Understanding cities in the pre-modern history of Northeast Asia, c. 200-1200

Posted on Monday 19th May 2014

The AHRC has funded Professor Naomi Standen for the project ‘Understanding cities in the pre-modern history of Northeast Asia, c. 200-1200’. The funding will be approximately £500000 over four years.

Project summary

Northeast Asia's history is little known and much misunderstood. In the present day this region is the contact zone between China, Mongolia, North Korea and Russia. Right now it is the centre of a resource boom and a locus for regional tensions. In the past, too, it was always a zone of interaction. The pastoral nomads who are associated with the region are both romanticised and demonised in Chinese and Korean popular culture. Regimes rooted in the grasslands, like the Liao dynasty (907-1125) and its kindred, feature in films, television dramas and car advertising. China's recent Northeast Project draws upon historical evidence to claim that regimes based here were dependent on and derived from 'Chinese civilisation'. The Great Wall of China represents this divide between 'steppe and sown'. But in truth, the Wall as we know it was not built until the 15th century, whereas interactions across this region go back thousands of years. Northeast Asians, whether 'farmers' or 'nomads', did many of the same things from the earliest known times, one of which was to use cities.

Our records suggest that cities were one of the things that made Chinese civilisation superior to mobile pastoralist societies, but there were cities in the grasslands too: large, small, not always with walls, as old as Chinese empires. If cities were used by both Chinese and nomadic regimes, then they may have been more alike than we thought, but did 'nomads' use cities for the same things? What made a city and how were they organised? Who lived where and what did they do? Did the presence of cities mean the existence of a state? What were walls for? This project will answer these questions by setting new material evidence in a long-range historical context. History relays the views of ruling elites, but people from the full social range lived in cities, and the real story is at ground level. Through closer integration of textual and archaeological methods than has been achieved until now, we will supply fresh evidence to reveal previously unseen patterns of everyday life in three borderland cities around Chifeng in Inner Mongolia, which were used by both 'sedentary' and 'nomadic' empires in the period from about 200 to 1200.

Our project, co-directed by a historian and an archaeologist, will enable us to see changing activities in the same cities under different types of rulers. We will assemble the sparse textual record for the Chifeng region and its cities in our period of interest, working with records of both sedentary and mobile regimes. This will provide a chronology of political and other changes against which to compare different layers of new archaeological evidence. We will use subsurface techniques - augering and magnetometry - to answer our questions about the physical form of these cities, which will in turn give us evidence for historical issues such as economic practices, power relations, industry and work, religion and expressions of identity. We will use Carbon-14 testing to date the layers that we find so that we can compare them as closely as possible to the textual evidence, making this the first study at this level of stratigraphic detail of Northeast Asian cities in grasslands locations.

Our evidence will provide the clearest picture yet of everyday life in urban centres outside the Chinese heartlands. This sharper view will challenge the dominant image of the superiority of Chinese culture in this region, will require us to think again about socio-political organisation and interactions of all kinds between groups in Northeast Asia, and will locate both China and the grasslands within a wider world. Our public presentations of this research will play with the idea of demolishing the Great Wall as a way of reaching the widest possible audience.

For more information, please contact Professor Naomi Standen.