|dc.description.abstract||This dissertation explores the power of words to fashion state legitimacy in early medieval China (the 4th–7th centuries CE). Known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (Nanbeichao 南北朝), this was a period of political division and fragmentation in which several rival states vied for dominance. This dissertation examines the “cultural wars” that were waged among rival court centers and analyzes the writings produced at and for moments of interstate contact—including the exchange of diplomats, gifts, and letters, which formed a highly contentious ground for competing claims of political and cultural supremacy. It discusses how royal power was carefully represented in material and discursive forms to both awe subjects and intimidate enemies in the medieval court culture, and how legitimacy became a problematic concept that was subject to interpretation and contention during this volatile age.
The first chapter focuses on diplomatic visits and court representatives’ verbal banter. It studies both the “discursive battles” between diplomats and the articulation of hospitality and hostility in poetic genres. The second chapter looks at court compositions on foreign gifts and examines the rhetorical devices used to create and domesticate “the foreign” as a way of proclaiming cultural superiority. Epistolary communication is the topic of the third chapter, in which I investigate the “politics of intimacy” in letters sent across dynastic boundaries. In other words, I argue that seemingly “private” letters—for example, those between friends or between a mother and a son—were intended for public consumption and that the individual voices were subject to states’ exploitation for the purpose of political manipulation. The fourth chapter moves to the unified empire of the Sui (581–619) and early Tang (619–907) and continues to examine the negotiation among different cultural groups, this time in the new political context of unification. I use music as a critical lens to demonstrate that, through meticulous debates over what constituted “orthodox,” “decadent,” and “foreign” music for the empire, “sound” became politicized and was used as a tool of mind control and to shape new political identities. Taken together, these chapters discuss the verbal construction and negotiation of essential concepts such as “legitimacy,” “emperorship,” and “cultural orthodoxy” during the early medieval period.
Following previous scholarly attempts to problematize the “constructedness” of the North and South, this dissertation continues to redress the essentialization of the northern and southern cultures as monolithic and static stereotypes and reveal the complexity of cultural exchanges in the context of court culture in early medieval China. Based on detailed textual analysis of a variety of genres, including envoys’ recorded conversations, poems, poetic expositions, letters, and other “non-literary” genres, I show how elites in both the north and the south employed a shared cultural repertoire and discourse to negotiate the state’s claim to universal authority and fashion different cultural identities. I argue that rhetoric—the adroit manipulation of words and signifying practices—played an active role in constructing “legitimacy,” reconfiguring political reality, and envisioning cultural boundaries. It was through the appropriation of rhetoric and its effects that elites were able to define “self” and “others” and anchor themselves within an imagined cultural lineage.||