How China Became Chinese

Robert J. Antony

Most of us take it for granted that the expansion of the Chinese people from the north to the south was relatively benign and that the less advanced cultures of the south willingly accepted the more advanced culture of the north. Few of us have questioned this long-held assumption which has been supported over the millennium both by ancient Chinese texts and modern scholarship. 

It is therefore refreshing to read Hugh Clark’s new book, The Sinitic Encounter in Southeast China through the First Millennium CE, which challenges us to rethink our most basic assumptions about China and what it means to be Chinese. Clark argues that what we today call Chinese civilization actually appeared only in the 11th century during the Song dynasty and was the result of thousands of years of accommodation that drew heavily from the indigenous non-Sinitic cultures of the south even as the north was imposing it Sinitic values and traditions.

The Question of Sources

For the author, his greatest challenge was interpreting primary sources. As with other non-literate cultures, those of pre-Sinitic south China were unable to express themselves in writing and therefore ‘have been prisoner to the prejudices and assumptions of the literate who have left the record’ (p. x). Those lost voices of the past remain only as ‘echoes’ that are easy to ignore, especially if one assumes that they are unimportant. Most scholars unfortunately never hear those ancient echoes. It took Clark, he admits, over 30 years to recognize that those echoes existed and were important. This book is his attempt to give voice to the inarticulate pre-Sinitic past of south China and to reinterpret the meanings of being Chinese.

But it is very tricky and difficult to hear the echoes of the inarticulate peoples of the past, particularly since we must depend on the written records of precisely those literate few who looked down upon the illiterate southerners as debased country bumpkins. To say the least the Sinitic records are decisively one-sided and biased, and as a result much of this book is speculative. The so-called triumph of Sinitic civilization over what we call China today, the author explains, is not an objective interpretation but rather ‘the legacy of literary monopolization: Lacking their own written tradition, the diverse cultures of the South were unable to counter the narrative constructed by the hegemonic discourse of the North’ (p. 187). Through the careful readings of many diverse written sources the author is able to read between the lines to discover those hidden voices of the past and to offer us this important revisionist history of how China became Chinese.

The Sinitic Transition

The book is divided into two parts: the first part takes a long holistic view to discuss the transition of coastal south China from its pre-Sinitic origins to its Sinitic transformation through the Song dynasty. The second part, to be discussed below, takes a closer look at this transformation in Fujian province. According to the author the spread of Chinese civilization into the south was no simple or straight forward matter, but rather involved a series of complex, and usually unexpected, twists and turns that were beyond the control of the Central Lands (中国) in the north. Although in theory the Sinitic north espoused a ‘civilizing mission’ of conquest, in reality for much of the ancient period what the north accomplished was much more a political and much less a cultural conquest of the south.

Early Sinitic expansion, in fact, was little concerned at first with the spread of civilization, the essence of which is the concept of wen (文), which has a broad meaning related to civil culture and writing, as well as a body of traditions and rites. Therefore to embrace wen is to embrace those qualities that makes one civilized; to be wen is to be civilized. Non-Sinitic peoples by definition and custom were uncivilized because they lacked wen. Instead Sinitic scholars wrote that indigenous southerners were crude, unorthodox, and reveled in licentious superstitions. They relied on fishing and hunting for their livelihoods, not on agriculture, which was considered an essential component of true civilization.

Only very gradually did southerners reclaim marshlands for agriculture and adopt the Sinitic values of the north. But the change was neither one-sided nor complete. The non-Sinitic south was not simply transformed into a copy of the hegemonic north. There was no wholesale acculturation but instead Clark sees accommodation and hybridity: the melding together of both non-Sinitic and Sinitic traditions and cultures to produce Chinese civilization as we know it today.

Fujian’s Cultural Accommodation

In the second part of the book, the author elaborates on his main arguments with a case study of Fujian province over the first millennium CE, an area that was one of the last places to experience significant Sinitic incursion. Inevitably as increasing numbers of Sinitic northerners moved into Fujian both its landscape and culture changed. But again what happened is not simply a story of displacement but rather of accommodation as both sides had to learn to live with one another to survive.

Fujian experienced no single Sinitic encounter; rather Clark explicates four sorts of encounters: one, the arrival of Buddhism; two, violent intrusion; three, ecological reclamation; and four, demographic transformations. While the first Sinitic encounter by Buddhist monks was relatively benign and peaceful, it was followed by a more violent encounter as indigenes in Zhangzhou resisted the intrusion of northern settlers and Sinitic culture. Not all encounters, however, were violent. In other cases northern colonists established communities and transformed marshlands into agricultural lands, the first step to becoming civilized (becoming wen). Finally between the Tang and Song periods as increasingly large numbers of northerners migrated southward, a significant demographic swing occurred in favor of the south. Traditionally the cultural heartland had been the north, but by the Song period it had shifted to the south, which thereafter became the new leader in innovation and culture.

Despite the intrusion of the Sinitic north, Fujian (and much of southern China even till today) displayed a strong persistence in its indigenous non-Sinitic culture, especially noticeable in its religious practices and popular cults. One of the specific examples given by Clark is that of the Mazu, Maternal Ancestor (妈祖), who in her original manifestation in Fujian was called the Divine Woman of Meizhou. The author convincingly argues that the Mazu cult originated in Fujian’s pre-Sinitic traditions and culture, and was only much later, as the cult became widespread, coopted into the imperial pantheon and Sinitic culture. Nonetheless, what remained was an enduring cultural heterogeneity in which the south continued to be distinct on many levels. As the author explains, ‘The incorporation of the South into the Sinitic cultural ecumene was neither smooth nor unilateral and most certainly not uncontested’ (p. 187).


The Sinitic Encounter in Southeast China through the First Millennium CE is a thought-provoking and challenging book that makes a significant contribution to the field of Chinese studies. Given the fact that all of the primary sources are one-sided and biased in favor of the Sinitic interpretation, Clark’s findings must be speculative. Although the author makes a solid and overall convincing case for his own interpretation of the sources, nonetheless, other scholars using the same sources may come up with very different interpretations and conclusions. But it is precisely these potential debates and controversies that make this book exciting to read and significant. This book should be required reading not only in undergraduate and graduate classes on Chinese history but also required reading for any scholar seriously concerned with understanding the nature and evolution of Chinese Civilization.