Section: News

A look at “Being a Barbarian”

Professor Shao-yun Yang of Denison University studies what it means to be a barbarian.

On Nov. 2, the Asian and Middle East Studies Program sponsored his lecture titled “Being a Barbarian in Ancient China.” 

Professor Yang’s primary academic focus is ethno-cultural identity, and he is writing a book on the “changing interpretations of Chinese identity in the seventh through 13th centuries.” He used the talk to express  “some of the thoughts I have had on what it actually means to be a barbarian.”

James P. Storer Professor of Asian History Ruth Dunnell invited Professor Yang to speak as part of her Ancient and Classical China course in the history department.

The topic of Professor Yang’s lecture was the relationship between Ancient China and specifically the Zhou dynasty, with non-Chinese people. Professor Yang explained that the ancient Chinese had many different names for the people living outside of the “central lands” or China itself. The ancient Chinese names for foreign peoples corresponded to north, south east and west, which Yang noted as the Di, Man, Han and Yi. H The Chinese believed their cultural superiority came from a moral code, or Li, which they had preserved in their culture. Therefore, their perception of foreigners  was not based on their culture’s naturalism but on a sense of their culture, which Yang noted was different from the historical stance of many western countries.

The talk was well received with many students, professors and other community members in attendance.  The lecture concluded that the ancient Chinese people thought that anyone “could be Chinese” if they could learn to live by Li, and thus no people were naturally barbaric.


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