Shi Xie and the rise of the great families

01

Dec
2021

The Han conquest

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During the years 9–23 ce, the empire was in turmoil as a so-called usurper named Wang Mang tried to supplant the Han dynasty. Uprisings spread disorder in northern China, and fighting continued until a Han prince restored the authority of his dynasty. During this time, officials in southern China remained loyal to Han. Many Han loyalists fled from the north seeking safety in what is now southern China and northern Vietnam. After the Han restoration, large numbers of the officials who had found refuge in the south returned north, but  some remained and established families that would be prominent in local gov- ernment for centuries after. This wave of refugees from the north strengthened  Han officials in their dealings with local peoples during this short but tumultuous era and accelerated the ascendancy of imperial administration over the Lac aristocracy.

Han administrative activity in these years reflects an accumulation of immi- gration from the north as well as growing familiarity and experience with local  conditions. Han officials began to extend the sphere of their direct authority over increasing numbers of inhabitants. Some of these were immigrants from the north settled near Han garrisons and administrative centers. Others were local people who either lived near these places or were attracted to migrate there for economic opportunities or for the security provided by direct imperial rule. Han centers surely attracted refugees from the politics of the Lac lords and the vicissitudes of local society. By this time, Han administrators had apparently established a presence at the district level where they were in a position to intervene in relations between Lac lords and local people. Han officials endeavored to draw the Lac lords into the hierarchy of Han government, to teach them to observe the norms of Han civilization and administration. This effort was probably successful in some cases, but in other cases produced non-cooperation and resistance.

Contradictions grew between Han government and Lac lords. Han officials were appointees in an imperial administrative system; Lac lords were hereditary  aristocrats in something like a feudal system. Han officials organized and regis- tered families in a structure that governed through the responsibility of patriarchs  to control their subordinates and to pay taxes; the status of Lac lords passed  through the family line of one’s mother and tribute was obtained from commu- nities of agriculturalists who practiced group responsibility. For Han people,  land and inheritance rights were possessed by men; in Lac society, access to land was based on communal usage rather than individual ownership and women possessed inheritance rights.

Immigrants from the north included officials, soldiers, agriculturalists, and technical experts of various kinds who married local women and obtained land. The contradiction between the Han practice of land being inherited through the male line and the Lac practice of land rights being inherited through the female line came to a head with these people. In mixed marriages, the conflicting interests of male and female offspring were aligned with the discordant regimes of Han administrators and Lac lords. At stake was control of land and access to the taxable agricultural surplus.

While in Han society men inherited wealth through their fathers, in Lac society both men and women inherited wealth through their mothers. As late as the third century ce, an imperial administrator wrote disapprovingly that levirate was still practiced in areas where Lac traditions remained strongest. This meant that childless widows had a right to bear children with men from their deceased husbands’ families in order to obtain heirs. This practice ostensibly provided an heir for the mother, although some patriarchal societies used it to provide an heir for the deceased father. A woman’s prerogative to bear children for her family line may lie behind an observation from that time and place that local women were difficult to control and that aspiring patriarchs attached bells to the ears of their wives to prevent them from sneaking off at night to be with other men.

people who either lived near these places or were attracted to migrate there for economic opportunities or for the security provided by direct imperial rule. Han centers surely attracted refugees from the politics of the Lac lords and the vicissitudes of local society. By this time, Han administrators had apparently established a presence at the district level where they were in a position to intervene in relations between Lac lords and local people. Han officials endeavored to draw the Lac lords into the hierarchy of Han government, to teach them to observe the norms of Han civilization and administration. This effort was probably successful in some cases, but in other cases produced non-cooperation and resistance. Contradictions grew between Han government and Lac lords. Han officials were appointees in an imperial administrative system; Lac lords were hereditary  aristocrats in something like a feudal system. Han officials organized and regis- tered families in a structure that governed through the responsibility of patriarchs  to control their subordinates and to pay taxes; the status of Lac lords passed  through the family line of one’s mother and tribute was obtained from commu- nities of agriculturalists who practiced group responsibility. For Han people,  land and inheritance rights were possessed by men; in Lac society, access to land was based on communal usage rather than individual ownership and women possessed inheritance rights. Immigrants from the north included officials, soldiers, agriculturalists, and technical experts of various kinds who married local women and obtained land. The contradiction between the Han practice of land being inherited through the male line and the Lac practice of land rights being inherited through the female line came to a head with these people. In mixed marriages, the conflicting interests of male and female offspring were aligned with the discordant regimes of Han administrators and Lac lords. At stake was control of land and access to the taxable agricultural surplus. While in Han society men inherited wealth through their fathers, in Lac society both men and women inherited wealth through their mothers. As late as the third century ce, an imperial administrator wrote disapprovingly that levirate was still practiced in areas where Lac traditions remained strongest. This meant that childless widows had a right to bear children with men from their deceased husbands’ families in order to obtain heirs. This practice ostensibly provided an heir for the mother, although some patriarchal societies used it to provide an heir for the deceased father. A woman’s prerogative to bear children for her family line may lie behind an observation from that time and place that local women were difficult to control and that aspiring patriarchs attached bells to the ears of their wives to prevent them from sneaking off at night to be with other men.  beginning in May and extending into October. The land becomes waterlogged and will not sustain the movement of large armies. As temperatures fall during the cooler months, from November to April, winds blow out to sea and the land dries out making it possible for large armies to move.

