Who are “cultural others”? While the question often has broad ethnic reverberations, the articles in this special issue deal with cultural difference from various perspectives. In “Closer to Home,” Ronald Egan shows us how the scholar-official Hong Mai's 洪邁 (1123–1202) stories about merchants, con artists, or singing girls amount to a conscious effort to explore terrains beyond “this culture of ours.” The negotiation of social and political boundaries also figures in the male protagonist's bigamous union with a boatman's daughter and the daughter of a Mongol official in “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” by Ariel Fox. The Mongol wife in “Exit” taps into self-consciously articulated questions of cultural identity and cultural difference, which are central to the other seven essays in this issue. The contexts may be diplomatic negotiations and interstate relations, as in Wai-yee Li's discussion of Zuozhuan 左傳 (Zuo tradition) and Lu Kou's analysis of the letters of northern ruler Touba Tao 拓跋燾 (408–452, r. 423–452); the foundation of political legitimacy and authority, as in Ming Tak Ted Hui's “Journeys to the West” and Siao-chen Hu's “Cultural Self-Definition of Southwest Chieftains”; or imagining the world beyond China, as in Chiung-yun Evelyn Liu's study of The Eunuch Sanbao's Voyage to the Western Ocean (Sanbao taijian xia xiyang ji 三寶太監下西洋記, 1597). Exile in Lawrence Yim's “Exile, Borders, and Poetry” and civil war in Huan Jin's “Multiple Otherness” turn the definition of otherness into urgent existential questions of survival and traumatic memory.

The very term cultural others often implies exclusion from the dominant culture. From the iniquities of merchants in Hong Mai's stories (Egan) to the mutual demonization of the Taiping rebels and the Qing government (Jin), we see a whole array of negative judgments. The bestial metaphor is not uncommon. In a remark dated to 661 BCE, the Qi 齊 minister Guan Zhong 管仲 (d. 643 BCE) makes the case for Qi to help the small central state Xing 邢 fight Di 狄 incursion: “The Rong and the Di [barbarians] are jackals and wolves and cannot be satisfied. The central domains [zhuxia 諸夏] are close intimates and cannot be abandoned.”1 In many cases, denigrating comparisons have specific rhetorical functions and are linked to strategic calculations. Thus in Zuozhuan (and some later texts) the “birds and beasts” argument can be used to justify both war, as with Guan Zhong above, and peaceful coexistence because the management of this lower order of beings is not worth the expenditure of resources in military action (Li). In the case of the Taiping Wars, dehumanizing rhetoric and the use of bestial and demonic epithets fueled violence and shaped the moral contours of contemporary and later representations of the conflict (Jin).

Yet even the bestial image does not have to be alienating, as Fox shows in regard to the sympathetic portrayal of the “human bear” in the seventeenth-century play The Sound of Reading (Dushu sheng 讀書聲). The human bear beyond the limits of civilization saves the protagonist's life and becomes his de facto “wife.” The praiseworthy simplicity of cultural others comes up intermittently in the works discussed in these articles. The idea has an ancient pedigree. Among the diverse positions taken up in early Chinese thought, the writings associated with Mozi 墨子 (fl. fifth–fourth century BCE) are well-known for their emphasis on frugality and disparagement of ritual as excessive and wasteful. The implied skepticism toward the ornaments of culture leads, not surprisingly, to the praise of “barbarian simplicity.” Daoist writings also question the meanings of ritual and textual traditions and present sages divested of the paraphernalia of culture. But the unease with excessive ritual is not confined to Mohist and Daoist writings. The balance between cultural refinement (wen 文) and substance (zhi 質) becomes a pervasive concern in the tradition.

