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Jiangnan culture wields swords, xiao

MEI XINLIN | 2018-09-28
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Waterfront houses in Wu Zhen, Zhejiang Province Photo: 699PIC


Swords and xiao flutes are two important elements in the poems of Gong Zizhen (1792–1841), a Jiangnan based poet in the Qing Dynasty. He used swords to symbolize his ideals, and xiao to represent romance and sentiment. The mixture of these two elements epitomizes the Jiangnan culture.


The Jiangnan civilization dates back to the pre-Qin period (the 21st century to 221 BCE), when the ancient Yue tribes (also known as the Baiyue tribes) occupied the southeast of China. Two of the Yue tribes, the Wu and Yue, inhabited the delta of the Yangtze River and formed the origins of the Jiangnan region.

The Jiangnan culture experienced two fundamental changes in its evolution. The first happened during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), when the royal authority of the Zhou started to decline and various feudal states, including the Wu (the 12th century to 473 BCE) and Yue (the 21st century to 222 BCE), obtained de facto regional autonomy, waging wars amongst themselves. Finally, King Helü of Wu (537–496 BCE) and King Goujian of Yue (c. 520–465 BCE) were declared hegemons among the Five Hegemons. This marks the rise of culture within these two states as well as their martial spirit—most commonly stressing the combination of bravery, loyalty, righteousness, revenge and honor until death—symbolized by swords. The qualities of gallantry attributed to a swordsman ran through the states of the Wu and Yue, with traces found in numerous historic events or legends. For instance, King Fuchai of Wu (528–473 BCE) defeated and enslaved King Goujian of Yue in order to avenge the death of his father. Then Goujian, after ten years of economic and political reforms, eventually led his state to victory and annexed the Wu state. Soldiers were known for their unflinching loyalty and courage. Such qualities and spirit penetrated the whole of Jiangnan society, boosting the prosperity of the sword casting industry in the Wu and Yue states.

This martial spirit dominated the Jiangnan area until the Six Dynasties period (222–589), which was another turning point of the Jiangnan culture. This lengthy period was characterized by wars, plagues and political instability. In the 3rd century, a large number of northern Chinese moved south after nomadic groups took control of the north, bringing south the civilization of the Central Plain (also known as Zhongyuan), widely held to be one of the main cradles of modern Chinese civilization. The Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420) established its capital at Jiankang (today known as Nanjing, Jiangsu Province). For the first time, the cultural center of China was located in the south, bringing a surge in the economy and civilization in the Jiangnan area. It transformed southern China from being a collection of remote territories to a new cultural center and encouraged the Jiangnan people to embrace the civilization from the Central Plain. The cultural integration brought ritual, rites, literature and arts to the Jiangnan area, continually reshaping the local people and their customs. During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), the exiled Song government retreated south, establishing the new capital at Lin’an Fu (today known as Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province) after the Jurchen overran northern China. Jiangnan culture was finally transformed from sword to xiao, with a style that was subtler, more graceful and restrained.


Both the States of Wu and Yue belonged to the ancient Yue tribes. They were adjacent to each other, speaking the same language and sharing the same customs. As is written in the encyclopedic classic, The Spring and Autumn of Lü Buwei, “Our state (the Wu) is adjacent to the state of Yue. Our borders are common. Our lands are contiguous. There are roads traversing the two states and the people of our two states share the same customs and the same language.” In this way, the Jiangnan culture was originally called Wu-Yue culture.

However, there were still some cultural differences between these two states, primarily due to their geographical conditions. The fertile soil and water in northern Jiangnan might be the reason why Tai Bo, the eldest son of Gugong Danfu (the leader of the Zhou clan), chose to settle there and established the Wu after he left the pre-dynastic Zhou during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). His arrival promoted cultural fusion between the Jiangnan area and the Central Plain. Mi Bao, the Tai Shou (Prefect) of Wu Jun in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), complimented Tai Bo’s achievements in Tai Bo Mu Bei Ji (Tai Bo’s Epitaph). He indicated that during the reign of Tai Bo, the Wu people were wealthy and cultured. Etiquette and arts came into being.

Compared with the gentle manner of the Wu people, the Yue, on the contrary, tended to be aggressive and conservative, sticking to their own traditions, probably because they lived in the hilly region of southern Jiangnan. The Spring and Autumn of Lü Buwei gave an example of the Yue’s attitude towards the outside civilization. “Once, someone who was good at playing the xiao flute went to visit the king of the state of Yue by virtue of this skill. He played all the five notes, Yu, Jue, Gong, Zhi and Shang, perfectly. However, the king of Yue did not appreciate them. When he played the licentious tunes, the king of Yue loved them very much.”

Spirit, personalities
Swords and xiao also represent the two sides of the personalities of the Jiangnan people. They might speak and behave gently and elegantly, but they are staunch and determined.

Although the Jiangnan culture has been extensively influenced by the Central Plain and is characterized as being delicate and refined, the martial spirit rooted in this area never disappeared. The vast instillment of these qualities that valued courage, chivalry and righteousness ensured their lasting influence over the descendants of the Wu and Yue.

Professor Xu Maoming interpreted the general personality of the Jiangnan people as strong-minded and brave-hearted behind a gentle manner. This personality has encouraged people in the Jiangnan area to strive at cultural undertakings during peaceful times and stand up to defend the country when facing invasion. The Ming Dynasty painter and poet Tang Yin (1470–1524), together with other three scholars in the Jiangnan area, formed the “Four Literary Masters of the Wuzhong Region.” They were highly praised not only for their achievements in literature, but also for their revolutionary thoughts and attempts to challenge the status quo. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous rebellions against the Qing government took place. In 1904, an anti-Qing organization named Guangfu Hui (the Restoration Society) was established by a reform-minded intellectual in the Jiangnan area, Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), with a purpose of saving China from humiliation and invasion. Many members were from Zhejiang Province, including the female writer, Qiu Jin (1875–1907) and the Chinese philosopher, Zhang Binglin (1869–1936). They stressed that the great danger to China was the failure of the Qing government as well as foreign pressure. Those people were “good at playing the xiao flute,”—meaning educated and having significant accomplishments in literature, arts and other fields—while simultaneously holding metaphorical swords to fight for their motherland. Their courage and devotion to the nation and admiration for knowledge reflect the core of the Jiangnan culture.


Mei Xinlin is a professor at Zhejiang University of Technology.

(edited by REN GUANHONG)