Morning readings…in medias res… research on ‘culture’ paving the New Silk Roads (1)

Flipping through Xinhua and South China Morning Post this morning, I clicked thru a few headlines about Chinese State-Owned Enterprises calling in non-essential workers from Myanmar, US-China performativity on both sides, and also about the Oxford-trained presence in US President Joe Biden’s cabinet (this last from Peter Frankopan’s re-Tweet).

I’m also going through a book, Structures of the Earth: Metageographies of Early Medieval China by D. Jonathan Felt (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center). If you’re looking for an excellent source for not only quantitative analysis of the literary genre of geographical literature, then this book is the place. If you’re looking for a theoretical framework by which to think about China’s practices of geography as well as historiography, then this is the book.

Main gleanings, interesting edges as thought-blade:

“metageography”–according to Martin Lewis and Karen Wiggen, is “the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world.”

D. Jonathan Felt, Structures of the Earth: Metageographies of Early Medieval China, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2021, p. 3.

“Modern examples of global metageographies include Eurocentrism, the East-West model, the nation-states system, the geographic coordinate system, Wallerstein’s world-systems theory, and the first, second, and third worlds.” –D. JONATHAN FELT, STRUCTURES OF THE EARTH: METAGEOGRAPHIES OF EARLY MEDIEVAL CHINA, CAMBRIDGE: HARVARD UNIVERSITY ASIA CENTER, 2021, P. 3.

“Too often Sinologists construct artificial divisions between Buddhist and “normal” Sinitic literature. But the prominence of Buddhist authors and Buddhist metageographies throughout early medieval geographical literature breaks down these divisions.”


Key geographical genre of literature names and texts mentioned in first chapter of Structures of the Earth:

地理记 dili ji [records of the structures of the earth]
地方志 difang zhi [gazetteer]
杜佑 Du You (735-812 CE), Tang critic of medieval local geographies
中国 ‘Middle-Kingdom,’ aka China
华夏 Huaxia, Sinitic cultural/civilizational realm or ecumene
水经注, Shuijing zhu [Guide to waterways with commentary], by 郦道元 (d. 527 CE), an official of the Northern Wei (386-534)
佛国记 Foguo ji [Record of the Buddhist states], by 法显, cf: 法显传 Faxian zhuan [Memoir of the Eminent Monk]
洛阳伽蓝记 Luoyang qielan ji [Record of the monasteries of Luoyang], by 杨衒之
华阳国志 Huayang guozhi [Record of the kingdoms south of Mount Hua, by 常璩 Chang Qu
禹贡 Yu gong [Tribute of Yu]
史记 Shi ji Records of the Historian, by 表演司马迁 Sima Qian (ca. 145-ca. 86 BCE)
河渠书 Hequ shu [Monograph on rivers and canals]
货殖列传 Huozhi liezhuan [Memoirs of moneymakers]
管子 Guanzi [Writers of Master Guan]
山海经 Shanhai jing [Classic of mountains and seas]
淮南子, Huainanzi [Master of Huainan: ] (地形 Dixing [Terrestrial forms], and 齐俗 Qi su [Monograph on geography] chapters)
邹衍 (ca 250), created an alternative metageograhy based on a model of a Kunlun-centered world in which Sinitic civilization inhabits the southeastern corner of the earth.
地理志 Dili zhi [Monograph on geography), most topically comprehensive geographical text to date, by 班固 Ban Gu (32-92)
吴地记 Wu di zhuan [Tales of the land of Wu]
越地传 Yue di zhuan [Tales of the land of Yue], in the 越绝书 Yue jue shu [Lost histories of Yue]
顾恺之 Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345-406), Eastern Jin painter
江赋 Jiang Fu [River fu], by 郭璞 Guo Pu (276-324)
宋永初山川记 Song Yongchu shanchuan ji [Records of the mountains and rivers of the Yongchu reign period of the Song dynasty]
穆天子传 Mu Tianzi zhuan [Account of Mu, Son of Heaven]
张騫 Zhang Qian (d. ca. 114 BCE), went on a mission to the Xiongnu empire
扶南 Funan, a complex Southeast Asia state that arose in 3rd century, elevating the importance of political and commercial relationships in the Southeast Wu region in Yangzi basin.
三国志 Sanguo zhi, by Chen Shou has accounts of diplomatic missions to South and Southeast Asia
扶南传 Funan zhuan [Account of Funan] & 扶南异物志 Funan yiwu zhi [Record of the peculiar things of Funan)
北史 Bei shi [History of the Northern Dynasties]
南史 Nan shi [History of the Southern Dynasties]
边地 biandi [peripheral land]
道整 Dao Zheng, Faxian’s traveling companion
四海百川水源记 Sihai baichuan shuiyuan ji [Record of the source of the hundred rivers within the four seas], by 道安 Dao An (d. 385)
地理书 Dili shu [Geographical writing], by 陆澄 Lu Cheng (425-94)
地记 Diji [Records of the earth], by 任昉 (459-507)
健康 Jiankang (modern day Nanjing)、长安 (modern day Xi’an)、邺 (capital established by Cao Wei founder, Cao Cao, during the Three Kingdoms period) are the three main geographical centers of the 6th century
禹贡地域图 Yu gong diyu tu [Map of the regions of the tribute of Yu], by 裴秀 Pei Xiu (224-71)
畿服经 Jifu jing [Classic of the imperial domain], by 挚虞
Qualities of geographies: 旁 pang [extensive], 通 tong [thorough], 宣 xuan [comprehensive], 简 jian [scant in detail], 裁cai [reductive], 略 lue [outlines]
史通 Shitong [Comprehensive understanding of history], by 刘知几 Liu Zhiji (661-721)
图经 Tu jing [map-treatise]
职方 Zhifang [Zhou office of manager of regions]
周礼 Zhou li [Rituals of Zhou]
萧何 Xiao He (d. 193 BCE), saved the Qin maps from the fire that destroyed Xianyang so he could know the strategic points of the empire
末学 moxue [superficial studies]
疆理天下 jiang li tianxia [regulating the boundaries of tianxia]
元嘉六年地记 Yuanjia liunian diji [Geographical record of the sixth year of the Song Dynasty Yuanjia reign period]

Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

And if it doesn’t, it should.

When I flew to Bochum, Germany back in April of 2017 to teach a course on the political semiotics of arts criticism in China, I was unaware of how influential this five week long visit would be upon my intellectual and thus professional endeavours.

It was a small group of seven bright German students as well as one Chinese student, and I was able to pay special attention to what the students were most interested in. Early on, then, I grew aware that the students were fascinated by two central concepts, one was a notion in aesthetic theory; and the other was a sociological one.

Chinese aesthetics boils down to a trinity of ‘truth–good–beauty zhen shan Mei真善美.’ For our purposes here, I’ll just explain that the German students were blown away by the idea that, for the Chinese, beauty is not possible in isolation. That is, unless beauty is also good, and also true; it is not beautiful. Which then begs the question, at which point in Western aesthetics did something obviously ugly, even horrific, become beautiful? At which point did the unjust and villainous also grow beautiful, or at least desirous, to look at on television? This I’ll save for another day; but answering these questions requires looking into the history of Western art, especially at Modernism, with its abstraction, and rebellious anti-heroic. In the West, something can be untrue and even evil, yet imbued with an awesomeness that draws our attention to it, whether it is in a museum, on television, or in front of our eyes on the street.

The other notion which caught the attention of both my German students as well as the one student from China; was that of ‘cultural’ discount.’ This notion arises out of a study of cultural economy, which can’t be examined outside of the context of the political economy of culture in China. What we were looking at was the phenomenon of cultural products decreasing in value as soon as they exit Chinese customs, or Chinese cyberspace, or other Chinese cultural contexts. And when I say Chinese cultural contexts, these contexts are themselves contextualized necessarily within Chinese political and economic contexts. This is because Chinese State control over its cultural products is total. Even along its own margins of control, that is, in grassroots (in popular culture) or avant-garde (in the fine arts sector) pushback against official ideological cultural products; even in these voices, acts, and cultural commodities of resistance (such as an artwork by Ai Weiwei), we see an impression of the State cultural edifice. Thus, when these products, be they works of art, movies, comic, or books; even if they are translated, enter into another market; they decrease in value, suffering from a ‘cultural discount (wenhua zhekou 文化折扣).’

What shocked me most of all, having been in China for most of the prior 20 years, was how unfamiliar my German political science and international affairs students were with the connection between culture and politics. They were even more alarmed by the connection between economics and culture. I was moved to redesign my curriculum in situ, so that it focused more on these two notions, one aesthetic and the other sociological. Only when these two notions were thoroughly grasped would we be able to move forward with discussing and examining how Chinese art critics coded their treatment of artworks in ways that helped their articles get published in magazines, journals, online platforms and books within China. Note, by ‘helped their articles get published,’ I do not mean this in the sense that it made their articles more appealing, only that this helped their articles not get flagged as sensitive or otherwise problematic to the State’s cultural officers.

I start with this.

In my next entry, I will explain how this course, and the shifts we made mid-stream, changed my intellectual, and thus professional trajectory in the field of Chinese studies. Hint: It has to do with my title here, also the title of my forthcoming book with Palgrave MacMillan: Culture Paves the New Silk Roads.

Then in another future entry, I’ll start laying out some of the field research I gained both this past semester as well as in winter semester, 2019, when I taught ‘Culture Paves the New Silk Roads’ to classes of over 200 Chinese students, in China. Of particular interest will be presentations on the subject given by student focus groups. Also interesting, was how other focus groups presented on Classical Chinese canonical texts, such as the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史记), Book of Odes (Shijing 诗经), Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋), and the Classic of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing 道德经). Very interesting, how the ideas, language, and ideologies of these ancient texts resonated with discussion of China’s rebuilding of the ancient Silk Roads in a wholly new geopolitical context.