I have often read accounts that say that after the Han Dynasty incorporated the area of the Red River Delta into its empire, the “Chinese” set up an “administration” in the area. Recently, for instance, I was reading an article that mentioned that in the first few centuries AD, there was a “full Chinese administration” that was established in that region.

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What does this mean? When I hear the word “administration,” I think of offices and people writing memos and cataloging various government orders and records. I also envision government officials spread out over the land, all working together as part of an interconnected and centralized system.

But is that what a “Chinese administration” was? Maybe at the capital, but how about at the edges of the empire?

Yesterday I came across a reference to a document that is attributed to the Tang Dynasty scholar-official, Han Yu 韓愈. Han Yu had a difficult life as he was exiled a few times, and his final exile was to Chaozhou, in what is now the eastern part of Guangdong Province.

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During the Tang Dynasty period, Chaozhou was a peripheral region of the empire. It was a place where Han settlers from the north lived together with indigenous peoples, peoples who were culturally distinct.

The document that I came across a reference to is known as the “Proclamation to the Crocodile” (鱷魚文, an English translation can be found here). This document is filled with concepts that point to a distinction between the cultural world of Han Yu, and the world of the crocodiles.

Essentially, it is a literary world saying to an untamed world, “We are more powerful than you are. So understand that, and go away. Otherwise, we will destroy you.”

This “Proclamation to the Crocodile” is a document that was produced by an “administrator” in a “Chinese administration.” Now the fact that an administrator wrote a document for crocodiles should already be a sign that this “administration” was not the same as administrations today.

crocodile

How did the crocodiles hear this proclamation? That is not recorded, but I would assume that some type of ritual must have been performed at which the proclamation was read in the vicinity of the crocodiles (without, of course, getting too close. . .).

Did Han Yu really think that the crocodiles could actually hear and understand what he was telling him? I have my doubts about that, but he did probably want the local people to see him reading the proclamation to the crocodiles.

Like the crocodiles, the local people probably couldn’t understand what Han Yu was proclaiming, but they could understand what the entire event was about, that is, they could understand what they were seeing.

My guess would also be that the crocodiles did not go away, and that Han Yu probably sent people out to kill them (perhaps even local people).

The result of all of this, I think, would have been that the illiterate indigenous people would have been impressed by the “magical” powers of all of this. Han Yu undoubtedly dressed differently than they did, he probably performed an elaborate ceremony in which the proclamation was read, and then ultimately the crocodiles were killed.

From the perspective of the local people, Han Yu must have looked like some magician with special powers, and it was perhaps that impression that would have led them to obey his other orders – like paying annual taxes.

This then is how “Chinese administrations” on the periphery of the empire often worked. I don’t think people who write about the “Chinese” setting up an “administration” in the Red River Delta have this kind of imagery in their minds. But my sense is that this is what “Chinese rule” was often like in the first millennium AD.

Indeed, this was a universal technique for ruling at that time, and you can find examples of the same things happening in many other cultural contexts around the globe.

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