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Ancient East Asian International Relations – A Comparative Archaeological Perspective of Walled Cities

Masayoshi Jokura
Full-time lecturer, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences (Archaeology), Waseda University Director, Silk Road Research Institute, Waseda University

1. Why is it important to study ancient international relations now?

In the global society of the 21st century, political and economic links among East Asian countries are stronger and deeper than ever before. Moreover, against the backdrop of China’s rise to power, international relations among those countries have significantly changed, exposing the strain on Japan’s relations with China and South Korea over issues of territory and historical perception. These complex international issues make it all the more necessary to deepen mutual understanding by taking a calm look back at the history of international exchange.

Photo 1: Excavation at Han-Wei Luoyang

Let me give you an example from my own personal experience. Until gaining a doctorate degree at graduate school, my area of specialization was Japanese archaeology (haniwa ceramic figures from the Kofun Period). When the institute where I worked after graduation started an international joint research project, however, I became engaged in the excavation of Han-Wei Luoyang City, China, as the Japanese representative. Cast alone into the Chinese excavation site without being able to speak the language, every day I ate from the same pot and shared the same hardships as the Chinese researchers and numerous migrant workers. Although there were differences between Japanese and Chinese culture, ideas, and investigation methods, there was no difference in our attitude and enthusiasm for learning and our aim of objectively and scientifically reconstructing history through excavation. My colleagues taught me that we could succeed in the difficult joint task of excavation so long as we respected one another’s position and accepted and tried to understand our differences.

In the seven years since my first engagement on research in China, I have specialized in the comparative archaeology of ancient Japanese and Chinese walled city systems. Both now and in times gone by, international exchange is nothing short of the job of relativizing one’s own position, acknowledging diverse values, and encouraging mutual understanding. I believe the history of international exchange in ancient East Asia contains clues on how to resolve the complex issues of international relations today.

2. Development of the walled city system in China

Let’s get to the main subject. A walled city is a term of Chinese origin meaning “an urban area surrounded by castellated walls.” It was an area constructed of multiple circular walls, namely an imperial residence, imperial palace, and outer urban area respectively encompassing imperial power, bureaucratic institutions, and urban residents. As well as a political, economic, and social hub, it was also an ideological area with a variety of ceremonial, ritualistic and religious buildings. The walled city of Beijing, at the center of which was the Forbidden City, was built in the Ming and Qing Dynasties and is the newest existing walled city, but the history of walled cities themselves is extremely old. Fortresses had already appeared in China by the latter stages of the Neolithic era. Recently, a separate palace with surrounding multiple walls was found in the ruins of Erlitou, regarded as the capital city of the Xia Dynasty, located in Yanshi City, Henan Province. In the Shang Dynasty, walled city became dramatically larger in scale, such as Yanshi and Zhengzhou Cities in Henan Province and of Huanbei City in Hebei Province, and the structure was passed on into the Zhou Dynasty. Then came the Spring and Autumn Warring States period, which saw the birth of highly distinctive cities built as the capitals of respective states with very strong walls surrounding them, epitomizing this war-torn era.

Photo 2: Reconstructed Dingding Gate of Sui and Tang Luoyang

After the first Qin Emperor had united China for the first time, Chang’an, the capital city of the Chinese Empire in the Early Han Dynasty, had a huge influence on later periods. Its walls enclosed a number of palaces, and Weiyang Palace at its southwest corner housed the Front Hall, which served as a stage for ceremonies of state. This basic structure was continued in Later Han Luoyang. In the following Six Dynasties, Chinese walled cities underwent a period of great change. In the walled city of Yebei, built by warlord Cao Cao of the state of Wei, the creation of a central line and division into sectors evolved, and Northern Wei Luoyang had a three-layer structure: an imperial residence centered around the Basilica of the Grand Culmen (Taiji Dian); an imperial palace to the south enclosing the Bronze Camel Street (Tongtuo Jie) packed full of administrative buildings, and an outer urban area laid out in a grid pattern beyond the inner palace. In particular, it is worth noting that the grid-like street plan, called “jobo” in Japan, was created by the Northern Wei Dynasty, a conquest dynasty originated from the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei people. The history of the development of walled cities is the history of the perpetual interaction and fusion of the traditional ideology of the Zhongyuan people and the diverse elements of the northern nomads.

The triple structure of imperial residence, imperial palace, and outer urban area established in the Six Dynasties saw completion in the walled city of Sui Daxing and Tang Chang’an. With its grand imperial residence as the center of power, its imperial palace supporting vast bureaucratic institutions, and its southern outer urban area laid out in a regular grid, Tang Chang’an was without doubt the world’s largest preplanned city boasting a population of one million. As well as being a vast territorial state, the Tang Dynasty was also a cosmopolitan kingdom that united Eurasia on a broad scale, connecting to the Western Regions and Europe via the Silk Road and linking the northern plains to the southern oceans via trade routes, and a flamboyant urban culture flourished in its capital city, Chang’an. With international relations centering on the Tang Dynasty, the style of the walled city of Chang’an was passed on to, and developed by, other East Asian countries.

