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Reshaping Political Identity: Treasures from Western Territories (xiyu 西域) in early Chinese literature

Published onJan 31, 2022
Reshaping Political Identity: Treasures from Western Territories (xiyu 西域) in early Chinese literature

The depiction of treasures from Western Territories1, a leading element in the initial Sino-west communication, forms the main foreign image in early Chinese literature. When Zhang Qian張騫(164-114 BC) returned from the first western exploration during 138-126 BC,the main thing he reported to Emperor Wu ( 156? - 87 BC) was how fascinating the exotic objects were, such as the "blood-sweating" horses from Ferghana (dayuan 大宛) and the ostriches from Seleucid Empire (tiaozhi 條枝). These attracted Emperor Wu and motivated his further exploration to the west2. Shortly thereafter, many exotic treasures were imported into China and became important images in early literary works.

Objects can act as representatives of the related culture and power; while in the initial stages of the exchange of western objects, the role of an object as a representative is never more than a matter of surmise, in which native values often substitute for the values of ethnocultural others, intentionally or unintentionally. Based on previous works on this topic3, I will try to briefly clarify how, instead of seeing the western objects by their own rights, the Han writers went through the lens of the formulas pertinent to Chinese values, and how their ritualized imagination reshaped the political identity of the western objects to support the political legitimacy of the Chinese regimes.

Formulaic expressions can be found in ancient Chinese literature of any historical periods, and the formulization of the Han literature embodies the most prominent features of ritualization.

Han ritual plays an important role to solidify imperial ideology, and literary works served as its analogue. Since the reign of Emperor Wu (fl. 141 - 87 BC), the universal order centering on Confucian ideals became the core of imperial ideology. As the ultimate order, the universal order can be extended to immense cosmic in space, and to everything in the world, including human, flora and fauna, and even nonliving matters. The related rules of universal order are centralized and explicit, so they can be conveyed conveniently both in rites and literary works, in which people and objects are placed in the normative position to indicate the universal orderliness. The convergence of the Han rites and literature accelerated the trend of ritualization of the literature at the time. In addition, since the western treasures were very rare at that time, they could only be enjoyed by the higher classes. So, they were often showcased in stately ceremonial situations as symbols for central power, and related literary works have more distinct characteristics of ritual performance.

Ritualization makes Han literature different from modern literature. Most Han literature were not independent texts isolated in books as we see them nowadays, but rather parts of their authors’ ritual demeanor upon their joining the ritual processes in person. As for the manifestation of ritualization in texts themselves, it mainly lies in the incorporation of two conventional ritual elements, the fulfillment of order and the sanctification of setting, which renders Han literature patterned in a ritualized style.

It is very necessary to illustrate the overview above by some examples. Ban Zhao's班昭 (49?-120?) "Rhapsody on Ostrich"大雀賦is a typical work concerning western treasures at that time. The writing was originated from the tribute ostriches to Emperor He (78-105) by Ban Chao班超, the brother of Zhao. Both Chao’s tribute and Zhao’s writing serve as continuously occurring events of the mechanics of imperial ritual. Chao was the general of the Protectorate of the Western Territories西域都護府 (91-102), the highest official to administrate the Western Territories on behalf of Han empire, so his tribute belongs to the ritual symbolizing the submission of the Western Territories to the great unity under the rule of Han empire. From the perspective of Zhao, who was designated as the tutor in imperial harem for her outstanding literary talent, writing an official response to the present under the order from Emperor He was also part of the ritual.

Nowadays, only fragments of this rhapsody remain in the seventh-century encyclopedia Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚, but we can still recognize its ritualized expression. Zhao describes the ostriches in a patterned emblematic expression rather than giving an objective explanation. About the locality of growth of the ostriches, instead of providing the real geographic information, the rhapsody reads:

Worth the great compliment, born and gathered at the divine mountain Kunlun.


Also, instead of tracing the accurate genus of the ostriches, it reads:

Very different from the bird with the same nick name; but sharing the species with the phoenix.


In early Chinese lore, both Kunlun and phoenix are the core mythological images manifesting the Way, the ultimate master of politics and culture. Kunlun, which occupies an important geographical location, is often regarded as the origin of Yellow River and the palace for the Emperor of Heaven when he comes down to the earth4, and other supreme deities such as Yellow Emperor黃帝, Queen Mother of the West西王母 also live there, so Kunlun is the place of the top power and the origin of the ultimate order. Besides, phoenix demonstrates the fundamental principal of the Way by its innate tattoos of pictographic characters, “virtue” 德on the head, “righteousness”義 on the wings, “propriety” 禮on the back, “benevolence” 仁on the chest, and “faith”信 on the abdomen5, so it is deemed an auspicious omen of peaceful society.

In the rhapsody, Kunlun and phoenix function implicitly to ritualize the ostriches in two layers. Firstly, they situate the ostriches to the ritual contexts characterized by mythologization and sanctification. Secondly, they fulfill the ritualized universal order. On the one hand, Kunlun and phoenix are emblems of the immense cosmic and its order, so the Han values are universalized by being matched with Kunlun and phoenix; on the other hand, Kunlun and phoenix are nominal embodiments of cosmic order but in fact epitomes of Chinese values, so they actually reshape the ostriches’ cultural identity to Chinese values.

Following this way, the next six sentences, rather than objectively depicting the ostriches as they were, describe their ritualized performance anthropomorphically:

Embracing the virtue and heading for the righteousness, so the ostriches flied here for thousands of miles. They perch in the imperial court, enjoying its harmony atmosphere. So cordial and agreeable is the relationship of superior and subordinate, in the peaceful music of odes and hymns.


