- Battlefronts Real and Imagined: War, Border, and Identity in the Chinese Middle Period
The essays in this volume seek to counter customary scholarship on the era in question, which the editor contends has stressed the role of diplomacy over warfare in this critical period in Chinese history, roughly from a.d. 420 to 1368. Some refer to this period as China's Middle Ages, though these writers call it China's middle period. Indeed, this book contributes significantly to the rapidly growing field of Chinese military history and builds upon the work of numerous scholars in recognizing the importance of warfare and military conflict in shaping Chinese history. However, while Don Wyatt contends that the studies gathered herein make a strong case for the uniqueness of the middle period of Chinese history for the intersection of issues of war, border, and identity, I would caution against making such broad generalizations. Instead, I would suggest being content with situating the events and processes described herein within the broader scope of Chinese and world history, something some of the authors do better than others. Additionally, I would argue that several essays in the present collection make a strong case for the importance of imperial agency in the creation of strategy and in decisions surrounding war and peace. Too often historians have sought to make vague generalizations about Confucian culture or civilian dominance over the military, especially for the Song dynasty. Yet as several pieces in this book demonstrate, imperial leadership mattered, and it is vitally important for scholars to have a sense of the factions, perspectives, and debates that led to the articulation of policies and implementation of strategies and tactics, with often unforeseen consequences for large numbers of people. This is one of the recurrent themes of the book, and yet it is glossed over by the editor in his introduction.
The book opens with a chapter by Sherry J. Mou that examines various biographies of one Consort Xian, a female Li leader in the sixth century from a region of South China known as Yue. In studying these versions of Xian's life, the author comes to the unsurprising and rather self-evident conclusion that each biography reveals more about the author and their values than the subject. However, one might wonder whether Mou herself is guilty of imparting a monolithic Confucian discourse upon the authors she is examining. Nevertheless, the study is useful for the insights it provides into the political and military roles played by female minority elites in medieval China and offers intriguing possibilities for future comparative studies. In the next chapter, David A. Graff looks at different types of military provinces in the late Tang dynasty, focusing on the case of Lulong, which was located in the environs of modern Beijing. While scholars have heretofore emphasized the autonomous nature of such military provinces, Graff finds, in the case of Lulong at least, that the confluence of local and national interests could produce surprisingly effective results from the court's perspective with regards to maintaining a militarily secure border. In the book's third chapter, Peter Lorge weaves an engaging tapestry demonstrating how the creation of a defensive structure, which he calls the "Great Ditch of China," could lead to the implementation [End Page 275] of a successful military and political policy, despite the fact that the policy was originally rejected by the emperor for a variety of political reasons. Like many of the other pieces in the volume, Lorge's essay highlights the role of imperial leadership—on both the Song and Liao sides—in shaping policy (pp. 62-66). Too often Chinese monarchs come off as stereotypes rather than as real people with real concerns and motivations. It is refreshing to see so many authors treating them in a more three-dimensional fashion in the present volume. Such an approach bodes well for comparative work by future generations of historians.