LOCAL HISTORY AND THE STUDY OF THE SOUTHERN EXPANSION OF
Hugh R. Clark
(NOT FOR CITATION)
Recently, in the introduction to my study of kinship structures in the Mulan River valley
of southern Fujian, I compared the relationship between local and macro-history to that
between a geology textbook‟s models of crystals to the reality:
No matter how correct an interpretation may seem from the perspective
of the large, the general, the center, it often does not seem so when
looked at from the vantage point of the small, the particular, or the local.
Just as crystal matrixes rarely are as geometrically perfect in reality as
the geologist‟s printed description might suggest, and atomic structure
never really looks like textbook diagrams, so are models derived from a
holistic perspective rarely exactly replicated at the level where people
actually lived. In the words of John Gaddis, "part of historical
consciousness is to see differences as well as similarities, to understand
the generalizations do not always hold in particular circumstances."1
My point was that local history provides a perspective on macro- (or “holistic”)
history that is possibly more “real” than the macro-perspective permits, just as the study
of a given rock‟s crystals is more “real” than the geologist‟s schematic diagram. This
need not render the latter “wrong,” for it is not intended for precision. Rather, the macro-
See Portrait of a Community: Society, Culture, and the Structures of Kinship in the Mulan River Valley
(Fujian) from the late Tang through the Song (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2007), XX,
referencing John Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2002), p.11.
perspective seeks a synthetic picture, one that integrates myriad local ( or “particularistic”)
realities into a comprehensive analysis. But through the study of the particular, be it a
specific rock or a specific locality, one gains a perspective that helps refine if not actually
redefine the holistic. At its best, in fact, the micro-perspective itself defines the holistic
paradigm. Always it should contribute to the holistic paradigm rather than be an end unto
itself. In short, the two exist in a dialectical relationship that is mutually reinforcing and
affirmative, a point I shall return to later.
In the following paper, I want to consider the expansion of sinitic civilization into
the lands south of the Yangtze River through a specific local perspective from southern
Fujian.2 Through this expansion the center of Chinese civilization was ultimately shifted
from the great Northern Plain to the broad region known as Jiangnan. One might even
argue that this is the most significant event in Chinese history—certainly it is among
them. Yet because so much about that expansion is lost in the fog of history, it has not
attracted the attention of historians to the degree I believe it deserves. By demonstrating
—I hope—through a particular narrative that the local perspective can in fact open
windows on that event that give it some depth and definition, my goal is both to prompt a
reengagement with that expansion and to show the value of a local perspective on a
The macro-narrative of the southern expansion is well known. Across
approximately a millennium in a gradual but persistent movement migrants from the
I follow Victor Mair in using the term “sinitic” rather than “Chinese” for this early period in the history
of east Asia because I find terms such as “China” and “Chinese” extremely problematic and teleological.
The events I am discussing occurred at a very early point in the history of continental east Asia when
cultures were still fluid and historical trajectories as yet unresolved. To define the culture of the Yellow
River basin as “Chinese” or the historical narrative as “China” is to predetermine its direction at a time
when that direction was as yet unclear.
sinitic heartland defined most centrally by the lower basin of the Yellow River
encroached into the beckoning lands to the south. They were bearers of the culture of the
heartland, and their gradual occupation of the south extended the sinitic ecumene
throughout what today is sometimes called “China Proper,” a self-conscious term that
excludes those apparently non-Chinese regions defined by the Tibetan plateau, the “new
territories” of the farther west, and the “Three Northern Provinces” that define Manchuria,
but which includes such problematically Chinese—or “sinitic”—areas as Guangxi and
Yunnan, the highlands of Hunan, and, most relevantly to our discussion, Fujian.
Like most narratives of cultural imperialism and territorial assimilation, the
triumphant narrative of sinitic expansion leaves out a critical issue: Who was there
before, and how did they interact with the new immigrants? Despite their “beckoning,”
these were not “empty” lands, any more than the lands of the American West, the
Transvaal, or Australia were empty when encountered by Europeans. The difference,
however, lies in the anonymity of the pre-sinitic indigenes. If the popular narrative of the
American West for so long glorified the stoic cowboy, the heroic cavalry, the brave
settler, and left the “Indian” to a stereotypical state of unmitigated and anonymous
savagery, the 19th-century expansion of European civilization occurred almost within
living memory and left a record that contemporaries can study. There is extensive
information on the peoples whom the European settlers encountered that has allowed
historians to rescue them from the anonymity that narrative would relegate them to.
Sinitic expansion into the south, in contrast, occurred more than a thousand years ago,
and those who were there, those whose native civilization was subsumed into the
expanding sinitic ecumene, along with their distinctive memories and customs, are
forgotten. To borrow a famous phrase, these truly are “the people without history,” for
their history no longer exists.3 Yet, while there is no surviving narrative that tells us all
we might want to know about the displaced, I believe through local records there are
things we can learn that help give that narrative an otherwise unattainable depth and
sense of its reality.
The story of that expansion, of course, is complex and varied. Pre-sinitic south
China was home to many peoples with a variety of cultural heritages. The macro-
narrative, even if it can find a place for the cultures that were assimilated into the
expanding sinitic ecumene, cannot do justice to the great variety of encounters that
occurred. There is, indeed, no reason to presume there was any greater uniformity to the
encounter along the expanding sinitic frontier than there was to be along the expanding
European frontiers in north America and elsewhere. To begin to imagine what the
encounter might have been like, therefore, it is necessary to resolve which encounter one
intends to address. In this paper, it is that between the expanding sinitic ecumene and the
Austro-asiatic cultures of the southeast, and even more narrowly that with the inhabitants
of the Xinghua Plain on the central Fujian coast.4
Just who the Austro-asiatics were is perhaps unanswerable—their‟s is the history,
after all, that has been forgotten. We know much more about who they became, for
I borrow the phrase from Eric Wolf‟s Europe and The People Without History(Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982).
The people in question are known by several names, including “Austric” and “Austronesian,” as well as
Austro-asiatic. I neither pretend to be sufficiently versed in the debates nor interested in their resolution to
seek to make my own contribution. As it is my sense, however, that “Austric” invokes some primordial
proto-culture of indeterminate origin and “Austronesian” invokes the later diasporic dispersion through
insular and continental southeast Asia and further afield in Micronesia and Polynesia, my chosen “Austro-
asiatic” points to that time when the people in question were widespread along the eastern perimeter of the
Asian mainland and so is most appropriate to my discussion.
subsequent migrations led them throughout most of peninsular and insular southeast Asia
and out into the Micronesian regions of the western Pacific.5 Perhaps it is enough to say
they were the peoples of the southeast before the sinitic migrations—they had “always”
been there. To the sinitic people of the north they were Yue 越, an indistinct term
applied to everyone from the peoples of the Wu 吳 and Yue kingdoms of the lower
Yangtze and Hangzhou Bay regions that interacted peripherally with the southern
kingdoms of the pre-dynastic Warring States period, through the varied regions of Fujian,
and on down through the Pearl River estuary of Guangdong. This, of course, is a huge
swath of territory; whether everyone so designated was Austro-asiatic is perhaps doubtful
but, more importantly, for this paper beyond the point. More relevantly, these were the
people of the region that later history knows as Fujian.6
Fujian is an unusual stretch of the Chinese coast. It is separated between its
coastal regions and the upland interior, a division that has long been reflected in the
division between the Four Lower Prefectures and the Four Upper Prefectures (xia si zhou,
shang si zhou 下四州, 上四州), a nomenclature did not emerge, however, until well after
the period of the present discussion. The former are further defined by a series of river
valleys, each of which is separated from the adjacent valleys by generally rugged hill
country and each of which has consequently developed distinctive cultural patterns that
are most evident in the dialectal variation from valley to valley.7 Sinitic settlers began to
Peter Bellwood, “5000 Years Of Austronesian History And Culture: East Coast Taiwan To Easter Island.”
Source: Http://Tour.Taitung.Gov.Tw/Festivity/Chinese_T/ Consult06.Htm.
Tianlong Jiao, The Neolithic of Southeast China: Cultural Transformation and Regional Interaction on
the Coast (Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press, 2007).
The principle dialectical variation is between the northernmost valley, that of the Min River 閩江 that
defines Fuzhou 福州 prefecture where Mindong 閩東 dialect predominates, and the three southern valleys
enter these valleys perhaps as early as the later Han dynasty and certainly in the century
or so that followed. But not all the valleys were equally desirable. Where each river
broke out of the hills that were never far from the coast, it entered a coastal plain that
often lacked clear definition: drainage was poor; tidal incursion was common if not
routine; water-borne disease, especially malaria, was a constant threat. Perhaps the least
suitable for human habitation, however, was the lower Mulan River 木蘭溪, the
northernmost and shortest of the three Minnan rivers.
The Mulan has its headwaters in the hills of modern Xianyou district 仙遊縣.
After flowing through a narrow plain and passing through a band of hills, the river meets
the Xinghua 興化 Plain—only in ancient, pre-sinitic times this was not a plain but a
shallow bay with a broad marshy coastline (see Map 1).8 And that is the setting for our
story. Just when human settlement may have begun is unclear, although no doubt initial
settlement was restricted to the peripheries of the plain where the land rises slightly and it
was possible even before the major reclamation efforts of the later Tang and Song to find
dry land. The first formal reference to Putian as an administrative unit comes in 589,
when Putian district was formally established, but permanent settlement in the area had
existed for some time already. In 1690, for example, while constructing a new gate to the
where Minnan 閩南 dialect predominates. However, although there are commonalities among the southern
valleys, each has a distinctive regionalism that even today makes communication across valley boundaries
Fujian lies at the heart of G. William Skinner‟s Southeast Coast macro-region, along with adjacent
coastal areas of modern Zhejiang and Guangdong. However, this is probably the most problematic of
Skinner‟s macro-regions, for unlike all the others it lacks a true core. It is, instead, a strip paralleling the
coast and consisting of a series of distinct and unconnected river valleys, each with a core city near its
mouth. Likewise both cultural and communication links between the Four Lower Prefectures and Four
Upper Prefectures were poor, leading to an isolation between them.
See Wu Shaohong 吴绍鸿 et al, “Fujian Xinghua pingyuan de xingcheng yu gu dili huanjing” 福建兴化
平原的形成与古地理环境, Dili xuebao 地理学报 46:3 (1991), 336-346
Map 1. Topographical view of the Xinghua Plain
Temple of the Western Cliffs (Xiyan si 西巖寺), located inside the wall of the 17th-
century Putian district city, laborers uncovered a tomb with a plaque dated taikang 太康
8 (287 CE).9 Although no information is preserved on the tomb‟s occupant, we can make
a limited number of inferences. Taikang, for example, was a reign period of the Jin
dynasty (265-316), one of the short-lived 3rd-century successors to the glorious Han
(Guangxu) Putian xianzhi(光緒) 莆田縣志, compiled by Song Ruolin 宋若林et al. (Taipei: Chengwen
shuju chubanshe, 1968 reprint of 1879 ed.), 35:29.
dynasty that claimed nominal control over all the Han ecumene. While the degree to
which the Jin court, based on the Yellow River at Luoyang deep in the traditional cultural
heartland far to the north, actually could assert authority in such a distant place is
debatable, that someone would use the court‟s reign period in a tomb demonstrates an
identity between that person and the culture of the northern heartland. There is no way to
know who that person was, nor what they were doing on the fringe of the Xinghua plain.
Their affinity with the northern court, however, strongly suggests they were bearers of
northern cultural values, the values that had consolidated over the previous centuries into
the foundations of sinitic civilization. At the core of those values was settled agriculture,
agriculture that demands permanence. Furthermore, within that culture tombs were a
primary focus of identity; one did not casually bury a family member where no one
would be able to tend to the grave and make appropriate offerings to the departed
ancestor. That again points to some kind of permanent community.10
Further evidence comes from the Temple of Broad Transformation (Guanghua si
廣化寺), founded in 558 but even now the most prominent Buddhist temple of the
plain.11 A legend that is preserved by both the temple itself and by the Putian Zheng 鄭
clan claims that the brothers Zheng Lu 露, Zhuang 莊, and Shu 淑, said to be natives of
the Min River valley and descendents of a 4th-century immigrant from the north, had
There is ample evidence based mainly on recovered tombs that a population expressing loyalty to the
successive courts of the 3rd and 4th centuries existed in Minnan; the number of excavation reports in
archaeological journals such as Kaogu 考古 is extensive. Most of these finds, however, are in the Jin River
valley that was to form the core of Quanzhou prefecture. For a very interesting new find in Shishi Town
(Quanzhou) 泉州石獅鎮, located south of the Quanzhou prefectural city, see “Yizuo DongJin gumu wachu
liangzhong jinianzhuan” 一座东晋古墓挖出两种纪年砖, in Shishi ribao 石獅日報 December 7, 2007,
accessed at http://cul.jschina.com.cn.
Huang Tao 黃滔, "Pushan Lingyan si beiming" 莆山靈巖寺碑銘, in Puyang Huang yushi ji 莆陽黃御史
集(Congshu jicheng reprint of Tianrang ge congshu 1884 ed.), 299 - 304.
settled “at South Lake Mountain in Putian” to tend to the graves of their ancestors: “One
evening a craggy faced and ill-dressed holy man encountered Zheng Lu in his study and
asked that he donate it to be a Buddhist monastery. Lu responded with deference, and the
temple was opened in the second year of yongding (558).”12 As I have demonstrated
elsewhere, the legend itself is corrupt; although the three brothers were real enough, they
did not come to Putian until the 8th century.13 But there is a critical kernel in the legend
that is probably real: Although the three brothers did not in fact arrive in the Mulan
valley for another 200+ years, by the 6th century a family named Zheng had probably
been burying its dead in this area for at least several generations, and the family was very
likely connected to the founding of the Temple of Broad Transformation. In other words,
the ancestors of the three brothers from whom later Putian Zheng traced themselves had
probably settled in the Mulan valley sometime before the Temple of Broad
Transformation was founded in the mid-6th century.
