[Review] 张佳《图像、观念与仪俗:元明时代的族群文化变迁》(Zhang Jia: Images, Concepts, and Rituality. The Transformation of Ethnic Culture in the Yuan-Ming Period)

Zhang Jia 张佳, Tuxiang, guannian yu yisu: Yuan Ming shidai de zuqun wenhua bianqian 图像、观念与仪俗:元明时代的族群文化变迁 (Images, Concepts, and Rituality: The Transformation of Ethnic Culture in the Yuan-Ming Period), Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan 商务印书馆, 2021. ISBN: 978-7-100-19549-2, 302 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Lin Hang 林航 (Hangzhou Normal University 杭州师范大学)

The second half of the fourteenth century witnessed the transition from the Mongol Yuan (1271–1368) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) in China and marked a significant turning point in the history of East Asia and the world. In China, the shift of rulership from Mongolian to Han-Chinese brought about great changes in politics, ideology, and culture. Such changes were profound and extensive in north China, a region ruled consecutively by the Khitan, Jurchen and Mongol for over two centuries. One might intuit the considerable turbulence during the Yuan-Ming transition, but what changes took place exactly? How did these changes influence China regarding ethnicity, culture and identity? In Tuxiang, guannian yu yisu, Zhang Jia weaves together historical documents and visual materials to depict the prominence and transformation of the “Sino-Barbarian” dichotomy (the notion of Yi-Xia 夷夏 opposing the sophisticated culture of the Chinese to their supposedly uncultured neighbours) as reflected in painting and art aesthetics, culturalization of Nestorian families, the change of costumes, the exchanges of diplomatic envoys between Korea and Japan, as well as changes in the tomb rituals.

Following an introduction that summarizes the main arguments, the core chapters can be grouped into two parts. The first part, consisting of two chapters, explores how conceptions of nation and ethnicity evolved in the cultural realm. Chapter one focuses on a particular set of paintings dating from the Song (960–1276) to the Ming, depicting non-Han peoples. While these paintings were viewed as illustrating the divide between Han and Non-Han in the Southern Song period (1127–1276) because of the political and military pressure posed by the Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) in the north, such depictions became evidence of a powerful multi-ethnic empire during the Yuan. For Han-Chinese viewers, Zhang cogently argues, appreciating these paintings means “meeting the foreign other on paper” (与异族他者纸上相逢) (p. 44). With the establishment of the Ming, however, the ethnocultural borders were again deliberately emphasized to construct the legitimacy of the Ming as an empire of Han-Chinese. In chapter two, Zhang delves into historical records to examine how the meaning of Yi-Xia transformed from a hidden concept that the Han-Chinese avoided mentioning in the Yuan to a prominent notion in the Ming.

In contrast to the convention that the Han scholar-officials in the Yuan did not pay particular attention to this notion and such awareness only rose with the dynastic establishment of the Ming, Zhang subtly notes that the Sino-Barbarian dichotomy persisted from the Song through the Yuan. This idea “could not be expressed openly and straightforwardly” (无法公开、直接地表达), so it was only implied “in an aggrieved manner with the help of various allusions and metaphors” (借助各类典故与隐喻委屈地暗示出来) (p. 98). Chapter three turns to three stele inscriptions to reconstruct the cultural history of a prominent Nestorian family residing in Shandong. Through careful reading of the inscriptions and by comparing the texts to other historical records, Zhang outlines how this Nestorian family negotiated between religious beliefs and cultural practices during the Yuan. Entering the Ming, however, the members of this family became “thoroughly Sinicized” (彻底汉化) and were thus “hidden in the depth of history” (隐入了历史的深处) (p. 141).

