The Northern Others in Chinese Historiography: Reading the Tuoba Xianbei

Talk by Nina Duthie, visiting faculty in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA

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The early fourth century in China is conventionally described with the epigrammatic phrase wu Hu luan Hua, or “the five Hu (nomadic tribes of from the north) lay waste to the Hua (Huaxia; central cultural region).” The phrase evokes a violent disruption of the normative political order as the result of savage invaders running amok across the land. Dr. Duthie's talk will examine the earliest ethnographic accounts of the Tuoba Xianbei, one such Hu tribe, and show how such accounts place the Tuoba Xianbei squarely within an existing discourse on the uncivilized Hu.

Dr. Duthie will then turn to explore an alternative narrative on Tuoba Xianbei origins and ancestors from the mid-sixth century Wei shu (History of the Northern Wei). She argues that the Wei shu annals present a teleological narrative in which the Tuoba Xianbei ancestors emerge in a northern wilderness under the reign of a son of the Yellow Emperor, civilize the lands of their origin, and then, with the guidance of spirit animals, undertake a succession of southward journeys and move into a new space—one whose boundaries are clearly defined through the founding of capitals and which is sacralized through the performance of rituals to heaven and earth. This narrative on the Tuoba Xianbei past then prompts the Wei shu historian’s comment that, “by the end, [the Tuoba rulers] came to expansively possess all the world,” thereby establishing the ground for the inevitable founding of the imperial Northern Wei state (386–534 CE) in north China.

Nina Duthie received her Ph.D. in Chinese Literature and Cultural History from the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University in 2015, and is currently a visiting faculty in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA.

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Duration: 00:42:13


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Published: Monday, March 13, 2017