In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Han Expansion to the South

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sinitic Worldview
  • Sinitic Worldview Challenged
  • Southern Kingdoms
  • Southern Silk Road
  • Tusi (Indigenous Rulers)
  • Environment
  • Ethnography
  • China’s Southern Periphery
  • China’s Southeast Maritime Empire

Chinese Studies Han Expansion to the South
John E. Herman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0172


On the surface, a discussion of China’s expansion south might appear as just another academic endeavor with little relevance to contemporary events. Anyone who has taken a university course on Chinese civilization knows the story: Chinese civilization began in the second millennium BCE as various Neolithic settlements situated along the lower reaches of the Yellow River, an area known as the Central Plain, coalesced to form the first Chinese dynasty, the Shang. For the next three thousand years, the culture that emerged from this Central Plain heartland spread uniformly over the geopolitical expanse of what is contemporary China, bringing civilization to the previously untamed “barbarians” of the periphery. This linear narrative presumes that the geopolitical entity that is China today has unsullied ancient roots, and that China today has always been China. The arguments offered in support of China’s universal culture, Prasenjit Duara tells us, are rhetorical subterfuge aimed at securing for the “contested and contingent nation the false unity of a self-same” (p. 4), the Han. Thus, to question this teleological paradigm of Chinese history is to challenge the very essence of China, Chinese civilization, and Han identity. Yet this is precisely what students of China’s expansion south are doing today. They are decentering China’s history by asking a deceptively simple question: What would Chinese history look like if we examine it from the perspective of the peoples living along China’s southern periphery?

General Overviews

China’s expansion south has attracted considerable attention in recent years, and the following works have made significant contributions to the field. Wiens 1967 is an excellent general survey of how China’s expansion south was viewed prior to the 1980s, but the authors listed here are in many ways reacting to shortcomings they see in this work. Recent innovative work in anthropological theory, comparative historical sociology, literary theory, and colonial and postcolonial studies have cautioned many of these authors against thinking that China’s expanding civilization could incorporate and assimilate peripheral peoples simply because of the sheer weight of its presence. Clark 2016 shows how non-Han cultural features became an important part of a hybrid culture that emerged in southern Fujian, while Giersch 2006 describes how cultural hybridity became institutionalized in southern Yunnan during the Qing. Shepherd 1993 and Miles 2017 employ an anthropological focus to show how sustained contact between an expanding population and indigenous peoples was often violent, and that under such circumstances cultural differences were strengthened and ethnic boundaries formed, just as Frederik Barth predicted. Herman 2007 and Faure 2007 examine how China’s expanding empires utilized institutional and ritual features to create a multitude of political loyalties among Han and non-Han constituencies, and Von Glahn 1987 and Li 2012 investigate the economics behind China’s expansion south and the state’s desire to control valuable natural resources.

  • Clark, Hugh R. The Sinitic Encounter in Southeast China through the First Millennium CE. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016.

    By the end of the Song, Clark tells us, the Chinese (Sinitic) empire had transformed much of the south (present-day Zhejiang and Fujian) into an integral part of the Sinitic world. However, Clark devotes the second half of his study to show how the pre-Sinitic cultural and religious heritage of Fujian survived the cultural hegemony of its encounter with the Sinitic empire.

  • Faure, David. Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804753180.001.0001

    Faure describes how historical events shaped the development of lineages in the Pearl River Delta during the Ming and Qing eras, and how lineages were a vehicle for state/society expansion. Neo-Confucianism as a state ideology, the orthodox rituals this ideology endorsed, the attraction of wealth and fame through the examination system, and the lijia taxation system served as important features that linked the Chinese state to local frontier society.

  • Giersch, C. Patterson. Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

    Giersch argues that the economic and cultural impact of Chinese state/society expansion into the Tai-controlled areas of southern Yunnan did not eradicate indigenous practices. Instead, Giersch shows how patterns of acculturation were multidirectional, and how this cultural hybridity allowed both the Qing state and Tai leaders to create a frontier government that proved surprisingly flexible when confronting challenges from such external actors as Burma and Siam.

  • Herman, John E. Amid the Clouds and Mist: China’s Colonization of Guizhou, 1200–1700. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1tg5q0j

    This book is organized around two interrelated narratives. The first focuses on the late imperial Chinese states (Yuan, Ming, and Qing) and their role in the conquest and colonization of the southwest. The second narrative tells the history of the Nasu Yi people and their response to nearly five centuries of uninterrupted efforts to colonize their homeland.

  • Li Zhongqing 李中清 (James Z. Lee). Zhongguo xinan bianjiangde shehui jingji, 1250–1850 (中国西南边疆的社会经济, 1250–1850). Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2012.

    Li Zhongqing offers a data-driven analysis of the socioeconomic transformation of the southwest provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou after the Mongol conquest of the Dali kingdom in 1253. The author pays special attention to voluntary and involuntary Han migration into the region, land reclamation practices and grain production, merchant activities and trade networks, and the industrial development of the southwest.

  • Miles, Steven B. Upriver Journeys: Diaspora and Empire in Southern China, 1570–1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv47wbkq

    Miles analyzes the diasporic practices of Cantonese migrants as they moved up the West River between the late 16th and mid-19th centuries. Miles shows how these diasporic practices were predatory in nature and allowed the Cantonese to sustain the economic and cultural standing of the family and lineage downriver.

  • Shepherd, John Robert. Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier, 1600–1800. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

    Shepherd argues that the Qing state was intent on protecting the acculturated aborigines in Taiwan’s west coast lowlands from the influx of Han settlers by guaranteeing their rights to land rents. The aim was not aborigine welfare, but cheaper government. The Qing state was fearful that unrestricted Han immigration would disturb the status quo on the island and thereby incur higher costs to govern and garrison the frontier.

  • Von Glahn, Richard. The Country of Streams and Grottoes: Expansion, Settlement, and the Civilizing of the Sichuan Frontier in Song Times. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1987.

    Von Glahn describes Chinese state/society expansion into the frontier region of southern Sichuan during the Song. He shows how the arrival of Han cultivators seeking land and entrepreneurs intent on exploiting the area’s vast salt and timber resources hastened tensions between Han and non-Han, which compelled the Song state to intervene more forcefully to protect its interests.

  • Wiens, Herold J. Han Chinese Expansion in South China. Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1967 [c1954].

    Originally published in 1954 under the title China’s March toward the Tropics, this work quickly became an influential study for understanding Chinese expansion south. Despite its obvious flaws, research based on nationalistic secondary scholarship, an uncritical use of Han as an ethnonym, and little discussion of non-Han populations, this book is still regularly cited by scholars nearly seventy-five years after its publication.

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