Author: Joel Wing-Lun
Over the last few years, I have been conducting fieldwork in Guizhou Province, southwest China, in a region once known as the “Miao Frontier.”
“Miao” was an imperial designation for local people of this region, and it is one of the fifty-six “nationalities” of the People’s Republic today. Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Miao Frontier was transformed through military and economic force from territory beyond the pale of Chinese “civilization” to a centre of commercial forestry.
Local languages had no written script. Chinese texts were written and read by a small, literate minority but widely venerated for their permanence and for their association with imperial authority. An elaborately-carved stone stele from 1778 is a case in point.
Cryptically titled “The Sun and Moon are Both Bright” 日月同明 and now broken in two, the stele’s text was composed by an imperial student and commemorates the renovation of a Buddhist temple at Longfeng Mountain 龍鳳山.
“[It stands amid] range upon range of verdant mountains. It shines in the morning light. Clouds and mist soar precipitously up both sides. At times, it refracts light in five colours. At times, it is constantly changing.”
The stele celebrates the mountain’s “concentrated numinosity” 鐘靈 and “nurtured talent” 毓秀. It also praises the community’s generosity. Villagers earned merit from donations inscribed on the stone, and the temple’s upkeep was supported by the purchase of rice paddies and hillsides planted with Chinese fir, wood-oil trees, and oil-seed camellia, the region’s major commercial crops. In the eighteenth century, local villages profited from the expanding forestry trade to differentiate themselves culturally from newly-conquered territories to the south and west.
The temple and the stele exhibited villagers’ new-found wealth and cultural affinity with the empire. Buddhism and the written word were considered markers of “civilization.” The temple became a focal point of the community, where disputes were mediated and married women might see their natal family.
Yet the empire’s textual traditions never replaced local oral cultures. Today, celebration of the Bodhisattva’s religious vows is followed by a lively festival where mostly older villagers, many in local traditional dress, gather to sing amorous songs in local languages. The stone inscriptions are ignored, save for the shade they provide from the beating sun.
Joel Wing-Lun is a PhD candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. His dissertation focuses on Chinese imperial expansion into what is now Guizhou Province during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Using village documents and ethnographic fieldwork, Joel examines how imperial expansion was experienced by local communities.
Joel is currently a visiting student at the Australian Centre on China in the World 2020-21.
Joel discussed the full text of the 1778 stele, together with several other texts from the region, at the Classical and Literary Chinese Reading Group. If you are interested in joining the Reading Group, or learning more about its weekly meetings, please contact Mark Strange: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Classical and Literary Chinese Reading Group runs each Friday, between 3.00pm and 5.00pm. Participants include scholars and graduate students from in and outside the ANU; advanced-level undergraduate students are also welcome. Participants translate and discuss texts written in Classical or Literary Chinese, chosen for their chronological, thematic, generic, and linguistic variety. The emphasis is on close analysis of the texts selected. Members of the Reading Group or visitors to the ANU are encouraged to propose materials for study.