The First Imperial Transition in China: A Microhistory of Jiangling (369 – 119 BCE)

The First Imperial Transition in China: A Microhistory of Jiangling (369 – 119 BCE)
This dissertation challenges the dominant historical narrative about the rise of early Chinese empires, the Qin (221 – 206 BCE) and the Han (202 – 220 BCE), which tends to fixate on the grand strategy and military power of the conquerors while neglecting the agency of the conquered populations. To counteract this one-sided narrative, I investigate the area of Jiangling 江陵 in the middle Yangzi River region, where the capital of Chu 楚—then the most powerful state in South China—was located. Qin’s invasion of the Chu capital area in 278 BCE and Han’s takeover of it in 202 BCE make Jiangling an ideal case study for tracing how a former regional center responded to the rising imperial order from the mid-fourth through the second century BCE. Drawing on a wealth of new archaeological and manuscript evidence, this dissertation is among the first within early China studies to offer a locality-centered microhistory.

Chapter 1 analyzes the anatomy of this narrative, which I call the Great Unification—or dayitong 大一統—narrative. Chapter 2 examines settlement and architectural remains from Jinancheng 紀南城 and Yingcheng 郢城 to expose the reality of the Qin conquest. The available evidence suggests that the Qin invaders did not destroy indiscriminately but exercised violence strategically and relied on local know-how to fortify their colonial headquarters. Chapter 3 explores the changing mortuary landscape in Jiangling and the funeral workmen communities in particular. It argues that social change in postconquest Jiangling was the result of a series of negotiations between the native communities and the colonial governments, negotiations that were as constrained by local conditions as they were by imperial directives. Chapter 4 devises a funeral organizers-centered perspective to trace cultural shifts in Jiangling. Through a statistical analysis of the burial objects arranged by funeral organizers and their changing mortuary representations in tombs, the chapter reveals that cultural perceptions related to food and drink, personal property, and government service were deeply affected by the intrusion of Qin and Han modes of social organization. Chapter 5 scales up to a more macro level to analyze the institutional development of three rank systems, i.e., Qin, Neo-Chu, and Han. It discovers an important phenomenon called “rank inflation” and argues that the different ways of controlling rank inflation had a profound effect on Jiangling denizens. Chapter 6 utilizes a group of mortuary documents called gaodice 告地策 (“notifications to underworld authorities”) to focus on the lived experience of three widows of top rank-holders in Jianging, whose tombs were interred with such documents. The chapter reveals the tensions within newly emergent and liminal rank-related identities in the wake of the Han imperial incursion in Jiangling. In a brief conclusion, the dissertation offers some reflections on how to write the first imperial transition free from the Great Unification mantra.


Dewei SHEN

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

Yale University




East Asia


International Relations and Politics
War / Peace