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Silent Protest: Noncompliance in the Northwest Frontier of the Han

Sat, April 2, 5:15 to 7:15pm, Washington State Convention Center, Floor: 6th Floor, Room 611


The study of Han imperial expansion in the northwest frontier has both benefitted and been burdened by a wealth of transmitted and excavated textual data. On the one hand, these textual data allow historians of early imperial China to explore a broad range of issues from imperial frontier management to garrison soldiers’ daily life. On the other, written data produced by those who worked for the Han government, either in the imperial court or in frontier outposts, also deeply shape the questions we ask and the perspective of our historical narratives. The Han court’s centralizing efforts, for instance, have been the most extensively researched theme. Does that mean we have no choice but to either adopt text producers’ views or resort to material data, which tend to be ambiguous about subtle social dynamics? Can we even discuss the implications of activities and decisions unaligned with imperial goals?
As an experiment, this paper seeks to work with the constraints of textual data and examines local strategies developed in the northwest frontier of the Han to deflect imperial control, thereby protecting communal or individual interests. I focus specifically on non-violent strategies that created opportunities for local communities and individuals to further their ends under the imperial frame. The goal is to use this case study to test how far we can push beyond the limitations embedded in textual data and what methods we may use.


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