But these are evidence of sinitic settlement. Indigenous peoples must have
already been there—not perhaps out on the yet to be reclaimed plain itself, but on its
elevated periphery. When the first bearers of sinitic culture arrived in southern Fujian in
the early 1st millennium CE, these were the peoples they encountered. As long as the
sinitic population remained few in number and widely scattered, problems with the
indigenes seem to have been few—at least, we don‟t hear of them in the surviving record.
This is a composite of references in Wang Xiangzhi 王象之, Yudi jisheng 輿地紀勝(Taipei: Wenhai
chubanshe, 1962), 135:2a, citing the Puyang zhi 莆陽志, and 4b, and (Guangxu) Putian xianzhi 4:34a.
The tale can also be found in Zheng Leng 鄭稜, “Nanhu shan Zhengshi citang ji” 南湖山鄭氏祠堂記, in
Fujian zongjiao beiming huibian: Xinghua fu fence 福建宗教碑銘彙編 : 興化府分冊, edited by Ding
Hesheng 丁荷生 (Kenneth Dean) and Zheng Zhenman 鄭振滿 (Fuzhou: Fujian renmin chubanshe, 1996),
See Portrait of a Community, 38-39.
But problems could not be avoided forever. The expectations of the two cultures living
side by side were too different. The indigenous people, for whom mobility was
apparently a way of life, must have found the strictures of the emerging order, built as it
was around agriculture, stultifying and irksome. The immigrants must have wanted the
delineation and exclusion on which settled agriculture relies.
It is likely that a low level of tension had existed between the two populations for
many years, but it did not demand resolution until the later 7th century. Although sinitic
settlement had expanded in the river valleys fringing the coastal plain through the
preceding centuries, it had not reached a level that could support more than a superficial
administrative structure; all coastal Fujian south of the Min River valley, in fact, well into
the 7th century was administered by a single unit, Jin‟an jun 晉安郡, located in the
vicinity of modern Nan‟an district (Quanzhou) 泉州南安縣.14 Because a gradual
expansion of the sinitic population led to rising tension between the immigrants and the
indigenous population, however, in 669 the Tang court directed the establishment of a
military colony on the coast of what today is Zhangpu district 漳浦縣 below the mouth of
the Jiulong River 九龍江 in southernmost Fujian; soon after, because of losses to malaria,
the colony was relocated to the site of modern Zhangzhou 漳州, located at the point
where the Jiulong exits the hilly interior and meets the coastal plain.15
As in Zhangzhou, discussed below, sinitic settlers in the Jin valley were forced by floods and malaria to
avoid the coastal lowlands. Nan‟an too is located above the plains where the river is till reasonably fast-
flowing and non-malarial.
On this colony, see my "Bridles, Halters, and Hybrids: A Case Study in T'ang Frontier Policy". T'ang
Studies 6 (1988), 49-68.
This location is significant. The military colony, which was sent to pacify the
indigenous peoples, was established on the southern periphery of the evolving sinitic
sphere. Presumably they went there because the most unruly indigenes had been forced
out of the more sinified river valleys to the north: the Jin 晉, where Quanzhou 泉州 was
to emerge in the following decades, and the Mulan 木蘭, where Putian district had
already been established. This is not to say, however, that all the indigenes had fled;
while surviving sources are generally silent on this, there can be no doubt that many
opted to coexist with the sinitic immigrants, and so to adopt—and to influence—to
varying degrees the culture they bore.
By the early 8th century the unruly indigenes centered in the interior uplands of
the Jiulong valley had been defeated This did not bring an end to all tensions. For
example, in a funerary inscription he wrote early in the 9th century, Liu Zongyuan (773-
819) commented: “[Mr. Li] was appointed prefect of Quanzhou. There he encountered
the Wuhu Barbarians 烏滸夷.16 They killed the officials and molested the peasants.”17
Could it be possible to note more clearly the tension that must have existed between the
encroaching sinitic immigrants and the indigenes? Nevertheless, through the following
decades sinitic control over southern Fujian was consolidated, and the sinitic population
dramatically expanded. The malarial dangers of the coastal plains were gradually
brought under control as they were drained and turned into paddy fields. Along with the
Liu‟s text actually uses an unreproduceable character: hu 狺 with wu 午 on the right, glossed “wu”; the
editors of the Shanghai People‟s Press edition, however, cite the “Southern Man” (nan man 南蠻) account
in the Hou Hanshu as a reference, where the tribal name is rendered Wuhu; see Fan Ye 范曄, Hou Hanshu
後漢書 [Peiping [Beijing]: Kaiming shudian 1934 ed.], 116:256a.
Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元, “Ligong muming” 李公墓銘, Liu hedong ji 柳河東集 (Shanghai: Renmin
chubanshe, 1973), 10:154.
demographic and economic changes, a new social order emerged as some managed to
establish control over land and gain wealth. This is the context within which the story of
Wu Xing 吳興, who is still commemorated in the Shrine to Official Wu (Wu changguan
miao 吳長官廟) located outside the Putian district city, must be situated.
The Story of Wu Xing and its Meaning
In the later 8th century Wu Xing directed construction of the Yanshou Weir
(Yanshou pi 延壽陂), the first major water conservancy project on the Xinghua Plain.18
The weir is noted in Ouyang Xiu‟s Xin Tangshu, substantiating the basic history of the
tradition although without reference to Wu Xing,19 and through the following centuries
there are several texts that tell of its history, some of which I will address later.
The first substantive discussion to survive, however, is an inscription by Liu Kezhuang
(1187-1269) commemorating the shrine itself. This is the place for us to begin:
[After] I had written commemorative stele (lit.: “written stones on the
binding of sacrificial animals”) for the gods Li and Qian,20 an elder from
Although texts treat the Yanshou Weir, like its far better-known companion project the Mulan Weir 木
蘭陂, also in Putian, as distinct projects, they in fact combine a complex network of retainer dams (i.e.,
“weir”), canals, and retention ponds that in its entirety drained and made accessible the Putian Plain.
Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修, ed., Xin Tangshu 新唐書 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975), 41: 1065. Ouyang
records that the weir provided irrigation to “over 400 qing 頃 ” (1 qing = 100 mu 畝 = ca. 1500 acres; i.e., a
total of ca.60,000 acres), a sizable area itself, but later sources record “over 2000 qing” (see, for example,
the 1538 inscription of Zheng Yue quoted below and Putian shuili zhi 莆田水利志, compiled by Chen
Maolie 陳懋列 [Taibei: Chengwen chubanshe 1974 reprint of 1875 edition; hereafter PTSLZ], 3:3a, citing
the late 15th-century Xinghua prefectural gazetteer). This was the result of additions to the network in later
This refers to Li Hong 李宏 and Ms. Qian 錢氏, to whom construction of the far-better known Mulan
Weir 木蘭陂 is attributed and who are commemorated in a single shrine. The region irrigated by this
project is known as the “southern coastal plain” (nan yang 南洋), in contrast to the “northern coastal plain”
that is irrigated by the Yanshou Weir. These two texts are also in PTSLZ; see 8:26a-28a on Li Hong and
8:28a-30a on Ms. Qian.