We see the multiple dimensions of this idea in Kou's “The Epistolary Self and Psychological Warfare.” Instead of accepting as a given the standard formulation of unadorned vigor versus effete ornateness when the literature of northern dynasties is pitted against its counterpart in southern dynasties (fifth and sixth century), Kou sees the plain language of the Xianbei 鮮卑 ruler Touba Tao as calculated and rhetorically complex bids to bolster his legitimacy and to unnerve his southern counterpart. Shen Yue's 沈約 (441–513) incorporation of Touba Tao's letters in History of the Song (Song shu 宋書) (488) turns them into evidence of uncouth and aggressive barbarity, and they are remembered as such. In other words, “barbarian simplicity” is a proposition that has specific functions and rhetorical contexts. But it is also embedded in a more general cultural memory and may be broadly connected to Daoist thought. In Li Zhichang's 李志常 (1193–1256) Journey to the West (Xiyou ji 西遊記, 1228), an account of the Daoist master Qiu Chuji's 丘處機 (1148–1227) westward travel to Central Asia to meet with Genghis Khan, he comments on the sight of herdsmen in black wagons and white tents at the Kerulen River: “They have indeed preserved the simplicity of primeval times.” As Hui points out in “Journeys to the West,” the echoes of Daoist affirmation of primeval simplicity are more than counterbalanced by the lamentation that nomadic freedom is the result of ignorance of the sage's teachings. Barbarian simplicity is also a kind of mental last resort to seek consolation in an alien and forbidding landscape. Thus, Fang Xiaobiao 方孝標 (1618–?) notes upon reaching Ningguta 寧古塔 (in modern-day Heilongjiang Province) that “their customs are simple and honest,” as Yim observes in “Exile, Borders, and Poetry.”

Malleable boundaries characterize the representation of cultural others. Precise definitions of cultural difference can be elusive. Zuozhuan contains references to Wu's aggressive barbarity, and the Wu leader Zhongyong 仲雍 is said to have “cut his hair and tattooed his body, regarding nakedness as his adornment” (Zuozhuan Ai 7.4a, 488 BCE),2 but legend has it that he started out as a predynastic Zhou scion. “Hereditary Family of Wu” is placed at the beginning of the section on hereditary families in Shiji 史記 (Records of the Historian), and Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 135–c. 86 BCE) comments that Wu and the central states are “brother states” (Shiji 30.1475). Li shows how the “barbarian” in Zuozhuan, embedded in the rhetorical contexts of diplomatic negotiations and policy arguments, resists precise definition. In some cases, he possesses esoteric knowledge or eloquently justifies different mores. The Rong leader Juzhi 戎子駒支, even while emphasizing how the clothing, food, and language of the Rong differ from their counterparts in the central states, claims common ancestry with central states like Qi and Xu—being all descendants of the Lords of the Four Peaks—and demonstrates his mastery of textual traditions by reciting lines from Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Odes). Indeed, shared ancestry is a recurrent theme in Sima Qian's accounts of peoples on the margins of Han China. In Hu's study of southwest chieftains (tusi 土司) from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the claim of descent from Han Chinese remains an important factor in negotiating the balance between identity and difference, filiation and autonomy.

Manipulation of shifting boundaries provides the impetus for many of the works discussed in this special issue. In Hui's analysis of two thirteenth-century records of travel to Central Asia by Li Zhichang and Yelü Chucai 耶律楚材 (1190–1244), he shows how the Mongols are, from different perspectives, presented as the “civilizing agent” for “barbarians in the west.” The Mongols' wars of conquest are sanitized, glorified, or subjected to subtle critique through the prism of their supposed role as champion of traditional Chinese cultural values. With Li Zhichang's account, the confirmation of Mongol political legitimacy is also an attempt to win support for Quanzhen 全真 Daoism and rationalize a division of political and religious authority. The Eunuch Sanbao's Voyage to the Western Ocean could be interpreted as a Sinocentric fantasy or simple glorification of Ming supremacy, but Liu demonstrates subtle inversions in imagining cultural boundaries. One of the leaders of the expedition and the real hero of the novel is the Western monk Jin Bifeng, whose name is shown to encode his foreign features (blue eyes and high-bridged nose) in an extended naming scene. There is special emphasis on the Muslim and multilingual background of the character based on the historical Zheng He 鄭和 (1371–1433), who led the early Ming expeditions. Depiction of the sufferings of defeated “barbarians” evokes a common humanity that may raise questions on the human toll of Ming victories. Shifting boundaries also mark the evolution of a new sociopolitical order in The Sound of Reading. In a scenario with obvious contemporary resonance, the early Qing play, set in the Yuan dynasty, features a protagonist, suggestively named Song Ru 宋儒 (Song Confucian scholar), who ends up marrying a boatman's daughter and the daughter of a Mongol official. Crossing social and ethnic boundaries becomes tenable because the burden of unassimilable otherness is displaced to the “human bear” and the Song loyalist pirates, although their death leaves unresolved contradictions.