These six sentences illustrate how the ostriches were attracted by Chinese values and joined into the ritual order avowedly. The ritual was organized in hierarchical system, accompanied by the classical music, odes and hymns (ya song雅頌), which strengthens the order by evoking the historical memory. Meanwhile, virtue and righteousness, the core values of Confucianism, underlie the ritual scene. The ostriches relocate themselves with ritual propriety, merging into the sound unity full of harmonious undertone, which seemingly represents the submission of western world.

The last two sentences of the rhapsody convey the impact of the ritual demeanor:

The four directions of the world, all want to submit to China, and identify with its value.


By setting the ostriches as an example, the rhapsody aims at attracting the whole world to assimilate into Chinese values.

In early Chinese literature, the western objects are often used as strong evidences to prove the political legitimacy of the authorities. This function usually results in the western objects having a dual identity as representatives for both the cosmic order and the western world. As for representing the cosmic order, their decisive preference, which detaches them from barbarian west land and relocates them to civilized Chinese land, evinces that Chinese political order identifies with the cosmic order. In this case, they play a similar role to that of an auspicious omen, often deemed as a sign which shows that the legitimacy of the current regime is ordained by heaven6. As for being representative of the western world, these western objects' willingly migrating from their western homelands to be integrated into Chinese political order can be interpreted as the reaffirmation of the unifying power of Chinese politics. In this sense, since the western objects are from ethnocultural others, they can prove a more convincing universal order with a bigger landscape. Once the western objects reshaped their political identity, which was demonstrated by the crucial manifestation that they can perform Chinese ritual, and became the evidence to support the political legitimacy of the authorities, they are eulogized with extreme devotion.

Only western horses, first from Wusun烏孫, then from Ferghana, were endowed with the top honor as the direct auspicious omen, not the analogical one in Zhao’s work, owing to their unparalleled fighting capacity. Emperor Wu wrote two hymns himself7, and used these “heavenly horses” in the imperial ceremony to worship heaven and earth. He believed the horse was the reward for him granted by the supreme god (taiyi太一) from heaven, so he could ride it to heaven via Kunlun, which would bring him the luck of worldwide submission. It creates the sanctified aura of rite and fulfills the universal order, which is the similar ritualized approaches to those in Zhao’s rhapsody. Nevertheless, the real story of blood-sweating horses, in which they were captured in arduous battles with Ferghana from 104 to 102 BC led by general Li Guangli李廣利, is totally covered up but sanctified and ritualized to a hymn, mirroring the ritual sequence documented in the "Record of Outskirts Sacrifice" 郊祀志of Han shu漢書, in which Emperor Wu entered the high tower named “Kunlun” in Mount Tai, the entrance to heaven, to worship the Gods including the supreme god.

Even in a comparatively relaxed setting, the collective writings in Jian’an (196-220) period imply similar ritual paradigm. In the extant Jian’an rhapsodies on objects, almost half of them are about exotic goods, including the parrots from Long Mountain隴山 in the western regions, the peacocks from Dian Kingdom滇池in the southwest regions, and rosemary, agate, and Giant Clam from Daqin大秦, the ancient Chinese name for the Roman Empire8. In their collective writing, often led by Cao Pi曹丕 (187-226), the crown prince at the time, or his brother Cao Zhi曹植 (192-232), the Jian'an writers often took on the role of “curators” of the western objects, by placing them into ritual order reverently in a collective manner. Even with more colorful rhetoric, the patterned frame of these works still betray that these western goods were treated less as subjects of interests in themselves than as foils for Chinese values. The origins of the exotic treasures are often labeled as both holy places like Kunlun and barbarian districts, which is seemingly contradictory but unified inconceivably. Western objects came to China because of their contempt for the bestial privation of their native land and longing for the divine grace of Chinese authority. Upon this choice, their inherent potential is fully revealed, often in the form of the hub of the essence of heaven and earth, the coalition of mysterious internal power and beautiful appearance. Fashioning the agate to bridle or the Giant Clam to drinking bowl by Chinese skilled craftsmen is a meaningful metaphor in these rhapsodies. It analogizes the reshaping of these exotic things, both on their inner nature and on their outside appearance, to conform to the needs of their new owners. After the total rebuilding, such rhetoric is smoothly integrated into the Chinese traditional lyricism, which even likens the parrots and peacocks to unfortunate officials and deserted wives, and taps into the common lyrical themes in early rhapsody.

The sustained paradigms symbolizing the universal Way, from the patterned actions in the ritual to the patterned words in the literature, transmitted down for a long time. Even when western religions, science and technology, politics, and social culture were introduced to China and the Sino-west communication got much deeper, the prototype of depicting western goods from early literature retained its influence in varied degrees. It is unsurprising to find the same political topos and formulaic expressions of early literature in the works on western objects in Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1912), such as "Rhapsody of Auspicious Omen Elephant" 瑞象賦by Jin Youzi金㓜孜 (1368-1432), the same titled rhapsody by Wang Hong王洪(fl. 1397-1424), "Rhapsody of White Parrot" 白鸚鵡賦by Peng Sunyu 彭孫遹 (1631-1700) , and they all replicate the early paradigms to reshape the political identity of the western treasures by stereotyped ritualization.

Undoubtedly, western treasures were adored by Chinese people. Nevertheless, early literature places the enthusiasm into the order of imperial ideology by a comparatively fixed set of tropes. What’s more, after these formulaic dictions became the main acceptable discourse about western goods in the course of time, they in turn exerted influence on people's vision about western goods9. Such cycle increases the weight of the tradition and the difficulties for transcending.

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