Chuci and the Politics of Space under the Qin and Han Empires

Vincent S. LEUNG*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book Chapters | Papers in Conference ProceedingsBook ChapterResearchpeer-review


To create a new state is to create a new space. It entails the construction of a new environment for all things under its dominion. This is true for any type of state, but it is particularly germane when we consider the formation of an empire.Empires are a type of political structure that is defined, most importantly, by their drive towards territorial expansion. As Charles Maier, in his study of empires in world history, noted: "An empire in the classic sense is usually believed,first, to expand its control by conquest or coercion, and, second, to control the political loyalty of the territories it subjugates." In other words, empires are constituted through relations of domination by one group over another in aterritory that is not originally their own. To create an empire, therefore, is to create an expansive political space, one that extends itself without compromising its political integrity. In this sense, all empires implicate and subsist on a politicsof space; it is a form of political authority that is realized and maintained through a reconfiguration of spatial relations.
ln this paper, I will explore this politics of space under the rise of the Qin and the Han empires (221 BCE-220 CE) in early China. What spatial claims did these early empires make, and what historical responses were there from the political elite? The text that I will be using as a point of entry for this historical contention over spatial relations is the 楚辭 (Chu Lyrics). This ancient collection of poetry is a somewhat unlikely choice. The Chuci does contain a few Han-period Han-period pieces, but it is more typically read in the context of its association with the Chu楚 kingdom of the preceding Warring States era (ca. 475–221 BCE). Once a powerful southern kingdom at the central Yangzi valley, the Chu finally fell to the Qin armies after decades of resistance in the year 223 BCE. Memory of the kingdom, however, persisted. In the next few centuries, under the early empires, there would be an extraordinary amount of memorial investment in the bygone kingdom of Chu. Lore about this once-influential southern kingdom proliferated, and literary pieces associated with it enjoyed wide currency.4To-wards the end of the Han empire in the second century CE, this very active afterlife of the Chu kingdom would culminate in the compilation of the Chuci zhangju 楚辭章句 (Chapter and Verse Commentary to the Lyrics of Chu) by WangYi 王逸 (fl. 130s), an anthology of poems attributed to poets from both the Chu kingdom and the Han dynasty. This compilation had a defining effect for the Chu lyrics tradition; its nearly sixty poems established its basic repertoire, and Wang Yi’s commentaries laid the first stone of the exegetical tradition of Chu lyrics that would develop in the centuries to come
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Exercise of the Spatial Imagination in Pre-Modern China : Shaping the Expanse
EditorsGarret Pagenstecher OLBERDING
PublisherDe Gruyter
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9783110749823, 9783110749922
ISBN (Print)9783110749656
Publication statusPublished - 21 Feb 2022

Publication series

NameWorlds of East Asia
PublisherDe Gruyter
ISSN (Print)1660-9131
ISSN (Electronic)2235-5766

Bibliographical note

The author would like to acknowledge and thank the financial support from Lingnan University for the research and writing of this chapter through its Direct Grant program (DR19A8) from 2019–2020.


  • Early China
  • Han empire
  • Chuci
  • Space
  • Politics
  • Early imperial China


Dive into the research topics of 'Chuci and the Politics of Space under the Qin and Han Empires'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this