Mural painting of a man on horseback hunting game animals with bow and arrow

Mural from a tomb of Northern Qi Dynasty in Jiuyuangang, Xinzhou

Evolving Identities in Sixth-Century East Asia

Scott Pearce

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

Identity is a fundamental issue of the human species, in modern and ancient times alike. In this talk we will address this complex issue during the "early medieval" period of continental East Asia. We start with an overview of the earlier formation of a Han ("Chinese") identity within the empire of the same name (206 BCE-220 CE), rooted in Chinese as spoken language, a moral system extracted from the classic texts of Literary Chinese, and location of lineage within the empire's administrative districts. With collapse of Han's last successor state, the empire's northern territories – the Yellow River region – came to be governed by new states, created by other peoples speaking other languages, most prominently the Mongolic *Serbi (Chinese Xianbei) peoples. Over the centuries that followed, old identities were remade, and new ones took shape, through ongoing struggle and interaction, and borrowings of language and culture that went in multiple directions.

Scott Pearce took his PhD in East Asian Studies from Princeton in 1987, and since then has taught at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Washington. He specializes in the intersection of Chinese and Inner Asian histories in the medieval period. To this end he has recently completed a volume on the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), soon forthcoming from Oxford University Press, in which he traces the dynasty’s origins back to the third century, when various new polities began to take shape in the vacuum left open in the Yinshan frontier zone by disintegration of both the Xiongnu empire in Inner Asia and the Chinese Han empire to the south. Over time, Wei rulers reorganized their nomadic followers into an army of horseback archers, which in the late fourth century began moving south to conquer the Yellow River plains, core regions of the now-defunct Han empire. This is the original model of a kind of empire familiar in East Asian history: regimes of Inner Asian origin that seized control of part or all of the enormously productive farmlands to the south. In this, Pearce gives particular attention to issues of historiography: of how the history of this regime of Inner Asian origin was recorded in the Chinese language, from within the Chinese historiographical tradition, and the care needed in use of such texts. 

Please check for event updates.

ISAW is committed to providing a positive and educational experience for all guests and participants who attend our public programming. We ask that all attendees follow the guidelines listed in our community standards policy.