The Veins of the Earth: Property, Environment, and Cosmology in Nanbu County, 1865-1942


Tristan G. Brown

PhD defended at: 

Columbia University


During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in Nanbu County, land was not only measured in quantitative dimensions, but also assessed through cosmological principles. These understandings of land often framed property claims while shaping rural geographies in the county under study. Drawing on 700 cases from the Nanbu Archive, this dissertation makes two related claims. First, in the mountainous periphery of Northern Sichuan, situated knowledge of land pervaded contracts, genealogies, stone inscriptions, and official handbooks. This information, composed of vernacular place-names, localized land boundaries, expressions of patrimonial merit and status, and cosmological dimensions of property, was often immediately understandable only to the members of a lineage or community, but could be interpreted by the state if needed. One type of situated information was geomantic information, which regularly entered the magistrate’s court. Local officials engaged this information in legal practice and took geomantic claims or documentation into consideration during litigation. Sites holding great geomantic significance, such as ancient trees, graves, and temples, were often identified by locals as the landmarks or borders of private estates, market towns, or the county itself; these understandings were regularly woven into the administrative documents of the state. During the Qing, such interpretations were even extended to a local shrine of a Muslim (Qadiri) saint. Through routine engagement with these interpretations of the earth throughout the increasing landed commercialization of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — in processing lawsuits, the Nanbu yamen (state administrative office) ordered landscapes concerning geomancy to be officially illustrated more than any other genre of claim — the Qing state legitimated highly situated knowledge of the land within the local property regime while upholding geomantic information as a binding mechanism for the regulation of common lands and resource access. The dissertation’s second point is that, while it is well-known that the early decades of the twentieth century saw increased state penetration into local society across China, Nanbu maintained a remarkable degree of continuity with its imperial heritage. Land surveyors working in the early twentieth century struggled to extract structured knowledge of land from the layered territorialities of the county’s terrains that had persisted from the Qing. This process was highly negotiated and often interpretive, rather than based on precise statistical surveying or the clear directives of a hegemonic state. Through exploring the legal, environmental, and religious dimensions of a single county’s terrains in the late imperial period, this study identifies situated geomantic information as one of the key arenas for the projection of — and limitations on — state power in the county in relation to the property system. The dissertation also provides the first English-language history of Nanbu, a county with a remarkably complete administrative and legal archive from 1656 to 1951.