Empire on the Brink

Networks of Social and Cultural Negotiations in the Age of China's Great Transformation (Ninth to Seventeenth Centuries): Their Sope and Function in Times of Dissolution and Chaos

Prof. Dr. Fei Huang
Prof. Dr. Achim Mittag

Chi Zhang, M.A.

This project aims to explore networks of social and cultural negotiations in early modern China, (9th–17th cents.) focusing on their dynamics in face of a crumbling imperial order.

What is meant here by "empire" was more than a political and social order, or, if political and social, was always part of a larger cosmic order encapsulated in the time-honored notion of "All-under-Heaven" (tianxia). Having been moulded by statecraft thinkers of early Chinese political ethics and, even more importantly, by the state practice of the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE), this notion of "All-under-Heaven" underwent a profound transformation in the period under consideration, i.e. from the late-Tang to the late-Ming dynasties (9th–17th cents.) – a period which in Japanese and Western sinology is often referred to as early modern China. Its main characteristic is the replacement of a powerful aristocracy by a meritocracy, the nucleus of which being formed by the scholar-officials (shidafu), known in Western literature as Mandarins. Central to the formation of this educated nucleus was the sophisticated state examination system and the emergence of a new book culture following the invention of printing. All this led to an enormous expansion of the spheres of reading and writing, teaching and learning. The nascent literati culture was accompanied by the rise of a new outlook on life and the world, including a new approach to reading and interpreting the Confucian Classics, which is commonly known as "Neo-Confucianism". Yet China's early modernity cannot be properly understood unless the long-term growth in wealth and prosperity are taken into account. Commercialization and, especially in those regions that were profiting mostly from commerce and the growth of wealth, urbanization, were outstanding trends in early modern China, which propelled seventeenth-century China, or more precisely, the Jiangnan region in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the coastal region along the Grand Canal up to Peking, to the forefront of the emerging globalization process.

In stark contrast to the formation of the early modern state in Europe, we can observe a thinning away of the "state" in early modern China, i.e. the administrative structures providing security, governance, and common welfare became gradually weaker. In turn, there was a significant increase in what is termed here "networks of social and cultural negotiations" – informal, non-governmental groups which are organized along ties among its members that were not determined by any social hierarchies or a hierarchy derived from official or bureaucratic structures. Examples of such networks are groups formed by candidates or graduates from state examination cohorts, fellowships that developed from teacher–student affiliations, guilds and other association of commerce (Landsmannschaften), secret societies, triads, literature and poetry societies, clubs for liberating animals, etc. Such networks are epitomized by the fraternity of the three sworn brothers from the famous scene of the Oath of Peach Garden, which is found in the Romance ot the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), a work which began to circulate widely from the second half of the sixteenth century onward. Thus, this scene is also a pointer of the mushrooming of such networks in the later Ming period.

The focus of the intended project is directed towards the study of such networks formed by literati as a response to the perceived threatened superstructure of All-under-Heaven in times of crisis and disorder. A key feature of the networks under scrutiny is their coming into being in order to recreate conceptions of order to fill the vacuum. The breakdown of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) had seen a sizeable upswing of the phenomenon of hermitism, yet also the formation of various literati networks which stood in opposition to the regimes in power, the best-known probably being the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. The underlying premise of our project is that, with the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) as a watershed, the scope and function of such literati networks had changed fundamentally.

To explore the dynamics of such literati networks facing and responding to the crumbling superstructure of All-under-Heaven, we intend to undertake two drillings into the bedrock of Chinese early modern history, one at its beginning and one at its end, i.e. in the ninth and seventeenth centuries, respectively. These drillings will be realized in two case studies and each guided by a conceptual framework that pursues the investigation of five dimensions of social and cultural negotiations as follows.

  1.  Relationship between center and periphery;
  2. Intragroup relationships;
    • Here comes into focus e.g. the growing importance of the ideal of friendship.
  3. The spatial dimension
    • Topics of discussion are e.g. the landscape imagery and experiences of landscape through outings and travels.
  4. The temporal dimension;
    • An important aspect is here the flourishing culture of remembrance.
  5. Interactions with society
    • One topic is the changing patterns of gifts and donations and the routinization of philanthropy.

Thus, the intended project is designed as a comparative study, with the two case studies as its spine. While one case study will be conducted by a doctoral student financed by University funds, we are optimistic to apply for funds for another doctoral student to conduct the second case study. The project leaders will direct their efforts to guide and coordinate the two case studies, to develop the conceptual framework of the five dimensions of social and cultural negotiations, and, finally, to carefully draw general deductions in order to round up the comparative study.