- The People Between the Rivers: The Rise and Fall of a Bronze Drum Culture, 200–750 CE by Catherine Churchman
The People Between the Rivers is a masterful historical account of an important region, its peoples and chieftains, and the various Chinese administrative empires with which they constantly interacted. It provides a focused, interdisciplinary analysis of cultural interactions involving a neglected group of peoples over a large expanse of time, approximately 550 years. The author’s main sources are texts, mostly histories and other treatises written during the period under examination, but Churchman also brings broad insights and critical approaches from linguistics, archaeology, and anthropology to bear on the study; the result is nothing short of spectacular. This study provides a crucial missing link in the chain of our understanding of premodern China–Southeast Asia relations. It is one of the finest histories concerning first millennium c.e. East Asia or Southeast Asia that I have seen in years.
Churchman’s work on what she calls “the people between the rivers” (i.e., the Red River and Pearl River) concerns groups referred to as the Li and Lao in Chinese language sources of the period. This book adds considerably to a growing body of scholarship on the history of the southern reaches of the East Asian mainland, sometimes referred to as China’s southern frontier.1 The People Between the Rivers fills an important lacuna in our understanding of this frontier by providing a convincing account of the political structures, trade networks, and cross-cultural contacts of peoples in the Two Rivers Region, one that helps explain the eventual formation of Vietic states to the southwest. To date, there has been very little work on these ancient peoples in Western scholarship. Churchman is one of the first Euro-American scholars to take this region as an integral unit that might be discussed on its own as a vital crossroads among peoples of incredible diversity and difference and as a crucial node for understanding basic problems in the history of Chinese empires and frontiers.
Churchman is sophisticated in her use of social science theories and methods and provides a critical reading of her sources. Although this region has been understood to be part of “China” for the last thousand years, Churchman shows that it can be fruitful to view it as the “northernmost extension of a Southeast Asian cultural world” (p. 12), at least during the first millennium c.e. Approaches garnered over recent decades in the study of Southeast Asia can be employed to study this region as well. Churchman also makes use of a wide variety of languages and scribal systems beyond her primary sources in classical Chinese to greatly enrich the account. Secondary sources in Mandarin, Vietnamese (written in Chữ Nôm), Japanese, [End Page 179] French, German, and English were consulted and discussed in some manner.
The contributions of the book are many. Foremost, the book outlines crucial changes in political structures, administrative practices, trade, and strategic alliances that together offer a plausible, step-by-step model of cross-cultural contact and interaction. Churchman thus rewrites the history of “sinicization.” Instead of sinicization of the region, we see mutual accommodation and even a type of reverse response to sinicization during part of the period covered. Second, the book stresses the importance of paying attention to the distinction between lowland-upland peoples rather than focusing on contemporary, nationalistic distinctions between the regions of “Chinese” Guangdong and “Vietnamese” Jiaozhou. Churchman shows that there were stark differences between the cultural complexes of imperial, administrative, military states and those of upland chieftains, while the lowland administrative centers of Guangdong and Jiaozhou actually had more in common than they had with the uplands regions between them. Third, the book outlines a history of peoples who have heretofore been neglected in most scholarly accounts of southern Chinese and Southeast Asian history. And lastly, Churchman’s account of how trade worked between the...