The outer gate of the Wu changguan miao (Photo by the author)
the “northern coastal plain” (bei yang 北洋—a reference to the area
north of the Mulan River) approached me, saying, “Isn‟t the shrine of
our marquis (i.e., Wu Xing) older than that for Qian and Li. Are not the
tombs of his children and descendents only steps away from the shrine,
where the herons [make their] display and horses [shake their] manes?
The coastal village where my family and I live has never been
threatened by drought. Patting our bellies and mindful of the soil we
nurture our children and embrace our grandchildren. This is [because of]
the meritorious work of Marquis Wu (Wu hou 吳侯). If we cannot
forget the spirits of the mountains and streams, how can I forget him?
How can we know so much about the „southern coastal plain‟ (i.e., Li
Hong and Ms. Qian) and so little about that to the north?”
I thanked him and responded, “The shrine has the biography of Duke
Wu compiled by the Quanzhou imperial graduate (jinshi 進士) Zheng
Pou 鄭裒 in the chunhua era (990-995).21 Even before the appearance
of Ou[yang Xiu] 歐[陽修] and Zeng [Gong] 曾[鞏],22 these words had
long attained their luster. Nor is there any lack of stele [to
commemorate his accomplishments]. Can my words add anything to
those of Zheng?”
According to the prefectural gazetteer, the weir was first built in the
jianzhong 建中 era of the Tang (780-784).23 … In the daguan 大觀 era
of the present [i.e., Song] dynasty (1107-1110), an [imperial] placard
was conferred on the shrine, and in the shaoxing 紹興 era (1131-1162)
[the god] was enfeoffed “Just and Brave Marquis” (Yiyong hou 義勇侯).
In the chunyou era (1241-1252) “Universal Assistance” (Puji 普濟) was
Zheng Pou was a native of either Putian or Huian 惠安 districts—the sources are confused as to which.
He earned his jinshi in 993. See Yang Siqian 楊思謙 et alia, eds., (Wanli) Quanzhou fuzhi (萬歷) 泉州府
志, 1612 edition, 14:22a and 16:24b-25b; and Li Junfu 李俊甫, Puyang bishi 莆陽比事 (Wanwei biezang
Along with Han Yu 韓愈, Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元, Wang Anshi 王安石, Su Shi 蘇軾, Su Xun 蘇洵, and
Su Che 蘇澈, Ouyang Xiu and Zeng Gong were known as the “Eight Masters of the Tang and Song.
“OuZeng” was a shorthand reference to these two; see Lo Zhufeng 罗竹风, et alia, Hanyu dacidian 汉语大
词典(Shanghai: Hanyu dacidian chubanshe, 1990 - 93), 6:1473a.
The earliest Putian gazetteer was compiled in 1192 by, among others, Liu Kezhuang‟s father Liu
Mizheng 彌正. In the omitted text that follows Liu repeats—and accepts—a tradition in that work that the
weir had been built as early the beginning of the 8 th century; this is inconsistent with the history of the area,
and it is rejected in later sources, so I omit it here.
added to his title, and his wife was enfeoffed “Lady of Manifest
Benevolence” (Zhaohui furen 昭惠夫人). [Finally] in the baoyou 寶祐
era (1253-1258) there was a request for his ennoblement (jinjue 晉爵),
and an edict proclaimed his accomplishments to all the world.
When I was a child the shrine was all tumble-down. In the 8th year
of jiading 嘉定 (1215) my cousin the former jinshi24 [Liu] Xidao 希道
organized the labor to build the commemorative hall (qindian 寢殿).
Nine years later (1224) Zheng Yan 鄭炎 and others built the front hall.
In the 2nd year of duanping 端平 (1235), Yang Mengxin 楊孟信25 added
to the official hall (guan ting 官廳), and the brilliance of the complex
exceeded anything before. The prefectural graduate (gongshi 貢士) Xu
Duanheng 徐端衡 then erected a memorial arch (huabiao 華表) over the
official road and built a stone path to the shrine. None of this could fail
to be commemorated in an inscription.
Of old, before the weir was built, the tidal flow came as far as
Shihua Bridge.26 The Marquis dammed off the seas and blocked the
tides; he channeled the streams to irrigate the land, turning saline lands
This must refer to the prefectural degree xianggong jinshi 鄉貢進士 that periodically had to be
reaffirmed. Liu Xidao is not listed among the imperial graduates of Putian.
Yang Mengxin was appointed the Xinghua prefectural magistrate in that same year; see BaMin tongzhi
八閩通志, compiled by Huang Zhongzhao 黃仲昭 (Fuzhou: Fujian renmin, 1991; henceforth BMTZ),
BMTZ 19:380 notes the Shihua Bridge 使華僑: “It was north of the prefectural city… It no longer
exists.” This is consistent with the location of the weir, which is also north of the prefectural city.
into who knows how many thousand, even tens of thousands, of qing of
A bit more detail on the project itself survives in a much later inscription compiled in
1538; at such a distance from the building of the project we can only presume that Zheng
Yue, the author, was drawing on some of those commemorative stele alluded by Liu
Of the water conservancy projects in Putian, that in the south [i.e., the
Mulan Weir] is the work of Commander Li (Li changzhe 李長者); that
in the north [the Yanshou Weir] is the work of Official Wu, whose name
was Xing. In the jianzhong era of the Tang the people‟s natures were
generous and embraced virtue. Before this the several streams of
Xinghua flowed to the east into the Yanshou Creek, [from where] they
flowed out of the retaining ponds and into the sea. Official Wu then
blocked off the sea and created fields. Then he built a long dike to direct
the flow [of the streams] into the coastal retaining ponds to store water,
which poured forth for irrigation of more than 2000 qing of fields in the
“northern coastal plain” area. … Since the shrine to Official Wu was
first established in the Tang and he was enfeoffed in the Song, and then
passing through the Yuan, more than 500 years have gone by and the
See Liu Kezhuang 劉克莊, “Yiyong puji Wu hou miao ji” 義勇普濟吳侯廟記, in Houcun xiansheng
daquanji 後村先生大全集 (SBCG ed.), 92:16b-18b; see also PTSLZ 8:23a-24a and Fujian zongjiao
beiming huibian: Xinghua fu fence 福建宗教碑銘彙編興化府分冊, edited by Ding Hesheng 丁荷生
(Kenneth Dean) and Zheng Zhenman 鄭振滿(Fuzhou: Fujian renmin chubanshe, 1996; henceforth Dean &
sacrifices have ceased. How can this not be a case of the prefecture
neglecting its obligations?28
These two texts narrate a highly plausible record of the construction of an
important water conservancy project—indeed, the first major project on the Putian
plain, of Wu Xing who directed the project, and of Wu‟s subsequent enshrinement
and ennoblement. Despite his obvious merit, however, by the early 13th century
Wu‟s shrine had fallen in to ruin before a sequence of local notables, both native to
the area and local office-holders, undertook a restoration that led to additional titles
for Marquis Wu the deity. Nevertheless in the centuries thereafter the shrine and its
rituals were neglected again until a new restoration was undertaken in the early
16th-century, which is commemorated in Zheng‟s inscription. If, finally, the 1879
Putian gazetteer is to be trusted, the shrine and its rituals were subsequently
maintained. Yet as is so often the case with historical records, both of China and
elsewhere, there is so much more that is not covered, and in that “so much more”
there is an important story to tell. Most importantly: Who was Wu Xing?
