Shi Xie and the rise of the great families

01

Dec
2021

Shi Xie and the rise of the great families

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For fifty years after Ma Yuan’s expedition, Han power was at its peak. Very little  information about the southern frontier during this time was recorded by imper- ial historians, which may be taken as an indication that, in the wake of Ma  Yuan’s frontier sojourn, the situation was relatively calm. When events began to be recorded, in the second century, they were about invasions, rebellions, and political turmoil. Ma Yuan left most of his army in Giao Chi, Cuu Chan, and Nhat Nam to form the core of what became a frontier garrison. Large numbers of Han soldiers, administrators, merchants, craftspeople, agriculturalists, and adventurers came and went. Many of these people remained to take advantage of opportunities on the new frontier.

Ma Yuan’s expedition is the pivot for a dramatic shift in archaeological evidence. Han-style brick tombs replace Dong Son graves. These tombs are  nearly identical with tombs found throughout the Han Empire, being under- ground chambers covered by mounds of earth and containing coins, jewelry,  lamps, figurines, utensils, mirrors, ceramics, weapons, and other miscellaneous items, all typical of Han culture. Among the artifacts found in these tombs are clay models of agricultural compounds with wells, ovens, granaries, pens for animals, residential quarters, and walls with towers for defense. Such clay models are found in Han tombs everywhere and indicate the basic composition of Han society in the first and second centuries ce, a social structure that continued in various forms until the sixth century in southern China and northern Vietnam.

Historians of China refer to this as the age of “great family dominance,” meaning that “great families,” or agglomerations of people and property under the authority of kin groups, whether actual or fictive, constituted government at the local and provincial levels and dominated imperial administration outside of the capital region and of strategically located garrisons. These were similar to the latifundia in the Roman Empire and the hacienda of colonial Latin America, which emerged from contexts of imperial conquest and appropriation of land, manpower, and other resources. As economic units, they were typically based on control of large tracts of agricultural land worked by peasants and herders in various forms of servitude or dependency, but they could also include craftsmen  with specialized skills, for example in ceramics, bronze and iron ware, wood- working, fishing and pearl diving, salt making, ivory carving, precious stones  and metals, and the production of incense from aromatic wood. There would also have been scholars, scribes, teachers, medical doctors, priests, monks, soldiers, spies, assassins, alchemists, and magicians, all of whom were employed to serve the interests of the group of people composing the “great family,” constituted by birth, adoption, marriage, or some other expedient.

The “great families” were economic and social units that brought together local people and immigrants or sojourners from the north. They were arenas  with potential for upward social mobility for local people having skills, apti- tudes, and attributes in demand by those in power. They were also places where  northerners could find opportunities for employment and possible advancement. The people who presided at the very top of these “great families” were buried in the vaulted brick tombs. They were either northerners and their descendents or local people who had assimilated into the imperial governing class. The tombs  indicate a fundamental regional stability of imperial society despite the vicissi- tudes of dynastic politics during the five hundred years following Ma Yuan’s  expedition.

During the first to sixth centuries, thousands of these tombs were built in the rice lands of Giao Chi, Cuu Chan, and Nhat Nam. They are today found as far south as the region of modern Quang Trach (Ba Don) in Quang Binh Province, on the Gianh River just south of Ngang pass. It is not coincidental that at this place the distribution of the brick tombs reached its southernmost extent. After the fall of Han, Ngang Pass became the southern border of the provincial jurisdictions inhabited by the ancestors of modern Vietnamese. The Han juris- diction of Nhat Nam had its northern border at Ngang Pass and it became a  contested frontier zone between Sino-Vietnamese, later Vietnamese, and other peoples generally called Cham. Not until the fifteenth century did Vietnamese armies decisively conquer this area and open the southern coast to Vietnamese immigrants.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Vietnamese along this southern coast had established their own separate political system, and for two centuries the Gianh River was the border between northern and southern Vietnamese kingdoms. Decades of warfare ensued. Thirty kilometers south, at Dong Hoi, the southerners built a system of defensive walls from the mountains to the sea to block northern invasions. Seventy kilometers south of Dong Hoi is the Ben Hai River at the seventeenth parallel, the border between warring northern and southern Vietnamese states for twenty years in the mid twentieth century.

This region was the southern extremity of the Han Empire at its greatest extent, and thereafter it remained a border zone of one kind or another. There are at least four reasons for this: geography, climate, political history, and human activity in response to these factors. North of Ngang Pass, the plains of the Red, Ma, and Ca Rivers form a coherent geographical space of rice lands amidst large rivers and mountainous terrain with possibilities for defense against external threats. Major rivers all lead west-northwest into the highlands of southwest China and northern Laos. These plains are at the southern edge of the temperate climatic zone, having four seasons with cold, if brief, winters. Wresting an agricultural life from flooding rivers and the salty sea instilled a disciplined lifestyle. Internalizing the social organization and cultural ideals acquired from centuries of participation in an imperial world added new forms of discipline. Communal responsibility and deference to authority remain strong among northern Vietnamese.

The southern border of the Han jurisdiction of Nhat Nam was Hai Van Pass, located between the modern cities of Hue and Da Nang. South from Hai Van Pass, one enters the tropics and a coastal environment with greater exposure to the outside world of seafaring and maritime trade routes than is possible on the more northerly coasts facing Hainan Island. Here the Cham peoples, and later the southern Vietnamese, found scope for a more diversified economic, social, and cultural life than was possible further north. The mountainous hinterland communicates with the central Mekong and territories inhabited by ancient Khmer speakers and, more recently, by Tai speakers.

