Looking Behind the Text: The Case of Northern Wei's 'Yuan Pi'
All textual traditions are based on their own particular sets of assumptions and preoccupations. This was the case of the Chinese classical tradition as well, which having taken full shape under the Han empire, continued to be used as the only available language of written record by the very different regimes that controlled the Yellow River plains after Han collapse. One of these was Northern Wei (386-534), a new kind of empire in East Asia, of Inner Asian origin, whose leadership for generations continued to speak an Inner Asian language and conceptualized the world in terms apparently quite different from those embedded in the Literary Chinese that gives the only descriptions we have of these people and their actions. Here we use the case of a royal kinsman called in the text “Yuan Pi 元丕” (422-503) to examine various ways in which we might attempt to look behind (or through, or under) received text to get a glimpse at least of the actual man.
Trained in the history of China, inner Asia, and Japan, and in Chinese thought and religion, Scott Pearce specializes in dynasties of Inner Asian origin that ruled northern China during the 4th through the 6th centuries CE. He has just completed a book on the first major example of such regimes, the Northern Wei (386-534). From this work come scholarly and teaching interests in many related issues, such as the encounter and interaction of cultures, military history, and the arts and poetic forms of East Asia and worlds beyond.