There is no record of Wu Xing‟s ancestry, nor of when his patriline might have
arrived in the Mulan valley. We must, in fact, even take it on faith that he was sinitic,
although for the reasons I will explain that seems beyond doubt. The 1879 Putian
gazetteer, however, includes a brief biography under the category of “those who did good
works for the place” (xiang xing zhuan 鄉行傳) that identifies him as the younger cousin
(congdi 從第) of the otherwise unknown Wu Ji 祭, who allegedly held rank as a
See Zheng Yue 鄭岳, “Wu changguan miao xiusi bei” 吳長官廟修祀碑, PTSLZ 8:25a-26a; also in Dean
& Zheng, 167-168. This text is summarized in the GXPT passage on the shrine mentioned earlier.
supernumerary officer in the Ministry of Works, and adds, “At that time [Wu] was
honorifically known (hao 號) by the title „officer‟ (changguan).”29 Wu, in other words,
did not hold any formal office. The alleged link to Wu Ji, on the other hand, does link
Xing, however dubiously, to a regional if not national elite.
In undertaking construction of the Yanshou Weir, Wu Xing engaged a major
project requiring both extensive fiscal resources and the ability to enlist the labor of many
men. In the absence of any official position, and without any apparent official support, to
organize and implement such a project Wu clearly had to hold a socially prominent
position, and in 8th-century Putian the options on which to build that prominence were
few. As land was the primary basis of wealth —indeed, probably the only, for this was
long before the region became a center of maritime trade, Wu must have been a major
landowner who stood to enhance his personal holdings by the undertaking. In light of
everything we know and can assume about the time and place he lived, he cannot but
have been a product of the sinitic culture that had melded with and supplanted that of the
Yet even as we establish Wu Xing as our paradigmatic sinitic settler, a leader of
the emerging community on the Mulan plain, our picture is about to become confused,
for our story is not yet complete, the narratives go on. What to this point has been a
straightforward and thoroughly secular historical narrative suddenly diverges into folk
tradition. Let‟s start again with Liu Kezhuang:
When the project was complete, a wrathful jiao 蛟 broke the dikes. But
the poor and rootless one (qiongrong 窮冗; refers to Wu Xing) expelled
the evil. His accomplishment stands in history like those of Li Bing and
Finally Liu adds a poem:
Soon after [he had completed the dikes], beneath the maelstrom
There was a winding, wiggling creature.31
The Marquis grabbed his precious knife
And clenched his empty fist.
Donating his worthless body,
He looked over the unfathomable abyss.
The evil that lay within the water was dead,
And the Golden Dike was firm.
I have heard the immortals of ancient times
Must all have done meritorious acts
If they were to ride the wind and rain
And ascend to the Great Source (shangyuan 上元).
The marvel of Wu Guang‟s sacrifice,32
The injustice of throwing [oneself] in the Xiang,33
Li Bing 李冰 lived during the Warring States era and saved the state of Shu from a catastrophic flood.
Zhou Chu 周處, who lived in the 3rd century CE following the Han dynasty, battled both a ferocious tiger
and a jiao, conquering both and rectifying his own wayward ways.
The term is wanyan 蜿蜒. The double use of the chong 虫 (“snake/insect”) radical deliberately echoes
the character for jiao, the wrathful beast mentioned in the prose passage.
A reference to the legend of Wu Guang 務光, to whom Tang 湯, the last of the legendary rulers, was
going to give his kingdom. Rather than accept, Wu Guang drowned himself.
A reference to the legend of Qu Yuan, the ancient poet who threw himself into the Xiang River in the
face of unjust accusations.
Or riding on the back of the Great Peng Bird,34
How can they compare to submitting to the saliva of a hungry jiao?
Zheng Yue was a bit more prosaic—and perhaps more informative:
At this time there was a jiao that was terrorizing the people. Official
Wu swore an oath to the people that with his sword he would enter the
water and kill the jiao. But both he and the jiao died.35
One final source, the 15th-century BaMin tongzhi that chronologically lies between Liu
and Zheng, offered yet one more version:
Wu Xing grabbed a sword and told the people, "If the water runs blue-
green then the demon is dead, but if it runs red, then I am dead." Then he
entered the water and battled the demon. Three days later a sword
covered in blood washed up on Wu‟s Blade Beach (Wudao yang 吳刀
洋). Wu and the demon were both dead.36
Where the story of Wu Xing and the Yanshou Weir is both secular and plausibly
real, with the jiao the tale of Wu Xing veers into the unreal, the mythological; it becomes,
in other words, folklore. This broaches two questions: First, what is a jiao? And second,
why does the jiao enter the story of Wu Xing? As for the first, the jiao, also known as
the jiaochi 蛟螭 and sometimes just as chi,37 appears in a variety of early texts such as the
A reference to the famous tale in the Zhuangzi of the Great Peng Bird (da peng 大鵬).
(Guangxu) Putian xianzhi (光緒)莆田縣志, compiled by Song Ruolin 宋若霖 et al. (Taipei: Chengwen
shuju chubanshe, 1968 reprint of 1879 ed.; hereafter GXPT), 3:29a.
Although at one time the jiao and the chi may have been different, by the Tang the two appear to have
collapsed into one beast. There were as well many other terms, including jiaolong 蛟龍 that I will invoke
Shanhai jing 山海經 and the Chuci 楚辭.38 A commentary on the “Shudu fu” 屬都賦 of
Zuo Si 左思 (250-305), a prominent literatus of the Jin Dynasty, refers to the jiao as a
“water spirit” (shuishen 水神), while elsewhere the beast is specifically linked to
floods.39 The Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 identifies the jiao as a kind of dragon, noting that
it can both “swim like a fish and fly.”40 In short, a numinous beast by this name is fairly
deeply inscribed in the traditions of sinitic culture. In this vein, Li Shizhen (1518-1593),
author of the 16th-century Bencao gangmu, the materia medica that remains a standard
reference for all Chinese flora and fauna, lumped the jiao in with dragons (long 龍); in
fact, he called the beast the jiaolong.41 Like the long, the jiao was a water beast. But
where the long was viewed as ultimately beneficent, the jiao was not; Li explicitly
asserted “its essence is poisonous” (jing you du 精有毒) and added that to eat it was to
fall ill. It was viewed, moreover, as a destructive beast that savaged river banks and
broke dikes, causing catastrophic flooding.