3. International situations during the Sui and Tang Dynasties and the historical significance of Japan’s introduction of the walled city system

In the ancient East Asian world, an international order existed centering around a strong Chinese Empire. There was a system by which the leaders of other countries paid tribute to the Emperor of China and received a title in return, thus earning the backing to rule their own country and gaining an advantage over their neighboring countries. Sadao Nishijima, an eminent scholar of Chinese history, calls this international order the “sakuho [tributary] system.” It is well known that Wa (the ancient name for Japan) actively sent envoys to the Emperors of China; for example, the King of Na gold seal was bestowed in the year 57 by the Emperor Guangwu of the Later Han, the title of “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei” was bestowed upon Himiko in 238 by the Wei court, and the Five Kings of Wa paid tribute to the Southern Dynasties in the fifth century. Particularly during the Three Kingdoms period, when the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje existed alongside one other in northeastern China and the Korean Peninsula, fierce diplomatic competition raged, including with Wa.

When Baekje fell in 660, Wa dispatched a naval fleet to restore the kingdom but suffered a heavy defeat by a Silla-Tang joint force in 663. This was the so-called Battle of Baekgang. After its defeat, Wa began to take defense measures such as constructing a water fort on the Fukuoka Plain with a command of Hakata Bay and building Korean-style mountain fortifications alongside the Seto Inland Sea. Meanwhile, Japan’s own Emperor Tenmu, who had been victorious in the Jinshin War in 672, aggressively promoted the adoption of the Tang Dynasty’s systems of governance and walled cities, with Fujiwara-kyo, Japan’s first Chinese-style walled city, being completed in 694 followed by the Taiho Code in 701. It is noticeable that these national projects were conducted during the so-called “30 year blank,” during which Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jito did not send missions to Tang China.

In 702, a long-awaited Taiho envoy was dispatched to the Tang court with an ambassador Awata no Mahito. He obtained an audience with Empress Consort Wu at Chang’an, and what the members of this first mission to Tang China for three decades noticed was the prosperity of the cities of Chang’an and Luoyang, which looked completely different from Fujiwara-kyo. Recent research is focusing on the theory that during the period of the Tenmu-Jito era, when no missions were dispatched to the Tang court, Fujiwara-kyo was built modeled on the ideal royal castle described in the Record of Trades section of the Chinese text Rites of Zhou. Fujiwara-kyo does indeed strongly resemble the ideal royal castle in Rites of Zhou and is very different from the actual walled city of Chang’an. The recent study considers that after Fujiwara-kyo had been destroyed just in 16 years, Heijo-kyo was built as a faithful reconstruction of Tang Chang’an, based on the information observed and brought back by the members of the Taiho envoy.

Photo 3: Reconstructed Suzaku Gate of Heijo-kyo (provided by Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties)

Photo 4: Reconstructed Daigokuden of Heijo-kyo (provided by Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties)

4. Challenges for future investigation – Cultivating a comparative viewpoint

The above is a historical background to the process of the development of Chinese walled cities and the introduction of the walled city system into Japan, taking into account the latest research. Meanwhile, remarkable progress has been made in recent excavations in China, which is advancing studies into the structure of the excavated ruins. Comparing ancient Japanese and Chinese walled cities based on the results of those archaeological digs has shown that Japanese walled cities were not just copies of Chang’an but that they were established while the very structure and concept of Chinese walled cities were dismantled and restructured, absorbed and fused with traditional Japanese elements. By comparing the walled cities of East Asia carefully from this perspective, it may be possilbe to unravel the complex international relations of those times and gain a picture of such interactions that is not described in any historical documents. The real thrill of archaeology is accumulating “facts” that are unrecorded in historical documents and drawing new historical pictures from excavated materials.

Nowadays it is obvious that the study of history cannot be constructed completely only with research into the history of a single country. I believe the research of history to clarify the complicated, multi-layered international relations of ancient times by untangling each individual strand is also important for considering modern day complex international relations. It is because East Asian international relations are now so strained that we need to take a calm look back at the history of these relationships.

Masayoshi Jokura
Full-time lecturer, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences (Archaeology), Waseda University Director, Silk Road Research Institute, Waseda University

Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1978. Completed his Doctoral Course in History (Archaeology), the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University and obtained a PhD in Literature. He joined Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties as a researcher in 2007, and worked on excavations at Heijo-kyo in Japan and Han-Wei Luoyang in China. He took up his current position in 2011.
Main publications: Haniwa production and communities [Haniwa seisan to chiiki shakai] (Gakuseisha); New horizons in the study of cultural properties: A preface to the study of the Han-Wei Luoyang city wall ruins [Kangi rakuyoujou ikou kenkyuu josetu – Bunkazaigaku no shinchihei] (Yoshikawa Kobunkan); Archaeology of technology and interaction – The scale and structure of main gates in ancient Japanese and Chinese walled cities [Nicchuu kodai tojou ni okeru seimon no kibo to kouzou – Gijutsu to kouryuu no koukogaku] (Douseisha)