“The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China” by Shao-Yun Yang

Barbarians detail

In Chinese history, the Tang and Song dynasties are often contrasted for their attitude to the foreign: a cosmopolitan Tang, its late turn to xenophobia, succeeded by a proto-nationalist Song. Changes in attitude tend to be explained by political events, most frequently by the dynasties’ brushes with foreigners. In The Way of the Barbarians, Shao-Yun Yang wants to detach intellectual history from this political determinism.

Physical frontiers between Chinese and non-Chinese changed greatly over the ninth to the early twelfth centuries, but Yang finds that scholarly debate about Chinese identity and its antithesis, barbarism, pursued its own twists and turns, its own literati logic. The Way of the Barbarians follows the shifting mental frontiers of Chineseness and barbarism in the late Tang and Northern Song periods.

These frontiers could be conceived starkly. From the writings of the Cheng brothers, founders of Daoxue (Neo-Confucianism) in the 11th century:


When [yin and yang] are out of balance, then one is [born] an animal or a barbarian [Yi-Di]; when they are in equilibrium, then one is [born] a human being.


But could they change, one into the other; figuratively, notionally, or for real? Was barbarism and Chineseness (understood as the state of being civilized or even, in the Cheng text, being human) intrinsic or a matter of culture, with correct culture a universal possibility? Can you convert a barbarian into a Chinese, or degrade a Chinese into a barbarian? What did Confucius say?

That last question is thrown in because much of the argument occupied the space of   commentaries, exegesis, upon the ancient Annals, attributed to Confucius. Everybody reached back for ancient precedent and time-honored opinion—a habit, says Yang, that has led modern historians astray. The great strength of this book is to contextualize ideas and language, and the contextualizing work frequently robs authors of their claims to antiquity. Changes in the argument, from Tang through Song, become more precisely seen.


The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China, Shao-yun Yang (University of October 2019)
The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China, Shao-yun Yang (University of Washington Press, October 2019)

I admit I am reluctant to concede on “the myth of late Tang xenophobia”. For example, a text that maintains “barbarians in name can be Chinese at heart” has previously been thought a defence of Li Keyong, a Shatuo Turk general in service to the Tang government. Yang thinks not, and reduces the significance of a letter Li Keyong sent to the Tang court wherein he complains about his family and himself being called barbarians in official circles. On this incident Yang argues against Marc Abramson’s Ethnic Identity in Tang China, in which Li Keyong does have grounds for complaint, and stands up for his dignity.

As for personalities behind the texts, a figurehead for later writers was Han Yu in late Tang. Yang describes Han Yu’s


intolerance for intellectual pluralism, his bellicose, oppositional brand of Classicist identity, his sense of living in an age of moral decline, and his self-image as civilization’s last hope…


(Yang prefers to use “Classicist” over “Confucian”). At worst, Han Yu inspired the hair-raising Shi Jie of the Guwen (classical prose) movement:


The essay “Clarifying the Four Capital Offences” (Ming sizhou) apparently seeks to surpass Han Yu in radicalism by arguing that the government should put all Buddhist and Daoist clergy to death… Shi Jie does not reserve this harsh punishment for Daoist and Buddhist clergy only—he also calls for it to be applied to proponents of other heterodox philosophies and to writers of florid, frivolous prose (i.e. anything other than Guwen).


Be aware, The Way of the Barbarians is intellectual history about texts written by Chinese, for Chinese, without foreign voices.


The leading prose writers, ideologues, and philosophers of the age, all them of self-identifying as “Chinese”, occupy center stage, addressing a similarly Chinese audience, while the “barbarians” of whose barbarism they speak seem to never get a chance to join the conversation.


The phrase “the way of the barbarians” does not promise contemporary Chinese ethnography—the study of real barbarians—but in most of these texts has a self-referential function, a rhetorical strategy used to condemn what is not, or should not be, Chinese. Yang’s two categories of “ethnicized orthodoxy” and “ethnocentric moralism” are each ways to discuss orthodox thought or moral behavior in ethnic terms that remain abstract, strangely empty. If you want to look at the lives of actual foreigners in Tang China, Abramson’s book, mentioned above, searches for such lives, in sources other than texts and at different levels of society. This book sticks to the intellectual argument among literati on what is Chinese, and what is not.

Until the end, that is. I am always won over by a quote from Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, and Yang has one in epigraph to his conclusion.


… Night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Barbarians as a figment of our minds, as a site for our anxieties, as a way to fix the frontiers of our identity—as a “solution”: until the conclusion, the book has inhabited these abstractions. Now Yang asks, what happens one day when barbarians turn up? For the Song dynasty they did, in the shape of Kitans, Tanguts and Jurchens. Almost for the first time, real, historical barbarians impinge on the literati arguments.

Hammond writes the Amgalant series, historical fiction based on the Secret History of the Mongols.