The redefinition of cultural boundaries in the early Qing context also informs Hu's study of southwest chieftains. Notwithstanding their embrace of facets of literati culture, from poetry gatherings to theatrical performance, the markers of their cultural difference are unmistakable to an outside Han observer like Gu Cai 顧彩 (1650–1718). For them to shift their allegiance from the Ming to the Qing, with successive ties to the Southern Ming, Ming loyalist resistance, and Wu Sangui 吳三桂 (1608–1678) in the interval, is perhaps not merely a matter of political expediency. Cultural self-definition through loyalty and shifting understanding of what constitutes the “host culture” might also have played a role. From another perspective, the Qing conquest tests the boundaries of culture by sending a large number of exiles, from those accused of loyalist resistance to victims of political persecution and factional struggles, to Manchuria, the erstwhile homeland of the conquerors. Yim explores the writings of one such exiled scholar-official, Fang Xiaobiao, describing his journey to Ningguta. Confronting different mores and unspeakably harsh conditions, we see literary conventions and historical analogies pushed to the limit as the poet tries to make sense of his experience. As in Yim's case, definitions of cultural others in the context of existential struggles frame the discussion in Jin's article. We also see a similar push against the limits of linguistic resources, with the difference that the setting of civil war and propaganda from opposite sides demonstrate how othering is a reversible process. Postwar representations show deeper ambiguities as even fantasies sometimes fail to yield absolute distinctions of “us” and “them.” In one memorable tale, Taiping rebels were one-time students of an unwitting scholar in their previous incarnation as imprisoned evil spirits.

Crossing of boundaries puts characters in motion, and it is not surprising that the journey is a dominant motif, as in the articles by Hui, Liu, Fox, Hu, and Yim. Agents of cultural contacts, such as the envoy, the spy, the go-between, the merchant, and the exile, make their appearance in the texts discussed by Li, Kou, Hui, Liu, Fox, Hu, Yim, and Jin. Cultural others inhabit other worlds, and many of the texts discussed in this special issue are motivated by curiosity and the quest for knowledge. This is true even when the author is anchored to mundane social reality but focuses on other classes beyond the educated elite, as Egan demonstrates in his analysis of Hong Mai's stories. In works as varied as Zuozhuan, the travel records Hui discusses, The Eunuch Sanbao's Voyage to the Western Ocean, Gu Cai's travelogue, and Fang Xiaobiao's writings about his exile, we see how knowledge about cultural others potentially changes our understanding of ourselves and the world. In “The Account of the Xiongnu” (Xiongnu liezhuan 匈奴列傳) in Shiji, the Han envoy Zhonghang Yue 中行說 defects to the Xiongnu 匈奴 and then eloquently defends Xiongnu customs when he confronts the new Han representative (Shiji 110.2898–2904). His speech is an implicit challenge to the notion of the universal applicability of Chinese ritual principles. Empathetic understanding of cultural others is ultimately the seed of a culture's critical self-reflection and self-definition.

On behalf of all the contributors in this special issue, I want to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their extremely helpful comments. We are also grateful to Cara Ryan for her meticulous editorial work on several articles in this issue.



Ibid., 3:1874-75.


Durrant, Stephen, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg.
Zuo Tradition / Zuozhuan: Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals
University of Washington Press
Sima Qian 司馬遷.
史記 (Records of the Historian). With commentaries by Pei Yin 裴駰, Sima Zhen 司馬貞, and Zhang Shoujie 張守節.
Zhonghua shuju
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