuren. (These are all terms he seems to have coined) and he goes explains how these groups went through a process of “partial ethnogenesis” that explains a lot of Southern politics and culture.

To some extent this fits into the old literature on Northern and Southern culture, wen and wu, Chinese and barbarian etc. He points out that the Churen were just as martial as Northerners, and that the role of Sinic high culture and “Chinese” and “non-Chinese” language were important and problematic, just like in the North, although it played out differently

The local customs value vigor and strength, and produce many brave and courageous men; the people are practiced at warfare and esteem deceit and dishonesty. Seven out of ten leading households are very much this way; families that store armor and clasp swords all pour out of their houses. Due to this, transformation by humanity and righteousness will have no effect; regulation by law and punishment will not succeed. Thus it has routinely been a failed 168

When Generalissimo Wang Dun was young he used to have the reputation of being a country bumpkin, and his speech also sounded like that of Chu.(pg96)

[Chen] Bozhi did not know books. When he was sent to Jiang Province, when he got official documents, he would only offer his general consent. Sometimes his document clerk would read them to him in vernacular language, and seize decision-making from his boss.(pg. 97)

but he is not just trying to defend the manliness of the South, he is explaining how the same sorts of categories -worked- (and did not ) in the South.

Some things were uniquely Southern. He points out that the Jiankang empire really fits pretty well with Southeast Asian ideas of kingship, where the ruler’s position came from the charisma he gained from -personally- achieving great things, either in war or culture or ritual, rather than by inheriting status. Among other things, this explains why Southern rulers were so often overthrown by younger relatives who had served in the garrisons (with the warlike men of Chu) rather than being sequestered in the capitol.

Some things are just better because he has done the legwork. Here, for instance, is his map of how much of the population was registered in different parts of the empire. This is based on his analysis in Appendix A, which I am not capable of critiquing, but the map makes a great visual if you want to talk about Jiankang as a regional state.

The only great weakness to the book is that it was published by Oxford University Press. Thus it is only in hardback, quite expensive, and not available on any of the (dwindling) number of databases my school subscribes to. Still, everyone who teaches this period, even in a survey, would get a lot of information and enjoyment out of reading this.

Works not really cited, but sort of handwaved at

Chittick, Andrew. The Jiankang Empire in Chinese and World History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Holcombe, Charles. In the Shadow of the Han: Literati Thought and Society at the Beginning of the Southern Dynasties. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Lewis, Mark Edward. China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2009.


1 Comment

  1. Interesting stuff, to be sure. I should probably put it on my “maybe” list as a graduate reading for my Early China course, and my Advanced World History course (I want to go harder on the Asia stuff)

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