Rather than assuming the primacy of political units in eastern Eurasia, I challenge the ‘natural’ character of China, offering alternative categories for analysis that suggest the differing boundaries of diverse spheres of interaction, giving politics merely equal weighting alongside topics such as religion and everyday ceramics. In short, I aim to write a history of medieval eastern Eurasia without mentioning the word ‘China’.
Rejecting this single term forces the rethinking of basic terminology for regions, periods and groups, which requires careful consideration of exactly what is under examination, improves focus, and brings us to a more human scale. I adopt the idea of technologies (of religion, politics, the body, subsistence, everyday life, exchange, power, conflict) as a way of observing the selective deployment of available elements without resorting to ‘culture’ as either defining feature or explanation. Connection and comparison of these ‘technological’ activities, as they occurred in specific places across the whole region rather than within the boundaries of one political unit, is achieved by using the structuring concepts of substrates (that underpin everyday life, like Buddhism), networks (which connect people or places in relationships, as in trade or politics), and nodes (individuals or groups in one place, such as translators or courts). A third element of my approach is to decentre ‘China’ by paying full attention to northern and ‘peripheral’ developments in northern Eurasia, Central Asia, the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago. The point is to challenge the primacy of the nation-state as a hegemonic analytical category by complicating our thinking about premodern political structures and seeking alternatives to the concept of the more or less unitary state.
The IIAS’s receptivity to global thinking provides an ideal environment in which to test my theoretical and empirical ideas as I complete this writing project. My critique places in question the concept of globalisation based on flows of people, goods, capital and ideas, and I anticipate mutually beneficial theoretical and empirical exchanges.