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Reviewed by:
  • Battlefronts Real and Imagined: War, Border, and Identity in the Chinese Middle Period
  • Naomi Standen
Battlefronts Real and Imagined: War, Border, and Identity in the Chinese Middle Period. Edited by Don J. Wyatt. Houndmills, Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4039-6084-9. Illustrations. List of Middle Period Dynasties. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiii, 307. $84.95.

This collection does more than it says on the tin. The jacket copy claims that the book is about turf and ethnicity, but this tendentiously oversimplifies the interest, sophistication and interconnectedness of the approaches taken by the authors themselves, which I can only hint at here.

Don Wyatt explains in his brief introduction that each chapter examines intersections between borders, war and identity, where these form a matrix in which, among other things, physical borders and conceptual boundaries are things that people may fight over (in both senses), and fighting generates identity issues because of the need to choose sides. Identity here is more than mere ethnicity, as set out with [End Page 1305] especial clarity by Michael Brose. For him, identity was one resource among many used by Uyghur rulers in the Tarim and Uyghurs employed in Yuan China to manage their relationships with the Mongols. In particular, indications of Uyghur origins could usefully imply possession of skills valued by the Mongols, but identity was not determinative.

Identity defined as political allegiance was also mutable. Several essays explore the agency of those on China’s frontiers, north and south, whose loyalty was a powerful negotiating tool to the extent that it was valued by neighboring courts. David Graff argues that in the eighth-ninth centuries shared concern over nomad activities inspired a mutually beneficial alliance between the northeastern province of Youzhou and the Tang dynasty, which allowed Youzhou its autonomy in return for frontier security. Turning south, Sherry Mou relates the non-Chinese Consort Xian’s success in retaining independence from the Chen dynasty (557–89) for her followers in the Guangdong region, and offers a gendered analysis of changing emphases in Ming and modern versions of the story. James Anderson, engaging with Vietnamese historiography, gives a nuanced account of court-to-court agreements to discipline unruly frontiersmen degenerating into war through a combination of local choices of allegiance and central efforts to impose greater control. War, however, led to a negotiated fixed border, which made peace.

Agency has limits, and other essays consider the parameters of the middle-period world through examining central efforts to control and manage the frontiers. This was difficult and could bring failure. Michael McGrath, for instance, describes Song-Xia relations to show that neither wanted war, but that lack of interest, of openmindedness and of full engagement with the frontier seemingly made them powerless to avoid conflict. Ruth Mostern explains Southern Song handling of contradictory pulls towards abolishing counties made unproductive by the Jin wars and establishing them to spread the cost of garrisoning the new border in Huainan. Continual attention meant that these strategic counties effectively dictated policy for the province. Turning from territorial to moral, ritual and cosmic space, M.A. Butler explains the principles of the Hidden Period technique that allowed skilled practitioners to jump time and space for battlefield advantage. By writing down the rituals, the court tried to appropriate their military efficacy and to control adepts whose direct access to the divine required, dangerously, no mediation from the Son of Heaven.

One purpose of the volume is to illustrate that war was as much part of the Chinese toolbox as diplomacy. Military means, however, present their own problems: cost, destruction, overstretch, unpredictability. Many chapters discuss responses to such realities, sometimes providing commentary on the definition of war as a method of making the enemy change their mind. At state level, Peter Lorge offers a masterly discussion of the Great Ditch along the Song-Liao border as an effective, if reluctantly adopted, scheme that helped both rulers to change their minds enough to agree the Chanyuan Covenant of 1005. At the individual level, Don Wyatt explores how and why Wang Dan, despite lacking inherent sympathy for the ‘peace camp’, nevertheless developed the non-belligerent stance that has...