Tang scholars and poets added to and ultimately redefined the legend of the jiao,
which they generally identified with the farther south. Liu Zongyuan, for example, in a
continuation of the same essay mentioned above, tells of a chi 螭—surely the same
See the definitions in Morohashi Tetsuji 諸橋哲治, et alia, Daikanwa jiten 大漢和辞典(Tokyo:
Taishûgen shoten, 1957-60), 10:33009, and Lo Zhufeng 罗竹风, et alia, Hanyu dacidian 汉语大词典
(Shanghai: Hanyu dacidian chubanshe, 1990 - 93), 8: 893.
See the definitions and citations in Daikanwa jiten and Hanyu dacidian, both cited above.
See http://www.gg-art.com/imgbook/index_b.php?bookid=53&columns=&stroke=12&page=6. For
further classical references to jiao 蛟, see http://bk.baidu.com/view/285536.htm.
Li Shizhen 李世珍 Bencao gangmu 本草綱目 (Shanghai: Shangwu shuju, 1933 ed.), j.43, quoted in
Wang Daochun 王道纯 and Jiang Taozhuan 江兆元, Bencao pinhui jingyao xuji 本草品彙精要續集,
supplement to Liu Wentai 劉文泰, Bencao pinhui jingyao 本草品彙精要 (Shanghai: Renmin weisheng
chubanshe, 1982 photo reprint of 1701 ed.), 7a:1a-1b.
beast—that terrorized the people of Yongzhou 邕州 (Guangnan west): “There was a
black chi that beat the water. It had destroyed the river bank right up to the city gate. It
overturned boats and killed the people, and then went away. The elders lamented, „…It
can enter fire and not move. It‟s a god (shen 神42). We have been under its thrall for ten
But it was Han Yu 韓愈 (768 - 824), the most famous essayist of the later Tang,
who perhaps alluded to the jiaochi most frequently. At the height of his career early in
the 9th century Han fell afoul of court politics and suffered the indignity of exile to the far
south, which he served in Chaozhou 潮州 (modern Guangdong).43 While there he wrote
of the creature on several occasions, especially in poetry. In “Suffering the cold” (Ku
han 苦寒), for example, he addressed the tragedy of famine and noted: “Tigers and
panthers are motionless in their lairs/And even the jiaochi die in their secret depths.”44
Or in “(Jiao) Dragons move about” (Long yi 龍移): “The jiao dragons (jiaolong) move
about in the dark of night…”45
The jiao of Han‟s poems are notable primarily for their invocation of the
extraordinary. Chaozhou, however, was not the only place where Han found evidence of
the jiao. Through his good friend and Quanzhou native Ouyang Zhan 歐陽詹, as well no
It is interesting that the elders used this term, which implies something good, rather than gui 鬼, which is
usually used in reference to dangerous and predatory. Exaltation of demonic beasts as objects of worship,
and thereby pacification, was central to religious expression at least through the Tang.
Today this is the eastern-most prefecture in Guangdong abutting the southern border of Fujian, but in the
Tang Chaozhou and Quanzhou both part of one large administrative region
Wubai jiazhu Changli wenji 五百家註昌黎文集 (electronic SKQS ed.) 4:26b.
Wubaijia zhu Changli wenji 3:6a. See also at http://chinese.pku.edu.cn/tangPoem/fullText.jsp.
Altogether this source has seven poems in which Han Yu invokes the jiao.
doubt as a result of his exile in neighboring Chaozhou, Han was also familiar with
southern Fujian and wrote of jiao there as well, only this was a different beast:
South of Quanzhou there was a mountain whose peaks stood up
vertically. Below was a lake over ten mou around, the depths of which
can‟t be guessed. There was a jiaochi that had caused the people great
suffering. If people approached [the lake] by mistake, or if a horse or
cow came for a drink, they usually were eaten. The people of Quanzhou
had suffered thus for years. For this reason those who lived near the
mountain had taken their wives and children elsewhere in order to
escape the beast‟s horror.
Han‟s tale, the language of which so strongly echoes that in the legend of Wu Xing‟s
encounter with the jiao, continues that one night in the fifth year of the yuanhe 元和 era
(810)—surprisingly close in time to the tale of Wu Xing!—there was a terrible
commotion from within the mountain; it was so great that man and beast all hid in fear.
When morning came the intrepid stepped out to see what had happened, and they found
the mountain smashed to bits; the detritus had filled the lake, the land was leveled, and all
around was the red and black blood of the jiaochi. On the surrounding rocks nineteen
characters had been inscribed in a style that was ancient and indecipherable; no one could
read them. But thereafter the people were spared any more of the monster‟s depredations
and the land returned to prosperity.46
The source of this text is (Tang) Zhang Du 張讀, Xuanshi zhi 宣室志; see http://www.millionbook.net/
gd/z/zhangdu/xsz/120.htm, “Han Yu, 2” 韓愈二. It was later transcribed in the Taiping guangji 太平廣記
392, “ming ji” 銘記 2, at http://www.fulan.com/167/ebook/classic/taipinggj/tpgj392.html, the source of the
reconstructed Xuanshizhi, including this text. Han‟s tale links very directly to a real historical phenomenon.
He tells us that the place where this occurred thereafter was called Shiming Village 石銘里. Today
Shiming Village is located in Hua‟an district (Zhangzhou) 漳州華安縣, just south of Quanzhou and
But Han not only feared the horrors of the jiao; the crocodile (e yu 鳄魚), a real
beast that historically could be found skulking in the marshes that characterized China‟s
southern coast—the very marshes that Wu Xing was seeking to drain—was also a
concern. He lamented the curse of the crocodile, both in poetry and prose. For example,
in a poem entitled “The Clerk of Long,” a lamentation he wrote while en route to his
exile, he asked the clerk, his traveling companion, of his destination. After ascertaining
Han‟s exile, the clerk replied, in language that must remind us of Liu Zongyuan‟s
description of the chi:
There is a prefecture, its name is Chao,
Its loathsome waters are poisoned with miasmas.
Thunder and lightening rumble and flash incessantly.
The crocodiles (e yu) are larger than boats,
Their teeth and eyes cause us terror and death.47
Among Han‟s most intriguing texts from his exile is his “Offering to the Crocodile,” in
which he ordered all the beasts to leave Chaozhou after receiving his sacrifice:
Crocodiles, you may not live in this place with me. As prefect I have
received the command of the Son of Heaven, which is to protect this
land and provide order for these people. And you bug-eyed crocodiles
do not bring peace to the streams and ponds. You eat the people and
between Quanzhou and Chaozhou. On a cliff-face an ancient inscription written in nineteen non-Chinese
sinitic-style characters still survives; the characters are unique and have never been deciphered; see Zhu
Weigan 朱維幹, Fujian shigao 福建史稿 (Fuzhou: Fujian jiaoyu chubanshe, 1984), vol. 1:11-12.
This poem is also translated by Edward Schafer; see The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 217. For the full text, see “Long li” 瀧吏, in Dongya
tang Changli jizhu 東雅堂昌黎集註 (electronic SKQS ed.) 6:8a-10a.
their cattle, bears, hogs, deer, and roebuck, all to fatten your bodies and
nourish your young. Should you resist me, in the struggle I will emerge
victorious. Though I may be stupid and weak, how could I bear to bow
my head and surrender my heart to a crocodile.48
Finally, the Dongya tang 東雅堂 edition of Han‟s Changli wenji 昌黎文集, anonymously
compiled apparently in the late Song according to the editors of the Siku quanshu, quotes
the “Yongzhou ji” 永州記, an otherwise unidentified text: “The crocodile … lays 100
eggs. Some become snakes, some become turtles, and others jiao. It is especially
numinous (ling 靈).”49
Han‟s description and fear of the crocodile, which so echoes the prose he and
others used to describe the jiao, suggests that in his mind they were the same animal—
indeed, despite its annoying anonymity doesn‟t the last quotation say so? Even more
explicitly, an anonymous inscription from the Quanzhou area dated 810 states quite
explicitly that the beast Han Yu identified as a jiao in the earlier quotation was "a black
and red crocodile celestial lord (e yu tiangong 鱷魚天公) that killed people and cattle."50
Today the coast of eastern Guangdong and Fujian is free of crocodiles, but in Han‟s time
the salt water marshes that line the coast was offered ideal habitat—and so the
northernmost range—for the legitimately dangerous salt water crocodile (Crocodylus
porosus) that has become so famous in recent decades through the modern media of
See “E yu wen” 鳄魚文, in Wubai jiazhu Changli wenji, 36:10b-13a.
See “Long li,” 6:8b.
See "Lei zhuan" 雷篆, in Fujian jinshi zhi 福建金石志, "shi" 石; in Fujian tongji 福建通紀,compiled
by the Fujiantongji Editorial Committee (Taipei: Datong shuju, 1968), 2:16a-b.
television and the movies. It was, in fact, projects such as the Yanshou Weir that drained
the marshes that sheltered the beasts and rendered the Chinese coast unsuitable to them.
In response to my first question, then, I believe that along the southeast coast in
the Tang the jiao was a numinized crocodile. Like so many peoples around the world,
presented with a predatory beast in the natural world, those of the area elevated it to a
semi-deified status—it was a numinous creature that transcended the limits of the natural
world, but which could be placated through sacrifice. But, I would suggest, there is one
further, one very critical, element. The jiao portrayed in the ancient sinitic traditions was
not a crocodile but a form of long, or “dragon”; although there is a hint of danger in
ancient descriptions of the jiao, as there is in descriptions of the long, I have not found
any text that defines it with language that parallels the predatory demon described by Liu
Zongyuan, Han Yu, or the tale of Wu Xing. This is a feature of tales coming from the
southern coastal region. And the south coast, as I have already explained, was the native
land of the non-Chinese Yue culture.
As sinitic settlers moved into the lands of the south and claimed control of the
coast, they were confronted with an alien natural world, a world, as Edward Schafer so
fully illustrated, they deemed strange and often threatening—as indeed it was.51 To the
sinitic immigrants, it was a world of strange fauna and flora, and the land of fearsome
miasmas—what William McNeill called a “high disease gradient.”52 When men such as
Han Yu were exiled to this land, they were fully expected to die, as so many did. The
crocodile was one of the alien creatures they feared.
This is the central theme of Schafer, The Vermillion Bird.
See William H. McNeill, Plagues And Peoples (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1976).
In contrast, the Yue peoples who had lived in those lands since before recorded
history had lived with that natural world, including the crocodile, and they no doubt had
developed their own traditions. They need not have called the beast a jiao; in fact they
surely didn‟t, since they were not part of the sinitic world and their Austro-asiatic
language was so distinct. But like their cultural cousins throughout the islands and
archipelagoes of the South Seas, who so often venerated the shark as a deity, the Yue of
China‟s south coast must have sought to placate the predatory crocodile through similar
deification. As the sinitic settlers moved into the deeper south, I believe they
incorporated this tradition; rendering it into their own language and culture, the
numinized crocodile became a jiao.
Yet this still does not tell us why the jiao came to be associated with the secular
legend of Wu Xing. Although the Yanshou Weir can confidently be traced back to the
Tang, and Wu Xing‟s connection to it at least to the early Song, the first surviving
mention of his battle with the jiao is in Liu Kezhuang‟s inscription, which was compiled
almost 500 years after the fact. As much as historians must be cautious not to rely too
heavily on the absence of evidence, this gap strikes me a significant: If I cannot state
confidently when it emerged, I can state that I do not believe the legend of the jiao was
contemporary to Wu Xing himself, else why is there no mention of it in any of the earlier
texts on the weir? On the contrary, I would suggest the tale of Wu Xing battling the jiao
is a sinitic projection of a non-sinitic tradition. The beast slain by Wu Xing, I believe,
represents an allegorical memory of the unfolding conflict between encroaching
immigrant bearers of sinitic culture and the indigenous non-sinitic people.
Let us return to what we know from the secular tale. Wu Xing was a leading
figure among the sinitic settlers on the Putian plain; he used his prominence to organize a
major project intended to drain the coastal marshes, restrain tidal incursions, and render
the reclaimed land suitable for agriculture. Although the inspiration behind Wu‟s project
was no doubt economic, it in fact was as much a cultural act as the leveling of New
England‟s forests or breaking the sod of the Kansas prairie, both of which were
inseparable from the assertion of European cultural hegemony in North America. Wu
was thus a champion of sinitic culture, emblematic of the victory of that culture over that
of the indigenous Yue and of the successful consolidation of sinitic control over the land.
If Wu represented the sinitic world, however, who—or what—would represent the Yue?
There are no prominent Yue figures in the Chinese record; they are an anonymous
collective. But the crocodile, as jiao, was a suitable generalized substitute. In thrusting
Wu into battle with the jiao, the legend provided a foil against which Wu could
consolidate the sinitic triumph.
Except… Wu also dies. As Liu Kezhuang so graphically puts it, “How can
[other sacrifices] compare to submitting to the saliva of a hungry jiao?” Or as the BaMin
tongzhi and Zheng Yue both conclude, “Both Wu and the jiao died.” If the legend of the
jiao is simply about the triumph of sinitic civilization, surely Wu would wade back out of
the water in resplendent triumph. What can it mean that he does not?
This, I confess, is a puzzle. A simple answer, and one we ought not reject out of
hand, is that a crocodile truly did live in the lands drained by Wu‟s project, that Wu did
undertake to get rid of it, and died in the process. Plausible, but unsatisfactory, for this is
as much a glorified tale, a folk tradition, as it is an historical event, and absent some
deeper meaning surely Wu‟s triumph would be remembered, such a tragic death forgotten.
I would suggest instead there is a cultural context to Wu‟s death, one about which I can
only offer a speculative hypothesis. Throughout this essay, however, I have suggested
not that the sinitic culture eradicated that of the Yue indigenes, but that it absorbed that
culture even as it overwhelmed it. Adopting the numinized crocodile as emblematic of
this engagement—if, at least, my hypothesis is correct—is prima facie evidence of this
process. The power of the sinitic model has proven over and over again to be greater
than other cultural models that were indigenous to southern China, which has led to the
disappearance of many if not most of those cultures as independent, autonomous factors.