The change of conceptions is also seen in various aspects of social life, particularly in rites and rituals, as shown in the second part of the book. The fourth chapter takes the “curtain hat” (幔笠) as an example to discuss how certain non-Han customs from the north were first refused, then tolerated and accepted, but finally rejected again by the Han in the south. The “curtain hat”, a traditional Jurchen style headgear, was first adopted by the Mongols and then spread with the Mongol troops to south China, Korea, Central Asia, and Persia. After the fall of the Yuan, however, the “curtain hat” was seen by the Han-Chinese as a symbol of barbarization and was thus rejected. The brief history of this hat, as Zhang argues, is a vivid reflection of the changing attitudes toward the Yi-Xia concept among the scholar-officials in China and East Asia. Chapter five moves forward to how Korea adopted the Ming dynasty dress code. Whereas Mongol style costumes heavily influenced Korea in the Yuan period, the Ming style was quickly adopted by the Korean Confucians, because they viewed the return to the Han-Chinese costumes as a way of “retrieving the prosperity of the ancestors” (追复祖宗之盛) (p. 203). The style of clothing and dressing thus became an important cultural symbol of constructing political and cultural legitimacy in fourteenth-century East Asia. Focusing on the exchanges of diplomatic envoys and related rituals between Korea and Japan during the Ming, Zhang finds in the sixth chapter that the state letters and ceremonial rituals of the two countries all followed the format established by the Ming. Both Korea and Japan used Chinese Confucian Classics and rituals “as a starting point for analyzing problems or as a criterion for adjudicating disputes” (思考问题的出发点,或者裁断纷争的准绳) (p. 224). The final chapter examines why tomb murals suddenly declined during the Ming. In the context of ritual reconstruction, as Zhang forcefully points out, the Ming promulgated a number of building codes, which also influenced underground constructions such as tombs. Tomb decorations, including statues, bucket arches, and murals, were against the official standards of the Ming so that they disappeared, which vividly reflected the interference of state power in social life.

The significant changes from the Yuan to the Ming have been considered by Western and Chinese scholars.[1] Pioneering historians like Miyazaki Ichisada 宫崎市定, Qian Mu 钱穆 and Liu Pujiang 刘浦江 have all pointed out that the sense of Yi-Xia was not particularly apparent in the Yuan. As Zhang has persuasively found out, however, this sense was constantly noted by Confucian scholars, and it was only hidden beneath the seemingly neutral expressions. In retrieving the sense of Yi-Xia among Han living under the Yuan, Zhang delves into different historical documents neglected by previous historians. For the Han scholars, such a sense was not allowed to be expressed directly in their writings, and thus, they metaphorically used histories and allusions. In addition, their words were deleted and altered again in the Qing, so that it may seem that different ethnic groups within the Yuan Empire lived in harmony with each other, and the sense of Yi-Xia had disappeared. Zhang’s meticulous research reveals the accumulating opposition between the Han and non-Han in the last decades of the Yuan, which then became direct and evident in the early Ming.

Zhang’s effort shall be praised because he not only carefully analyzes written records but also makes wide use of images, inscriptions, and archaeological materials. As far as the history of thoughts and culture in early modern China is concerned, most of the previous studies relied on textual materials, and there is still considerable room for the utilization of the materials mentioned above. In comparison to written texts, pictorial materials possess considerable advantages: not only are they visually more intuitive and illustrious, but they often also carry more detailed information than written materials. In most written texts, the common people who stand as the objects of social and cultural history are overwhelmingly neglected. Archaeological materials such as tomb murals, on the other hand, can be regarded as “self-presentation” of a particular group, which can thus significantly compensate for the shortcomings of conventional historical materials. The changing adoption of the “curtain hat” and the decline of tomb decorations are all vivid examples of the revealing power of archaeological materials in history study. Indeed, collecting these materials requires meticulousness and patience, as well as broad reading of a large amount of literature. Chapter seven, for instance, includes 114 images of mural tombs from the Song, 110 from the Jin, and 86 from the Yuan, as well as many related archaeological reports and case studies appended to the text.

Taken together, this valuable volume takes us a further step toward a more nuanced and less monolithic history of the turn from the Yuan to the Ming. It records the research track of the author, who, since his last book Xin Tianxia zhi hua, has been re-narrating the process of ideological and cultural changes between the Yuan and Ming dynasties.[2] In these two books, Zhang strives to emphasize that the first decades of the Ming played an important role in re-establishing the Han-Chinese as the bearers of cultural and social legitimacy of China and East Asia. The ethnocultural changes during the transition from the Yuan to the Ming, as Zhang exemplifies, have profoundly affected the cultural history of both China and East Asia and provide new ways to inquire on how to narrate the culture of China and East Asia today.

Well-researched and felicitously written, many chapters stand to become valuable references for both scholars and advanced students of Chinese cultural and social history of both Yuan and Ming China. Such an indispensable book opens up further possibilities to examine the cultural and social transformation in imperial China and will stimulate future research.

[1] See Paul Jakov Smith and Richard von Glahn, eds., The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition on Chinese History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003).

[2] Zhang Jia 张佳, Xin Tianxia zhi hua: Mingchu lisu gaige yanjiu 新天下之化:明初礼俗改革研究 (The New Transformation of All-Under-Heaven: A Study of the Reform of Rituality in the Early Ming Dynasty), Shanghai: Fudan Daxue Chubanshe 复旦大学出版社, 2014.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.