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  • Mapping a Stateless Nation:“Bohai” Identity in the Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries
  • Jesse D. Sloane

The Bohai 渤海 people played a pivotal role in the politics, literature, and society of northern China under the Liao and Jin dynasties. After the conquest and dissolution of the kingdom of Parhae (698–926) by the Khitan empire, the term “Bohai” was used through the fourteenth century to denote a subset of the populations of the Liao,1 Jin, and Mongol empires. Within the study of ethnicity in premodern Chinese history, the Bohai are atypical both for the centuries for which they were recognized as a category despite lacking political autonomy and for their success in the civil bureaucracy and literati culture. This study traces the history of the Bohai from their role in founding the Jin state to their marginalization under Mongol rule and eventual disappearance from the sources in the fourteenth century.

Through examining how the Bohai disappeared from the sources after a long period of prominence, this study illuminates not only factors operative in Jin and Mongol politics and society, but also complexities in the understandings and experience of ethnicity in imperial China.2 Explaining the disappearance [End Page 365] of the Bohai from the sources is by nature difficult since it addresses precisely an absence of evidence. The problem can be approached only indirectly through the patchy sources for northern China in the thirteenth century, and so only tentative explanations can be offered. The only alternative, however, would be blind appeal to assumptions about ethnic assimilation whose empirical fallibility has been convincingly demonstrated.

From State to Nation: The “Parhae” State and Its “Bohai” Diaspora in the Conquest Dynasties

In Liao and Jin texts, “Bohai” connoted descent from the Northeast Asian kingdom of Parhae,3 which at its peak controlled the majority of modern Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, as well as the upper portion of the Korean peninsula and the southwestern tip of Russia’s Maritime Territory (Primorsky Krai).4 The most detailed extant accounts of Parhae politics, institutions, and society are found in the two official Tang histories, supplemented by other Chinese texts such as the Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華 (987).

Tang sources divide Parhae’s inhabitants into two main groups, Koguryŏ 高句麗 and Mohe 靺鞨. The royal family and upper levels of government [End Page 366] are said to have been remnants of the Koguryŏ aristocracy who survived that state’s invasion and dismemberment by the Tang and Silla 新羅 in 668. The relationship between these latter two states and Parhae remained antagonistic until détente was reached in the mid-eighth century.5 Nara Japan was Parhae’s closest ally and an important trading partner; texts from Japan, particularly the Shoku Nihongi 續日本紀 (797) and Ruiju kokushi 類聚國史 (892), document diplomatic exchanges and provide further insight into Parhae society. Korean texts such as the Samguk yusa 三國遺事 (ca. 1285) provide insight into views of Parhae held in Silla and Koryŏ 高麗, but less information on Parhae itself.

Mohe tribal groups are identified by Tang authors as the second and larger component of the Parhae population, particularly outside its five capitals. Archaeological surveys have identified more than sixty Parhae settlement sites lying within modern China and a similar number in Russia, with sites in North Korea difficult to enumerate precisely but probably fewer.6 Many sites contained dwellings with heating stoves, along with ceramic roof tiles and vessels which serve as the main artifacts by which settlement sites are identified as “Parhae” by archaeologists.7 These features suggest that much of the population, even outside the capitals, was sedentary. Iron agricultural implements indicate that a sophisticated agriculture was practiced in parts of Parhae, including the use of draught animals to draw heavy iron plows.8

The Koguryŏ-Mohe division remains the default view of Parhae society in modern scholarship; alternatives have been proposed—e.g., that the two groups eventually formed a unitary “Parhae people,” or were from the start minor variations in a unitary “Koguryŏ people”—but none has become widely accepted. Language in Parhae is yet another area of scholarly disagreement,9 [End Page 367] yet its officials clearly had a considerable command of classical Chinese. This linguistic capability is demonstrated by extant sources including diplomatic documents...


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