Beyond Steppe and Sown: Scrambling Ethno-Ecological Assumptions in Medieval Inner Asia 
Christopher Atwood (University of Pennsylvania)
Jonathan Schlesinger (Indiana University--Bloomington)
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Room 303A
Saturday 12 October, 14:00-15:45 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

Mongol herders, Chinese farmers: this binary ethno-ecological assumption underlies the field of Inner Asian history. These papers, covering the China-Mongolia frontier from the tenth to fourteenth centuries, challenge the adequacy of this dichotomy for understanding the history of Inner Asia.

Long Abstract

In the history of Mongolia and China, few ideas are as axiomatic as the distinction of Inner Asian herders and Chinese farmers. The political regimes and languages examined by researchers may vary, but the binary division of steppe and sown, as seen in works such as Thomas Barfield's Perilous Frontier, remains a fundamental assumption. Ethnicity and ecology are fused in an often deterministic fashion and intermediate populations who might combine herding and farming, or who might practice some entirely different way of life are largely ignored.

This panel scrambles the binary distinction of steppe and sown, and challenges the easy assumption of ethnic and ecological congruence. Han herders in North China, Mongolic-speaking jacks in the lands northeast of Beijing, and Chinggisid princes ruling agro-pastoral shrine complexes in the heart of Mongolia: these figures from Inner Asia in the tenth to fourteenth centuries show that ecology's relationship to ethnicity was complex, shifting, and unpredictable. But the papers also show how such binary assumptions were not simply modern-day constructions of scholarship, but that they were also firmly entrenched in how state-building elites both to the south and to the north of the frontier zone constructed their ideal subjects.

In her paper Soojung Han (Princeton) takes up the Shatuo, represented in Chinese sources and modern scholarship as Turkic pastoralist invaders ruling conquest dynasties in tenth century North China. She argues that herding was not a distinctive part of their ethnic profile and that they defined themselves not through pastoralism but through military organization and open genealogies. Zachary Hershey (University of Pennsylvania) demonstrates how the Qai, speaking a Serbi-Mongolic language, pursued a wide variety of livelihoods that resisted any clear identity as "farmers" or "herders." But Song literati exoticized the Shatuo as pastoralists and the Kitan Liao dynasty assigned the Qai to their own "Northern" system of administration, obscuring the ways in which the Qai followed neither "northern" nor "southern" stereotypes Finally Dotno Pount (University of Pennsylvania) illustrates how the Mongol Yuan-era shrine complex built around Chinggis Qan's four palace tents eschewed fetishizing Mongolian pastoral nomadism, but instead became the heart of a mixed agro-pastoral principality.

Together these papers show how the division of steppe and sown in Inner Asia was never a purely natural ecological frontier, but instead a political and social construction fashioned out of diverse landscapes and populations.

Accepted papers: