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  • Critical Approaches to the Narrative of Sinicization
  • Erica Fox Brindley (bio)
Hugh R. Clark. The Sinitic Encounter in Southeast China Through the First Millennium CE. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. xv, 266 pp. Hardcover $99.00, isbn 978-0-8248-5160-6.

This book arrives on the cusp of a new wave of publications and surging scholarly interest in premodern developments in southern China and maritime Southeast Asian regions around the South China Sea. While the geographic focus of Clark's expansive monograph is Southeast China–mostly areas historically associated with the Min (閩) cultures in what are now modern-day Fujian Province–Clark takes the much broader and more elusive sphere of wen (文), or "civilization" as his overarching thematic interest in the book. The result is an intriguing, vast, and often enlightening retelling of the history of premodern "South China" in the first millennium C.E., one that criticizes the overly "Sinitic" emphasis of acculturation narratives that have dominated Chinese and Western historiographies in past centuries. Clark's lifelong historical engagement with Middle Period (i.e., Later Han through Song) Fujian and South China has enriched this book, pollinating it throughout with specific examples and longue durée perspectives that only extensive expertise could make possible. It is chock-full of delightful stories about figures, events, and themes or motifs related to premodern Fujian and the southern regions, all of which provide anecdotal evidence of a very rich and complicated history of cross-cultural interactions in premodern times. Whether these stories support Clark's main claim that through them we witness the eventual adoption of wen values, and whether such a process is appropriately labeled as a "Sinitic" encounter is another matter, which we will examine in this review.

Sinitic Encounter is of great interest because of what it sets out to accomplish: a critique of standard sinicization narratives. A clear bias persists in Chinese historiography–written by members of the elite and often sponsored by dynastic houses–one that assumes the dominance and victory of civilized (wen) culture vis-à-vis the so-called non-Chinese indigenes and cultures. As Clark aptly shows, such a bias ignores the voices of the illiterate, non-Sinitic others who were widespread throughout the South in the first millennium C.E. It whitewashes the multicultural, multi-ethnic, and extremely complicated histories of southern peoples, replacing such complexities with the monotonous narrative of Sinitic cultural predominance and easy absorption of backward people and their cultures. As a corrective to this, Clark tries to "offer a plausible model of accommodation between disparate cultures rather than simple displacement" (p. xiv) and to "challenge the teleological hegemony of the northern discourse," which assumes that the northern, Sinitic cultures overwhelmingly took over the southlands, [End Page 160] essentially and effectively wiping out the inferior cultures of the non-Sinitic peoples (p. 18). Clark is right; this kind of corrective is precisely what is needed in the study of the history of the southern regions of China, and his book makes an important contribution to the literature that aims to unravel this view.

The book is organized into two main sections. The first section, "Part I: Transitions," provides an overview of important historical transitions involving the encounter of so-called northern, hegemonic cultures with southern, indigenous ones. It examines in chapter 1 the concept of "the civilizing mission," defining it in terms of a prevailing, hermeneutical concept of wen ("the values of civilization") (p. 12). Chapter 2 discusses the overarching Sinocentric visions and perceptions of the South; chapter 3, key transformations involving changing demographics and adoption of northern, administrative techniques such as the civil service examinations during the Song and pre-Song times, and chapter 4, the development of an actual discourse on wen as a measure of civilization during the Song period. The first section is dispersed in theme, approach, geography, time period, and content, but it is nonetheless a helpful introduction to some main themes in the study of the history of South China/North China relations.

The second section, "Part Two: A Local Model of Cultural Accommodation," provides an extensive discussion of stories, many of which are religious in nature, involving local cults and cultures...