Book Manuscript.

Rhetoric, Legitimacy, and Courtly Writings in Early Medieval China and European Early Middle Ages

The complexity of medieval cultures can be revealed through interdisciplinary inquiries and cross-cultural comparisons. The traditional focus of medieval studies on the Christian Latin West tends to obscure the fact that medieval cultures across the globe, from Andalusian Spain to medieval Japan, shared similar cultural characteristics, and that their literatures engage with issues that were prominent in all medieval courtly cultures, such as ethnic identity, power, memory, and legitimacy. By embracing the recent “global turn of medieval studies,” as a medievalist and scholar of Chinese literature, I aim to explore how court centers in the medieval period used signs, words, and rhetoric to define kingship, represent cultural others, and negotiate royal authority and political legitimacy. 

My current book manuscript is a study of rhetoric and legitimacy that compares early medieval China (4th century–7th century CE) with the European early Middle Ages (5th century–9th century CE). The comparison is based on the uncannily similar social foundations of these two periods. Early medieval China, also known as the Age of Division or the Northern and Southern Dynasties, began with the collapse of a unified Chinese empire because of the invasion of northern non-Chinese peoples. In addition to military confrontations, the northern state, founded by non-Chinese people, and its southern neighbor, whose ruling families were Chinese, waged a cultural war through diplomacy, gift exchange, and patronage of literature and art. Each state aimed to promote itself, both to a domestic audience and to its enemies, as the legitimate and culturally superior kingdom. Similarly, in the wake of the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, Byzantium faced several “barbarian” states in the West that also cultivated sophisticated court cultures. Their competition was as much cultural as military, as they all strove to claim romanitas, the Roman legacy embodied in a broad spectrum of practices, as a source of legitimation. In both periods, one sees a persistent recourse to the cultural past, literary allusions, signs and symbols, and interpretations to alter and create what the audience perceived as reality. Using the methods of literary analysis and cultural history, and benefiting from recent critical theories of rhetoric and the performativity of discourse, my book project investigates how court members appropriated rhetorical strategies and manipulated their performative functions to persuade, to negotiate authority, and to define “self” and “others” so as to situate themselves within an imagined cultural lineage.

My book manuscript consists of five chapters, centering respectively on the issues of kingship, panegyrics, creating and taming the foreign, epistolary communication, and historiography. The first chapter focuses on the image of the emperor or king, including both the ruler’s self-representation and his portrayal by courtiers. In particular, it examines how “sincerity” and “spontaneity” became a value associated with non-Chinese, non-Roman kingship, as a contradistinction to the more sophisticated rex doctus confined by ritual protocols. The second chapter delves into panegyric, comparing two important figures from the sixth century, Venantius Fortunatus and Yu Xin. Both highly cultured poets sent to what they considered “barbarian” lands, they used verse of praise to express gratitude while reinventing the language of the panegyric to suit an ostensibly less cultivated audience. The third chapter examines writings that either physically crossed political boundaries or aimed to reset cultural boundaries, including diplomats’ accounts, records of war, and encyclopedias produced by learned bishops and courtiers. It explores how the world was envisioned by medieval authorities (whether secular or religious) and how political or cultural foreignness was incorporated into cosmological frameworks. The fourth chapter examines the rhetoric of letter-writing and the use of letters in political negotiations. Often a public gesture articulated through a personal voice, medieval letters, as this chapter will show, skillfully employed the “personal” as a literary device to influence and change public opinion. The last chapter compares historical narratives of Merovingian Gaul from the Carolingian empire and narratives of the history of the Age of Division from the later unified Sui (581–619) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. It studies the rhetoric of empire and empires’ reinterpretations of the past, fueled by imperial ambition and ideology.

Through comparisons, my project sheds light on the social functions of courtly writings shared by different medieval cultures. It presents the “medieval” ways of appropriating the symbolic and performative aspects of “words” to represent, to influence, and to redefine the “world.” This interdisciplinary approach and transcultural context also allow me to address a broad audience of literary scholars, medievalists, and humanists.

Mural painting from a tomb of the Northern Qi (550–577), in Jiuyanggang, Xinzhou. Image: Wikipedia

Mural painting from a tomb of the Northern Qi (550–577), in Jiuyanggang, Xinzhou. Image: Wikipedia


Courtly Exchange and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy in Early Medieval China


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.

Conference/Workshop Presentations

  • "Stories, Records, and Historiographies: Liu Yu 劉彧 (r. 466–472) and His Fratricide"

American Oriental Society Western Branch, Stanford (California), October 19-20, 2018

  • “An Unbiased Brush: Historiographical Writings in Early Medieval China

First Friday Talk, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard, April 2018

  • “‘We Are Brothers, Yet Serving Different States’: Diplomatic Negotiation and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy in Early Medieval China”

AAS Annual Conference, Washington DC, March 2018

  • “Rectifying/Vilifying Sounds: Music and Legitimacy in the Sui Dynasty (581–619)”

American Oriental Society Western Branch, Tempe (Arizona), October 2017

  • “流寓者與文化規訓: 中國中古的‘禮物’與‘政治’” (“Detainees and Cultural Assimilation: Gift and Politics in Early Medieval China”)

Workshop: Studies of Asian Arts, Religion, and History, Shanghai, June-July 2017

  • “Politics of Intimacy: Epistolary Exchange between a Mother and a Son in Early Medieval China”

The Early Medieval China Group Conference, Toronto, March 2017

  • “Praising Foreign Gifts in Early Medieval Courts”

American Oriental Society Western Branch, Portland (Oregon), October 2016

  • “What is New in Chen Dynasty (557–89) Court Poetry? Analysis of Poetic Improvisation on Assigned Topic (fude)”

American Oriental Society 226th Annual Meeting, Boston (Massachusetts), March 2016

Forming and Redefining Belles-Lettres: Harvard Graduate Student Conference on Chinese Literature, Cambridge (Massachusetts), March 2015

  • “Negotiating Legitimacy and Power: Diplomatic Envoys in the Six Dynasties and Their Poetry”

Workshop: The Secret and the Sacred: The State and its Alternatives in Chinese Societies, Berkeley (California), March 2016

  • “A Full-Blooming South: Chen Dynasty (557–89) Court Poetry and its Survival”

Stanford-Berkeley Graduate Student Conference on Pre-modern Chinese Humanities, Berkeley (California), April 2015

  • “Textual Ruins: Taming the Violence of Jian’an (196–220) Poetry”

University of Colorado Boulder Asian Studies Graduate Association Conference, Boulder, March 2014

The 23rd Annual Columbia Conference on East Asia, New York, February 2014

  • “Manipulation of Poetic Nature: Literary Reclusion and Community in Third-Century Chinese Poetry”

The 14th Harvard East Asian Society Conference, Cambridge (Massachusetts), March 2011