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Re-Writing Dali: the Construction of an Imperial Locality in the Borderlands, 1253-1679


This dissertation examines the interactions of two late imperial Chinese regimes of understanding, experiencing, and moving through space through a local study of Dali, a district in the south-western borderlands of Mongol Yuan and Chinese Ming states. The city of Dali had been the capital of independent Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms until it was conquered by Mongol armies in 1253 and subsequently incorporated into the Yuan empire. Over the next four centuries, the former nobility of the Dali kingdom transformed themselves into imperial scholar-gentry, educating their sons in literary Chinese, taking the civil service examinations, and establishing themselves as members of the literati elite. As a result, their social relationships and their place in the world, that is, their identities, were reconstructed in dialogue with the institutional, political, and discursive practices that now shaped their daily lives.

Through examination of writings produced in Dali during the Yuan and Ming, I argue that Dali elite families used their proximity to and facility in the written word to maintain their position within the status hierarchies of local society. At the same time, the concept of the “locality” provided a framework within which local elites were able to express a sense of difference both comprehensible and acceptable to the state. As a result, Dali’s position in the world as it emerged over the first four centuries of colonisation was neither a differentiated periphery nor a homogenised locality but a praxis of the native place as the legitimated form of spatialised identity for civilised men.

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