But as occurred on the North American frontier, where the European model was altered
even as the indigenous cultures were similarly overwhelmed, the dominant sinitic culture
was inevitably shaped by the exposure and interaction that occurred. In the end, the
legendary Wu Xing did displace indigenous culture: the marshes were drained; the
settled agriculture that defines the sinitic world was established; society was structured
along the lines of the sinitic hegemony. Today, and indeed for the past millennium, the
Putian plain bears no superficial cultural marks of its Yue past. Yet the culture of the
region has been shaped in less obvious ways, most especially perhaps by its strong
maritime heritage, but no less importantly by the legends and cults that survive to this day.
The culture of the indigenes disappeared as an autonomous phenomenon, but that does
not mean it was eradicated. Perhaps in concluding the tale with Wu‟s death, with his
“submitting to the saliva of a hungry jiao,” the tradition acknowledges that fact.
Thus, from a folk tradition we gain a perspective on the past that is otherwise
unavailable. The Chinese have never been sensitive to the role of non-sinitic cultures in
forming their own. Historians thus have to read between the lines, penetrate through
received assumption, transcend the cultural myopia to find a more nuanced approach to a
very complex past. Legends such as that of Wu Xing provide one such opportunity.
In my introduction, I suggested that the relationship between local and holistic
history was dialectical, that the tension between the two perspectives was “mutually
reinforcing and affirmative,” a point to which I promised to return. Having presented the
history of Putian and Wu Xing, of the Yanshou Weir and the jiao, I think I can make this
point more persuasively.
Largely because of a lack of good sources, the southern expansion of the sinitic
ecumene is a topic that few historians have been willing to engage. Many years ago
Wolfram Eberhard undertook one of the first surveys of the pre-sinitic cultures of the
south, but a great deal of subsequent archaeological work has rendered much of his work
out of date.53 Subsequent work on sinitic expansion into the south by western scholars
was rigidly framed by the triumphant narrative of Chinese sources and offered little room
to consider the dynamics of local interactions.54 More recently Chinese scholars, and to a
lesser degree Japanese scholars, have begun to fill in gaps; notable for the present study is
the work of Xu Xiaowang, a scholar based at the Fujian Academy of Social Science in
Lokalkulturen im alten China, vol. 2, “Die Lokalkulturen des Sudens und Ostens.” Leiden: E.J. Brill,
1942. Published in English as The local cultures of south and east China, translation from the German of
by Alide Eberhard. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968 .
See, for example, C.P. Fitzgerald, Southern Expansion of the Chinese People. New York: Praeger, 1972.
See also Herold J. Weins, China’s March to the Tropics (Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1954).
Fuzhou, who has published several works on the pre-sinitic history of Fujian.55 Much of
this work is based on very solid reading of the available sources, yet often it continues to
be captive to the same triumphalist narrative of the written record that underlies older
Despite its triumphalism, however, the holistic narrative is not “wrong.” It is a
fact that over time the lands south of the Yangtze River were brought inside the sinitic
ecumene, that local cultures except on the further peripheries of the frontier and perhaps
in the more isolated highlands were absorbed by the dominant sinitic culture. If one‟s
goal is to understand the evolution of modern China, the holistic narrative tells an
important part of the story. But if the goal is to understand the process whereby those
southern lands became “Chinese,” it is inadequate, or at least insufficient. One is left
with a tale of Manifest Destiny, of the inveterate incorporation of alien lands into the
spreading ecumene of a more complex culture. The result echoes a social Darwinian
perspective as “inferior” and “barbarian” cultures disappear in the struggle. And that, as
my tale of the Putian Plain makes clear, does not tell the real story.
The local perspective makes at least two important contributions to the history of
sinitic expansion into the south. First, it reminds us of the biases implicit in the holistic
narrative. If the peoples encountered by the expanding sinitic ecumene were defined by
that narrative as “barbarian,” they did not define themselves as such. It is a hackneyed
historiographical truism that “the winners write History,” yet there is more than a kernel
of truth, for this authority allows the winners to define who was “civilized” and who was
Most importantly see Xu Xiaowang 徐晓望, Fujian tongzhi 福建通史, vol. 1, “Yuangu zhi Liuchao´远
古至六朝 (Fuzhou: Fujian renmin, 2001). On Japanese scholarship, see especially the extensive
bibliography in Ozawa Masahito 小澤正人, et alia, Chūgoku no kōkogaku 中国の考古学(Tokyo: Doseisha,
not. But these were real people, not the anonymous abstractions of the winner‟s record,
and their relationship with the sinitic immigrants was complex. Faced with the sinitic
incursion and usurpation of their land, some opted to resist, like the bands of Sioux in the
legendized American West who chose to fight to protect their traditions; to the Sioux
these bands may have been heroes, but to the authors of the American narrative they were
renegades. In Fujian resisters were forced out of the bottom lands where they had once
mixed fishing and hunting with some agriculture and into the hill country that lay behind
the coastal plains, and their resistance, like that of the Sioux “renegades,” proved to be
futile. In their isolated enclaves, like the marginalized natives of the north American
interior, they remained a problem, a nuisance; occasionally, as Liu Zongyuan recalled,
“they killed the officials and molested the peasants.” In the end, however, history passed
Others adopted a less confrontational approach; resistance was not universal.
Some accommodated to the sinitic incursion, and although they disappear even more
profoundly from the narrative than their brethren who resisted, for they didn‟t leave
dramatic stories, perhaps their influence was deeper and longer-lasting. The triumphalist
narrative of the sinitic tradition proposes their eradication, but the tale of Wu Xing and
the jiao at least suggests a less absolute result. As scholars of the late imperial interaction
between Chinese and Manchu have amply demonstrated, cultural exchange was a two-
way process, the resulting culture more hybridized than the orthodox narrative would
suggest. The Putian Plain is not the Chinese empire, and the culture of the Plain is but a
piece of a much larger phenomenon. But just as the frontiersman of north America, faced
with the challenges of living in an environment he didn‟t fully understand, learned from
and was shaped by the culture and traditions of the indigenes, in the end creating a
culture that blended aspects of the indigenous within the framework of his European
heritage, so the sinitic frontiersman incorporated aspects of the non-sinitic cultures he
encountered in his southern progression.
Thus through the local narrative we gain a different perspective on the larger
process, one that forces the holistic narrative to adapt. It is too soon to say what the
dialectical synthesis will be—historiography is a Hegelian rather than Marxist process,
and its end is neither teleological nor predictable, and the process is only beginning.
There is, however, one final aspect to this process that must be recognized, for
just as the dialectical tension is only meaningful through the relationship between thesis
and anti-thesis, so local history gains its greatest significance through its relationship to
the holistic narrative. This is a point that scholars of the local must never forget:
Without its thesis, the antithesis is bereft. Without this relationship their history risks
becoming mere antiquarian musings, unconnected to any larger purpose. Perhaps in
conclusion I can go back to my analogy to crystals. Geologists, I think, can study an
individual crystal for all its worth, but it‟s only in the context of a rock that the crystal
becomes more than a laboratory abstraction. Like the crystal, the local needs to be
embedded in something larger to have its greatest value.