Shao-yun Yang. The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. xii + 229 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74602-9; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74603-6.
Reviewed by Erica Brindley (Penn State)
Published on H-Asia (April, 2021)
Commissioned by Bradley C. Davis (Eastern Connecticut State University)
Yang Shao-yun’s The Way of the Barbarians is an important contribution to the study of ethnicity and changing rhetorical strategies involving the ever-evolving construction of Chinese identity in premodern China. Its dedicated account of debates on Chineseness and barbarism during the Tang-Song eras—in particular, in the Confucian Guwen and Daoxue movements—sheds light on the development of ethnocentric discourses that wove together morality and identity so as to justify the superiority of certain strands of Chinese culture, learning, and history. Taken together, such debates suggest how fundamental the Tang-Song eras were in the creation and consolidation of a distinct and exclusionary, ethnocentric vision of the self. Yang refers to this ethnocentric self, in particular its emphasis on superiority and centrality, in terms of a supremacist myth that has been sustained throughout millennia.
In an attempt to avoid the heavy-handed labels invoked by recent scholars, such as “xenophobic,” “proto-nationalistic,” or even “culturalist,” Yang coins the labels “ethnicized orthodoxy” and “ethnocentric moralism” and applies them to various strands of the Tang-Song Guwen and Daoxue movements. These terms link authors to their intellectual and moral agendas at the time. Also, by identifying these movements as “ethnicized” or “ethnocentric” and not just “culturalist,” Yang highlights the clear ethnic component of these views, which seems to elaborate on the well-known ancient passage, Analects 3.5, that the “Yidi” (barbarians), even with rulers, are still not better than the “Zhuxia” (Chinese; “many various Xia”) without them.
To my mind, a real strength of Yang’s account lies not in the reframing of these discourses in terms of either ethnicized orthodoxy or ethnocentric moralism but in the plethora of analyses Yang provides of the changing views of the Chinese self and other in this critical period. Yang’s discussion of debate after debate—going back to Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan in the Tang, moving to the ninth century and then on into the Song to consider Daoxue in the eleventh and twelfth centuries—is astounding for its thoroughness and deep knowledge of the textual tradition. Yang establishes a very clear account of key sets of debates that helped define “Chineseness” in the context of political and intellectual contingencies, asking not just what it meant for these authors to refer to others as “barbarians,” but to what extent such authors were actually even interested in criticizing barbarians, as opposed to launching a critique of themselves and certain “barbarized Chinese.”
The book also provides a helpful excavation of shockingly resolute and sometimes extreme orientations on the Chinese-barbarian dichotomy. Of great interest as well are Yang’s accounts of the animosity certain Guwen and Daoxue thinkers had not just toward barbarians and Buddhism (as an alien belief system) but toward allegedly heterodox intellectual traditions that were deeply entrenched in Chinese history. Yang shows that some attempts at creating a classicist orthodoxy were not intellectually or politically neutral; they utilized ethnicized discourses to denigrate any way of thinking that was not associated with their own idea of the Way of the Sages. This amounted to a denigration of the views of the Daoists, Yangists and Mohists, and Legalists, and not just the Buddhists, who were more clearly associated with non-Chinese, South Asian roots.
In early China, the Hua-Xia (or what Yang calls the “Chinese”) self was intimately tied to the geopolitical interaction sphere of the Zhongguo (Central States) and a heritage steeped in ritual practices and moral traditions that reputedly stemmed from founding sages in the ancient past. While Shao-yun Yang’s book is firmly rooted in the Tang-Song eras and does not engage extensively in comparative work that shows how the ideas during the Tang-Song eras were significantly different from those from before, he does, rather frequently, show how authors used ancient orientations toward Central States morality and identity. He especially shows that they drew from the language found in the classical texts and expounded on certain evocative statements regarding Chinese superiority.
Because Yang chooses not to compare Tang-Song views with what had come before, he neither tries to demonstrate that the Tang and Song periods were categorically different from earlier views nor to show that they were on the same continuum. Yet the sheer power of the vituperative language used by some of the Tang-Song authors against certain perceived “outsider” ways and traditions makes one wonder if we are witnessing a new and important historical phase in the articulation and construction of the notion of Chinese ethnicity. We also wonder if the writings Yang examines played a decisive or impactful role in shaping the direction of future discourses on Chinese ethnicity. While the reasons that Yang does not stray very far from the chronological limits of the Tang-Song periods are clear (there is certainly more than enough to tackle there), I do think that Yang might have highlighted more clearly for the reader how this particular moment in history seems to have been special (or not), and in just what ways it was (or was not) different from what came before and after.
One of Professor Yang’s key insights is that the Chinese-barbarian dichotomy was not entirely determined by political change but had a developmental logic of its own based in changes in intellectual taste among the elite. This is interesting and likely true in many ways. Yang certainly wields a plethora of evidence to show the changes that occurred in thought and rhetoric among the thinkers he examines. He readily provides important information about the specific contexts that each author found himself in, politically or personally, and such explanations of the rationale behind their thinking are especially helpful. But more could be done to go beyond individual authors and their personal or political leanings to explain larger sociopolitical and intellectual trends of the time. This is especially the case concerning the relationship between Buddhism and imperial favor or support, and how such a relationship might have impacted larger intellectual trends at specific moments in time.
Yang’s The Way of the Barbarians is a well-written and grounded account of the attitudes of various late Tang and Song intellectuals towards the self-other distinction. It makes the important claim that the Guwen movement radicalized notions of the Chinese self by equating it with an exclusively classicist tradition of teachings and by criticizing all nonclassicist teachings as barbarous and dangerous in their approaches to education and morality. It examines key thinkers associated with both the Guwen and Daoxue movements to show how they moored Chineseness to a selective cultural heritage while reformulating “tradition” and promoting a new stance towards ethnicized others. Most importantly, it recasts the intellectual history of the Tang-Song periods in terms of ethnicity and the profound entanglement of emergent notions of Chinese identity with moral discourses at the time.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
Erica Brindley. Review of Yang, Shao-yun, The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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