Decentering the Middle Kingdom: Writing Geography in Early Medieval China

Jon Felt, Ph.D. Candidate, History

This talk examines the construction of space in early medieval China. The primary question to be examined is how Chinese literati conceptualized China’s place in the world, especially in its relationship to India. Felt will argue that the idea of China as the “middle kingdom” has been severely overstated. It was by no means uncontested among Chinese literati themselves, nor was it an idea unique to Chinese culture. The early medieval period (ca. 200-600 CE) is a particularly interesting time from which to examine this question. The “Buddhist conquest of China” during this period and the accompanying understanding of Indian social and intellectual achievements posed a dramatic challenge to traditional Chinese sino-centric models of the earth. This, along with the collapse of the imperial dynastic state within China, resulted in a severe destabilizing of the imperial geography from the preceding Han Empire (202 BCE-220 CE). In replacement of these orthodox spatial constructions, the early medieval period saw a great flourishing of geographical writing. Felt’s talk will examine this question through the sole surviving comprehensive geographical treatise, Li Daoyuan’s 酈道元 sixth-century The Commentary on the Classic of Waterways 水經注. In it one finds, contrary to Han imperial geography, the prioritizing of environmental over political structures, the centering of the world not in China but at a cosmic mountain far to the west of China, and the splitting of the world by this great peak into two eastern and western halves, each dominated by China and India respectively and each with its own “middle kingdom.”

Thursday, January 09, 2014 | 4:15 pm — 5:30 pm
Building 200 - Room 307, Main Quad

Department of History