Historians of the later Roman Empire, especially those interested in the barbarian migrations, are familiar with the vexing problems inherent in writing the history of peoples who were enormously important but about whom we know very little. Or rather, about whom we know only the opinions held by their adversaries and overbearing neighbors, and what their material remains reveal to the archaeologists. It is a rare modern scholar of, say, the Goths, Vandals, Huns, or Franks, who has not let slip a hint of frustration at the complicated and occasionally opaque ancient sources when constructing a history of these peoples within and along the borders of the Roman empire on the basis of commentators such as Salvian of Marseilles, for whom “the people of the Saxons [are] savage, that of the Franks treacherous, the Gepids ruthless, the Huns impudent.”1 Matters are rendered even more complex because many of these Franks, Huns, or Goths were in fact Roman citizens or had lived in the Roman Empire for decades—so what makes a Goth Gothic, and a Roman Roman? When a source calls a Goth a Scythian, in the age old tradition of Herodotus, does the author actually mean a Goth or someone entirely different, thus confusing modern historians even further? This book makes it clear that historians of other premodern empires face very similar questions. The “barbarian” is not solely a Greco-Roman phenomenon, and comparisons to other ancient empires and their neighbors can offer welcome insights.
Erica Fox Brindley's Ancient China and the Yue attempts to reconstruct the identity and culture of the southern Yue, considered by some to be the forerunners of the Viet. Unlike the steppe nomads (e.g. the Xiongnu) who lived northwest of the “Central States,” the tattooed, shorthaired peoples living south of the Yangzi River have so far received little attention. In addition to Brindley, only Olivia Milburn and Eric Henry are currently working on the Yue in English. As is the case with many of the barbarian peoples who came into contact with Rome, what we know about the Yue and Bai Yue peoples comes mostly from the works of early Chinese authors writing after the fall of the classical kingdoms of Wu and Yue in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Brindley thus offers “not a history of the ancient Yue as they were in reality but an evaluation of the knowledge that we have about who they might have been, as well as how they were depicted and identified in ancient texts” (p. 243).
To reconstruct how Yue identity was formed, Brindley first examines linguistic and archaeological evidence (chapters 2 and 3). Linguists agree that the “Yue peoples” were non-Chinese-speaking (p. 46), but whether their languages were Austronesian, Austro-Asiatic, or Hmong-Mien is highly contested (p. 61). The archaeology of the Wu-Yue region from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age is equally complicated, not least by modern Vietnamese and Chinese national agendas. Brindley notes that the “Neolithic and Bronze Age material cultures on the Chinese mainland … are likely early predecessors of the material culture of the states of Wu-Yue,” but she is fully aware that ethnicity cannot simply be deduced from material culture (p. 65). The archaeological research on possible predecessors is intriguing, since according to the early Chinese histories (Zuozhuan, Guoyu, and Shiji) the kingdoms of Wu (585 BCE – 473 BCE) and Yue (537 BCE – 334 BCE) burst on to the stage fully formed, with massive armies locked in mortal combat with each other and their neighbors, and it is very difficult to reconstruct how state formation occurred in these southern kingdoms.
For these ancient Chinese historians, the Yue were inferior, as shown by their physical marks such as tattoos, short or unbound hair, or their ignorance of the postures of bowing or bending (p. 149). Brindley's examination of the way in which later, mostly Han sources, created Yue identity forms the center of her book (Parts II and III). As Brindley points out, despite the continuous assertion of their inferiority, the later authors considered the Yue, Bai Yue, and Nan Yue all separate entities, as politically sophisticated as their own Zhou polities, hence complicating “the notion that the Yue are outright barbarians” (p. 139). Here, one figure to whom Brindley devotes less attention is particularly relevant from a late Roman perspective because of his embodiment of both barbarian features and “classic” virtues: the Yue ruler Goujian (r. 496 – 465 BCE), who “became a central figure in the imagination of the Chinese” (p. 137). King Goujian, Stilicho-like, was made into the classical representative of the kingdom of Yue only in the later Han period, when he was transformed into “the greatest monarch of [the Yue] kingdom, … who would prove crucial in creating a Yue identity for subsequent generations.”2 Thus, later Bai Yue used the “classic” image of Goujian as ideal ruler created in the Han period to reconstruct their own glorious Bai Yue past and hence ethnicity.3
King Goujian was, however, only one aspect of the creation of a Yue ethnicity in later Han times. Another aspect, not highlighted by Brindley, is the way in which the Han imagination absorbed Yue diviners and shamans. In addition to their ability to craft magical weapons (p. 181–185), the Yue, according to Wang Chong (27 CE – ca. 100 CE), possessed exceptionally efficient curses.4 Conquering emperors were not above making use of these Yue diviners. “In the past, the king of the Eastern Ou [a Yue group] had honored the spirits and thus lived to the age of 160…The [Han] emperor ordered the shamans of Yue to set up a place for Yue sacrifices…the emperor trusted them[;] this is the beginning of the Yue sacrifices and chicken divinations.”5 Though ostensibly “barbarian,” Yue magic and shamanism were powerful attributes worthy to be harnessed for Han purposes; another aspect of the creation of Yue ethnicity not fully probed that finds its parallels in Claudian's characterization of Rufinus as the product of Thessalian and Chaldean magic.
Erica Fox Brindley's valuable contribution to our understanding of these tattooed, strangely dressed, short haired barbarians nevertheless imbued with classic virtues, offers interesting and illuminating insights for all interested in complex relation between empires and their “barbarians.”