- Yunnan: Periphery or Center of an International Network?
For those of us whose work focuses on Yunnan, there is often a sense of the liminal that seems to be a part of the territory. It is a given that Yunnan’s historic, geographic, and social landscape is heavily textured and not easy to navigate. And while contemporary state narratives make it clear that Yunnan is part of China, this is less clear once one attempts to find one’s way over and through that historic, geographic, and social terrain. Bin Yang’s energetic new book provides us with maps that make sense of Yunnan from these perspectives, and it should be read by anyone interested in this fascinating province.
A big factor in Bin Yang’s success in making sense of Yunnan is his global perspective. Rather than approaching Yunnan from a Chinese perspective, he sets it within a larger global context. This is not to exclude China’s role in the history of Yunnan, but rather to uncover the large picture in which Yunnan was embedded. Yang does not, however, limit his interrogation of Yunnan over time to a global approach; he successfully invokes frontier theory to query Yunnan’s position in China and vice versa. Also as Yang makes clear in his introduction, his book relies heavily on Fang Guoyu’s thirteen-volume compilation of Chinese historical sources on Yunnan, the incomparable Yunnan Shiliao Congkan. If Yang’s scholarship accomplished nothing else, his reduction of the innumerable nuggets contained in Fang’s work for the general reader is invaluable for anyone interested in Yunnan history.
Yang’s first chapter, “The Southwest Silk Road,” sets the global context for this work by situating historical Yunnan as the natural crossroads of China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Tibet, linked together by the southwest Silk Road. Few historians of Yunnan have really bothered to adopt this perspective, but it is most productive because it releases Yunnan studies from the narrative imposed by the Chinese gaze. He argues that before there was even a place called “Yunnan,” this frontier region played a very dynamic role in several states and systems, because of its intrinsic quality of linking together three overland trade routes: the Yunnan-Burma-India route, the Yunnan-Vietnam route, and the Yunnan-Tibet route. Until the Mongol conquest in the 1250s, China was only one of several culture areas linked to Yunnan, in spite of occasional attempts by Chinese states to govern that frontier zone.
As his second chapter, “Military Campaigns against Yunnan,” makes clear, the incidental conquest of Yunnan by the Mongols on their way into southern Song China made possible more concerted military campaigns by successive Chinese states to bring this frontier area firmly under central Chinese state control. Here too, however, the author is not content with the traditional China-centered approach to Yunnan’s history and, instead, frames the various military campaigns run by Chinese in the area as “transnational, cross-boundary, or cross-regional interactions” (p. 73). The effect of this analysis is that Yang paints a lively picture of the region (or the states or groups that inhabited this region) as a dynamic actor in the formation of various Chinese dynasties because of its geopolitical location. [End Page 306] This can be seen, for example, in the first subsection of this chapter, “Yunnan and the Making of the Qin Empire” (p. 73).
The effect of Yang’s Yunnan-centered, transnational approach in this chapter, however, was an odd elision of the Mongol conquest of Yunnan, except for a very brief mention between long narrative sections devoted to the independent states Nanzhao and Dali and the Ming military incorporation of Yunnan. It is almost as if an implicit counternarrative of the China-centered construction of Yunnan is the only alternative to his global approach. In other words, once conditions favored more direct and...