"The People in Between": The Li and Lao from the Han to the Sui

Catherine Churchman

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The lands that lie north of the Tongking Gulf, between the Pearl and Red Rivers, have been long divided up for historical analysis into areas that correspond to the modern national boundaries of China or Vietnam. As this region is now a borderland, intersected by a national boundary, its story has been overlooked as marginal in comparison with the great traditions of nation-centered history; so too the writing of its history, even for periods when no boundary is evident. To divide this area into two discrete subsets of Chinese and Vietnamese history in a pre-tenth-century context, when it formed part of the Jiaozhi Ocean shoreline, requires real intellectual contortions to find any clear boundary between what was "Chinese"1 and what was "Vietnamese." To make the division complete, the modern concept of colonization is introduced retrospectively into the narrative. 2 The projection backward of the later distinction between China and Vietnam might legitimize the political structures that exist now, but it does so at the cost of ignoring or censoring the more distant past. This chapter discusses the inhabitants of this country whom I shall call the Li-Lao. These people were probably mainly speakers of Kam-Tai languages, but they inhabited a far greater area than any of the Kam-Tai-speaking peoples in southern China today. In the third to sixth centuries (the Six Dynasties period) their territory extended right along the south coast of modern Guangdong and Guangxi, in a swath of land to the east of the Red River Plain and south and west of the Pearl River Delta. This meant that all overland contact between Guangzhou 3 and Jiaozhou at the time had to pass through Li-Lao territory. The activities of (Figure presented) these people made direct overland contact between Chinese empires and the inhabitants of the Red River Delta a difficult enterprise at best, as several texts have recorded. The result was to deflect such contacts to the sea route, despite its own dangers. From the numerous bronze drums found in the area, all of a similar style and dating from around the same period, it also appears that a powerful and wealthy class of leaders lived here, culturally beyond the reach of Chinese imperial administrations even though they inhabited an intermediate zone between two areas where those administrations were fairly strong. The position and strength of the Li-Lao over many centuries long limited the settlement of Sinitic-speaking peoples in areas south and west of modern Canton and at the same time reduced the effectiveness of direct Chinese imperial control over the Red River Delta area and the lands farther south. As this chapter will argue, the position of the Li-Lao in between, and their ability to hold their own against their imperial neighbors, would ultimately play a role of major historical consequence for another people in the Tongking Gulf region, their neighbors of the Red River plains area of modern northern Vietnam. Before progressing to the analysis, however, an important point needs to be made. When discussing the peoples recorded in ancient Chinese texts it is vital to be aware that Chinese writers applied names to neighboring peoples whom they perceived as different from themselves according to a long-standing tradition that often had more to do with Chinese geographical and literary preoccupations than with any sense of group consciousness on the part of the referents. A major problem that has plagued most Chinese scholarship (and some western Sinology) dealing with the names of ancient ethnic groups is the conviction that a name in a Chinese text necessarily refers to an objective reality outside the name itself.4 This assumed correspondence between name and reality has produced much scholarship based on the geographical and temporal distribution of names and the recorded deeds of their bearers.5 In many cases, however, the scattered geographical distribution of such names throughout areas that do not correspond with a single archaeological culture or any linguistic group gives the game away - these names are often little more than localized Chinese terms for "barbarian." The Chinese chroniclers who recorded these names were often influenced by older literary models and were not particularly interested in, or knowledgeable about, distinctions between different peoples. For example, the tenth-century Taiping huanyu ji (Universal Geography of the Taiping Era) records Yi and Man scattered throughout the Lingnan area (modern Guangdong, Guangxi, and northern Vietnam); but these names derived from earlier labels for peoples who had lived adjacent to the Zhou kingdom almost two millennia before and thus tell us nothing more than that the literate chronicler perceived the referents as uncivilized. Similarly, descriptions of local customs also owed a lot to individual authors' readings in earlier literary works: in many cases they may have been chengyu (clichés appropriate for literary description) rather than firsthand observations of behavior.6 Given all these considerations, one should be cautious not only about accepting old Chinese group names at face value, but also about unqualified historical use of them to label ancient human collectives. Ascribing some sort of past ethnic group identity to the people called Li and Lao is only possible if one ignores the diversity in the archaeological cultures where their names are found.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Tongking Gulf Through History
    Editors Nola Cooke, Li Tana and James A.Anderson
    Place of PublicationPhiladelphia
    PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
    ISBN (Print)9780812243369
    Publication statusPublished - 2011


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