- Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 bce–50 ce by Erica Fox Brindley
In this pioneering study, Erica Fox Brindley addresses the complex and fascinating history of the “Yue” 越 (or Việt), a label ascribed to a kaleidoscope of communities that millennia ago inhabited regions of what are today the southern provinces of China and the northern parts of Vietnam. While these areas now straddle modern national boundaries, a diverse collection of peoples, languages, ethnicities, and cultural practices dotted these landscapes during the second half of the first century bce. These communities were engaged in cultural exchanges and movements that connected them to one another and to other communities much farther afield. Brindley explores the history of the Yue, paying specific attention to the larger context of relations between Yue societies and those of the Central States in ancient China. As the book demonstrates, any understanding of a coalescing imperial Chinese identity and civilization necessitates an understanding of the relations between the Central Plains and this important frontier. This is precisely what Brindley sets out to do with this volume—to show how the history of the Yue is intimately tied to the history of relations with their neighbors.
Brindley’s ambitious engagement with different bodies of data and information is impressive. Her far-reaching research demonstrates how the various peoples known as the Yue—part of a category of “other” that was decentered by ancient Chinese chroniclers—adopted variable strategies to negotiate or reject appellations and overtures made by their neighbors in the Central States. These complex strategies are manifest in the available evidence, including literary accounts, artifacts, landscapes, linguistic reconstructions, and even genetic data. In several important publications prior to this volume, Brindley explores the identities and ethnicities of these southern frontier societies.1 This volume represents a synthesis of her ongoing research efforts and provides [End Page 512] relevant data from other disciplinary approaches to augment our knowledge of the Yue. As Brindley argues in this volume (p. 27), it is somewhat surprising that the history of the Yue ethnonym and its associated populations is not better understood today, given the importance of these southern societies to many historic and contemporary peoples of East and Southeast Asia, and even Oceania.
This gap in knowledge is attributable in part to the lack of written records produced by many of these societies. Our knowledge of their cultural practices and lifeways comes from textual accounts written by Chinese elites, combined with a patchwork of archaeological data and linguistic reconstructions. This overall reconstruction of Yue history involves numerous stakeholders, points of view, and modes of interpretation. Accordingly, the story of ancient China’s southern frontiers and the peoples inhabiting them is marked by challenges in how best to balance and critically evaluate different models of cultural change and identity formation.
As an archaeologist specializing in northern Vietnam’s prehistory, I share many of Brindley’s research concerns. In this review, I focus on the connections between Brindley’s research on the Yue and what is archaeologically known, particularly about the late prehistoric societies of northern Vietnam: the Red River valley region, also known as Bắc Bộ. The larger Yue world underwent significant development during the first millennium bce, and as Brindley points out, societies of northern Vietnam figure prominently in this story. The book provides valuable cultural texture and regional context for the archaeological interpretation and reconstruction of ancient lifeways, thus allowing expression for what Brindley calls the “elusive Yue voice” (p. 44).
The literary records of non-Yue writers are primary sources of information for exploring various Yue identities. But because these are not Yue voices, Brindley thoughtfully blends currently available data from multiple scholarly sources. Part 1 of her book presents an introduction to the conceptual frameworks for studying the Yue, along with an overview of available data from other disciplinary domains. These initial chapters constitute a helpful backdrop...