Negotiating Boundaries: Cross-Border Migrants in Early Medieval China


Wen-Yi Huang

PhD defended at: 

October 2017


This dissertation is the first full-length study of cross-border migrants in early medieval China. Its focus is on the nearly four hundred southern migrants, who moved, as war captives or as asylum seekers, to the Northern Wei (386-534 CE) from the three successive southern states of Liu-Song (420-479 CE), Southern Qi (479-502 CE), and Liang (502-557 CE). It provides a bottom-up approach to early medieval interstate politics, and adds a human dimension to it. It also offers an historical perspective on contemporary issues on migration and integration.
Scholars have long recognized the four hundred years between the Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang dynasties (618-916 CE) as an era of great migrations, migrations that transformed the political and cultural landscapes of southern and northern China. In this multi-power period, large-scale migrations, internal or external, occurred most frequently under the watch of the Northern Wei regime, and the Northern Wei government played an active role in facilitating and controlling migration. Accordingly, primary sources on displaced persons, especially southern migrants, who went to Northern Wei, are relatively abundant, which give an up-close picture of a group of people long neglected in Chinese history.
My thesis employs a wide variety of primary sources. It includes, besides received textual records (official and unofficial histories, geographical texts, Buddhist hagiographies, anecdotes, and legal texts), also excavated funerary inscriptions, and archaeological materials. Theoretically grounded, it draws inspiration from literature on boundary work theory in other parts of the world to examine the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion at play between southern migrants and the Northern Wei government, between southern migrants and Northern Wei elites, and within the communities of southern migrants.
Following an introduction that analyzes the meanings of the concept of “boundary work” and situates this study of cross-border migrants therein, the first chapter, “People on the Move,” presents an overview of the cross-border migrants under study. It examines different patterns of side-changing and stresses the diversity among cross-border migrants. The remainder of the dissertation is a social history of cross-border migrants.
Chapter 2, “State and Cross-Border Migrants,” centers on the physical side of boundary work by looking into Northern Wei policies to control migration, including the bureaucratic terminology on border crossers, the identity verification process of migrants, and the rewards and punishments foreseen and doled out.
Chapter 3, “Integration of Cross-Border Migrants,” investigates the extent to which cross-border migrants were integrated into the host society. It first analyzes how the Northern Wei elites erected boundaries between themselves and newcomers, particularly by means of food and language. It then discusses southern migrants’ varying survival strategies, ranging from the quotidian act of eating northern foods to long-term tactics of marriage alliances with northern leading families, recreating their local bases in the north, and utilizing migrant networks.
The fourth chapter, “Those Who Were Left Behind,” explores the negative consequences of cross-border migration on the migrants’ families left behind in the south, including the difficulties of ransoming migrants, the problems of repatriating migrants’ remains for burial, and the inheritance issues caused by the double marriage of their husband or father at both sides of the border.