Rebuilding an Imperial Elite

ANU China Seminar Series

Rebuilding an Imperial Elite: Local Government Schools in Dali, Yunnan, 1247–1675
Eloise Wright

4:00pm – 5:30pm, Thursday 18 May 2017
Seminar Room A, China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU, Canberra

In 1247, the Mongol prince later known as Khubilai Khan conquered the Dali Kingdom, a small state in the south-eastern foothills of the Himalayas. Successive kingdoms based in the city of Dali had long been the dominant local power, but after a brief period of military resistance the region was politically incorporated into the Mongol empire. Over the next four hundred years, Dali became increasingly socially and economically integrated with the central plains. In these changing circumstances, members of elite families in the Dali region began to learn written Chinese, take the imperial examinations, engage in literati social practices, and write about their locality in recognised Chinese genres. As a result, a substantial body of written material — gazetteers, unofficial histories, temple and grave inscriptions, among others — was produced in Dali during the Yuan and Ming dynasties.

Who were the literati and officials whose voices we hear in these sources? In this paper, I argue that by sending their sons to acquire full classical literacy and enter the examination system, the elite of the Dali region — comprising both indigenous nobility and military migrants from other parts of the empire — constituted itself as a local elite that belonged to the empire-wide ruling class. At the same time, their engagement with imperial educational practices and institutions intensified distinct identities in the local elite based on family histories and the spatial organisation of the Dali region.

Eloise Wright is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently a visitor at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU. She is writing her dissertation on educational institutions, practices of writing, and ideas of localism among the elite of Dali, Yunnan, in the Yuan and Ming dynasties.