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Locality, Literati, and the Imagined Spatial Order: A Case of Huizhou, 1200-1550

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 42, 2012
pp. 407-444 | 10.1353/sys.2013.0006

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The rise of local history as a field of study has been one of the most noteworthy developments in English-language scholarship on Chinese history during the past four decades. By redirecting the focus of analysis from the national to the local level, historians have successfully revised conventional wisdom on such varied topics as social mobility, religious practice, elites' patterns of dominance, and the development of local social institutions, to name a few. But equally as impressive are the changing interpretive frameworks through which local history has been approached.

In the 1970s, historians of the Ming-Qing dynasties initiated the local history approach mostly as a method to avoid overgeneralization in studying society, particularly the elites, in a country as vast and diverse as imperial China. But in the 1980s, when Song dynasty historians joined force, local history gained a new dimension. In addition to being an effective methodological orientation, it became associated with a highly influential thesis on the disposition of Chinese elites. First put forward by Robert Hartwell but further elaborated by Robert Hymes, this thesis—often called the "localist turn"—claimed that the nationally oriented "professional elite" that was still active in the Northern Song merged with the locally oriented "gentry" elite during the Southern Song. In so doing, Chinese literati elites generally re-defined their career and family strategies, and became more locally oriented. Hymes' study of Fuzhou offered the convincing argument that the Southern Song elite "married locally, lived locally, and in many ways thought and acted locally." Both Hartwell and Hymes, while admitting the need for further studies, suggested that this transformation was permanent: the localist orientation and strategies of the Southern Song elite were shared by the literati elite of the Ming and the Qing dynasties. In other words, beginning with the Southern Song, literati elites remained fundamentally, though not exclusively, local in orientation.

To be sure, elite localism was by no means a new topic for local history. In the mid-1970s, for example, Frederic Wakeman analyzed the fatal inadequacy of localism for rallying resistance to alien invasion. But there is an important difference between his work and that of Hartwell and Hymes: what Wakeman stressed was the ideological paucity of localism in a context where elites were defined by their connection to a cosmopolitan high kultur , while what the Hartwell-Hymes thesis brought to light was the enduring vitality of localism as a social force—local concerns and local engagement were an integral dimension of the literati elites' social life. The implication of this thesis for the study of local history is important: not only can such studies engage in sharper and more focused analysis of the activities of literati elites in a particular place, but they also could and even should further investigate the relationship between locality and literati culture.

Along these lines, during the last two decades several studies have been written on the subject of literati local identity. These works explore the various ways locality participated in the formation and performance of literati identity: for example, as the inspiration for political participation and basis for alliances in the court, as the symbol of traditions that served to inspire them in pursuing higher moral ideals and transforming local society, or as a bridge connecting local literati to the national literati culture. To a substantial degree, this scholarship continues to support the Hartwell-Hymes thesis by further demonstrating the importance of locality in literati social life and self-conception. At the same time, it does also vary in some interesting ways.

First, it highlights a different theme in the stories being told. Hyme's study of elite strategies in the context of conflicting state and local interests featured the separation of elites from the state. In contrast to this, works on literati local identity highlight the connection between local elites and the national literati culture, though the latter was not necessarily defined by and centered on the state. For example, according to Peter Bol's study of Wuzhou during the Song through the Ming, the local literati constructed a local Neo-Confucian tradition to provide, on the one hand, a "morally superior alternative to the state as a source of...

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