In the dry season of early 42 ce, General Ma Yuan led a Han army into the  Red River plain, building a road along the coast as he came. Ma Yuan estab- lished his headquarters near King An Duong’s fortress of Co Loa and camped  there during the soggy months of the monsoon rain season, from May to October. Around the end of the year, as the land dried out and the fighting season opened, he captured and beheaded the Trung Sisters after a series of battles in which thousands of their followers were killed, were captured, or had surrendered. He spent the next year receiving the submission of local leaders, tracking down and killing those who refused to submit, deporting hundreds of prominent clans to the north, building fortified towns from which localities could be governed, establishing garrisons, and settling his soldiers on land from which they could supply their own provisions. He also issued regulations to eliminate the contradictions between Han law and local practice, and he took oaths of loyalty from those who submitted. Having established a foundation for direct imperial governance, he returned north in 44 ce.

The expedition of Ma Yuan ended the age that historians associate with Lac lords and that archaeologists associate with Dong Son Culture. It came two and a half centuries after Qin Shi Huang’s imperial armies crossed the passes into southern China, initiating recorded history in this region with the frontier perceptions of Han administrators and the legendary struggle between King An Duong and Zhao To. Local society and the people who ruled it do not appear to have experienced any major disruption as Han officials garrisoned headquarters at a few strategic locations and began to attract immigrants from the north. As  years went by, however, contradictions between imperial policy and local prac- tice grew ever more apparent and eventually led to the violence of the 40s ce.

Stories about relations between imperial administrators and the local society during this long era of coexistence were compiled in a book annotated in its present form around five centuries later entitled Shui Jing Zhu (Commentary on the Waterways Classic). The stories are about boundaries between the realms of human beings and animals with the humans standing for imperial civilization and animals standing for uncivilized locals. Three stories are attributed to three regions of the Red River plain. One of these is the story, mentioned above, about the big beautiful snakes at Me Linh. This is where the Hung kings or queens are thought to have ruled and also where the Trung Sisters held court. The snakes are entirely in the animal realm, and the point of the story is how to capture and kill them.

Another story is located in the region of Co Loa, where King An Duong ruled.  It is about chimpanzees able to transform themselves into creatures with hand- some human heads that spoke using elegant language that moved the emotions of  human listeners. Humans ate the delicious flesh of these creatures in time of famine. This story of an animal able to enter the human realm with its face and speech is a metaphor for local people who learned some aspects of civilization. But that they were eaten in an emergency indicates that for civilized people they nevertheless remained animals.

The third story comes from Luy Lau, the Han administrative center established at the seaport facing the northern coast. Here a Han administrator became famous for having transformed himself into a tiger and then later returned  himself back into a man. This story is about a representative of imperial civiliza- tion penetrating the animal world and taking control of it in the form of the most  ferocious of beasts, then returning to the human realm.

These stories reflect perceptions of three different regions, but they also reflect three phases in a process of contact between local people and Han officials. The big snake is utterly beyond human civilization and must be killed. The talking chimpanzees assumed some civilized characteristics and were interesting but could never become members of the civilized human world. The Han tiger-man learned to enter and master the realm of savagery yet remained a civilized man and an imperial official. These stories present metaphors for three policies: extermination of the uncivilized, allowing the uncivilized to acquire some aspects of civilization, and penetrating the uncivilized realm and dominating it with imperial versions of uncivilized potency.

In the same book where these stories are recorded, each of these three places is also associated with an emblematic military encounter. At Me Linh, Ma Yuan defeated and killed the Trung Sisters. Co Loa is the scene of the struggle for ascendancy between King An Duong and Zhao To, two aspiring monarchs on the imperial frontier. The battle recorded for Luy Lau is an event that took place in the year 411 when a rebel army fleeing from imperial forces in southern China entered northern Vietnam and attempted to seize control of it; the loyal imperial governor rallied the frontier province against the invading rebel and defeated him. These episodes show a shift of perspective on northern Vietnam from a  place of disorder where uncivilized people were slain to a place where semi- civilized kingdoms competed for dominance on the edge of the civilized world to  a loyal civilized province that overcame rebellious forces emanating from the imperial heartland.

For nine hundred years following the expedition of Ma Yuan, the southern- most province of successive dynastic empires was in northern Vietnam. During  this time, every aspect of society and culture was transformed by education in the Confucian and Daoist classics, by the arrival of Buddhism and its synthesis with local religious practices, by waves of immigrants, by imperial ideals of political organization and social behavior, and by a transformation of languages, both Annamese Middle Chinese that developed among the Chinese speakers and  Proto-Viet-Muong spoken by the non-Chinese population, in a context of cen- turies of bilingualism. The series of acculturating episodes during this time  progressively turned the lives and aspirations of people inhabiting this place toward the civilization in the north.

There was no further mention of the name Lac. Instead, the people here were recorded as Viet (Chinese Yue). As a name, Viet had a relatively prominent imperial pedigree. Although it was a designation for southern non-Han peoples, it nevertheless indicated a kind of uncivilized people that were redeemable. A kingdom named Yue/Viet was one of the “warring states” of ancient China in the sixth to fourth centuries bce, on the southern coast of the civilized world near the mouth of the Yangtze River. Its most famous ruler, King Goujian (fifth  century bce), claimed descent from a sage-king in antiquity. His people, origin- ally considered civilized, had assumed uncivilized aspects through long residence  among uncivilized peoples. Consequently, the Yue/Viet were thought of as a kind of uncivilized people predisposed toward the civilizing process. This was a name for people on the threshold of civilization who had the options of going over the threshold, of turning away, or of looking both ways.

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