The coastal plain between Ngang Pass and Hai Van Pass is a transitional zone that includes both temperate and tropical climatic features. Han-era Nhat Nam was anchored in its north with a society in the plain of the Gianh River and its tributaries that produced the Han-style brick tombs. Here was sited the headquarters for commanders of garrisons and patrols that maintained watch as far south as Hai Van Pass. In the second century, as Han power began to decline, frontier disorders in Nhat Nam began to multiply, leading by the end of that century to abandonment of the entire jurisdiction. During that time, the people of Giao Chi and Cuu Chan repeatedly mobilized in response to these disorders and came to understand that with the ebbing of Han power their security increasingly  depended upon their taking for themselves the responsibility of regional leader- ship. The story of how this happened is about the first inkling of local political  initiative after the shock of Ma Yuan’s conquest, which had been followed by  several generations of immigration, intermarriage, and acculturation in the con- text of the “great family” estates.

At the center of this story is a family that traced its ancestry to refugees from Shandong Province in northeastern China that had fled into the south during the Wang Mang disorders at the beginning of the first century ce. This family settled at the headquarters commanding the frontier jurisdiction comprised of southern China and northern Vietnam, located at Cangwu (modern Wuzhou) on the present border of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces in southern China. Here a main route over the mountains from the north met the West River, about 420 kilometers northeast of the modern Sino-Vietnamese border. During the years from the late 140s to the late 160s, the leader of this family, Shi Si, served as the  chief administrative officer of Nhat Nam. These were critical years in the unrav- eling of the southern Han frontier, and Shi Si served there at a time when  especially talented and trusted men were assigned to rule by force of personality in lieu of reliance upon military force only.

During the previous decade, in 137 and again in 144, Han outposts and  settlements in Nhat Nam were overrun by uprisings originating in the southern- most part of the jurisdiction, provoking turmoil and the breakdown of Han  authority in Cuu Chan as well. A disorder similar to these had been put down by force in the year 100, subsequent to which there were several episodes of local peoples immigrating into the areas of Han administration and submitting to Han authority. Since this was also the time when Han power began to decline, Han administration was apparently unequal to the task of carrying out its civilizing mandate among these new subjects or of keeping them at peace. When Nhat Nam erupted in 137 and 144, Han was no longer capable of sending large numbers of soldiers so far south. Consequently, a policy was implemented in which men were selected for their prior experience and success in dealing with non-Han peoples on the frontier and were sent to calm the situation through persuasion and charisma. Shi Si was such a person. In 160, when disorders once more broke out in Nhat Nam and Cuu Chan, Han officials again negotiated peace without resort to arms.

The progressive ebbing of Han power, however, continued to offer new opportunities for frontier adventurers. Nhat Nam was temporarily stabilized, but in the 160s uprisings began to break out further north in what is now southern China. The 170s were a time of contention among Han officials in southern China and northern Vietnam, where loyalty to the distant Han court  was increasingly eroded by personal ambition. By the 180s, imperial appoint- ments to prominent local men recognized an emerging arrangement of regional  autonomy.

At that time, Shi Si’s eldest son, Shi Xie, was appointed to govern Giao Chi. For the next forty years, Shi Xie kept Giao Chi and Cuu Chan in peace, while all around swirled the consequences of Han collapse. One of these consequences in the early 190s was the appearance of the kingdom of Lin Yi in southern Nhat Nam. The people of Lin Yi included groups from both the coast and the adjacent uplands along with Han renegades. Lin Yi must also have had some contact, if not connection, with Cham peoples led by kings in the region beyond Nhat Nam’s border, south of Hai Van Pass. As portrayed in later Chinese records, the logic for the existence of this kingdom was to exploit opportunities for probing, plundering, and appropriating territories in imperial frontier jurisdictions. For much of the next four centuries, Lin Yi would be a chronic adversary for those who governed the Red River plain. It nevertheless appears that Shi Xie managed to maintain a modus vivendi with this nascent power.

In his youth, Shi Xie had been sent north to study with a famous scholar. He subsequently served as a secretary at the Han court, then returned south to mourn for his father, and thereafter served as an administrator in Sichuan in western China before being appointed to govern Giao Chi. This appointment was based upon both his personal qualities and his position as head of the Shi family, which had become prominent on the southern frontier. In the 190s, the lapse of imperial control in the south enabled Shi Xie to appoint three of his brothers to govern Cuu Chan and the coastal regions of modern Guangxi and Guangdong in southern China. Shi Xie governed from Luy Lau, about thirty kilometers east of modern Hanoi, where his tomb can be seen to this day.

Around a hundred scholars fleeing the collapse of Han found refuge with Shi Xie. Shi Xie was remembered among later generations of Vietnamese as the father of education in their land. He reportedly built schools and encouraged lively debates among the intellectuals who gathered around him, including Confucianists, Daoists, and Buddhists. Centuries later, he was credited with compiling a dictionary explaining classical terms in vernacular Vietnamese for use in schools. He surrounded himself with Buddhist monks, and the building of the earliest known Vietnamese Buddhist temples is attributed to him. The story about how Buddhism originated among the Vietnamese connects him to the first appearance of a Buddha in this land, a Mother Buddha who miraculously gave birth to a daughter who, via a tale entwined with the worship of trees and rocks, became embodied in images of four sister Buddhas with rain-making powers. One of these, the Dharma Cloud Buddha, was particularly worshipped by imperial governors and also by Vietnamese kings as late as the eighteenth century. Shi Xie’s posthumous cult also credited him with Daoist powers of immortality. In short, Shi Xie is associated with the introduction of every major aspect of what came to define Vietnamese culture. This is why in his study of Shi Xie, Stephen O’Harrow called him “the first Vietnamese.”

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