Shao-yun Yang

Nov 30, 2021

The Way of the Barbarians

Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China

University of Washington Press 2019

Shao-yun Yang's The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China (University of Washington Press, 2019) challenges assumptions that the cultural and socioeconomic watershed of the Tang-Song transition (800–1127 CE) was marked by a xenophobic or nationalist hardening of ethnocultural boundaries in response to growing foreign threats. In that period, reinterpretations of Chineseness and its supposed antithesis, “barbarism,” were not straightforward products of political change but had their own developmental logic based in two interrelated intellectual shifts among the literati elite: the emergence of Confucian ideological and intellectual orthodoxy and the rise of neo-Confucian (daoxue) philosophy. New discourses emphasized the fluidity of the Chinese-barbarian dichotomy, subverting the centrality of cultural or ritual practices to Chinese identity and redefining the essence of Chinese civilization and its purported superiority. The key issues at stake concerned the acceptability of intellectual pluralism in a Chinese society and the importance of Confucian moral values to the integrity and continuity of the Chinese state. Through close reading of the contexts and changing geopolitical realities in which new interpretations of identity emerged, this intellectual history engages with ongoing debates over relevance of the concepts of culture, nation, and ethnicity to premodern China.

This is a really important work in understanding how ethnicity was articulated in premodern China. The implications of Yang's detailed and meticulous study make it must-read for anyone interested in the intellectual and political history of China, that includes not only for those concerned with the Middle Period, but also both the classical, late imperial, and modern periods. 

Lance Pursey is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Aberdeen. He works on the history and archaeology of the Liao dynasty, and therefore is drawn to complicated questions of identity in premodern China like a moth is drawn to flame. He can be reached at

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Lance Pursey

Lance Pursey is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Aberdeen where they work on the history and archaeology of the Liao dynasty. They are interested in questions of identity, and the complexities of working with different kinds of sources textually and materially. They can be reached at

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