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The Making of a Premodern Metropolis

Si-yen Fei
Department of History
Stanford University
December 2001


A venerable metropolis in the Yangtze delta of southern China, Nanjing in the 1570s was the place to be. Nanjing not only attracted many renowned literati-scholars and national luminaries but also merchants, courtesans, and students. It was where Matteo Ricci and other Jesuits eventually settled after traveling throughout China and trying to re-interpret and translate Christianity through Confucianism. It was also where Muslims settled (a Muslim community remains in Nanjing today) and where, around the same time, a reform movement was initiated to accommodate Islam and Confucianism. The urban character of Nanjing, among all the great cities in China at that time, was most akin to today's conception of a metropolis. Why did Nanjing draw such a diverse body of people? How did this city cope economically and culturally with its transient and yet diverse demography? How did the appearance of such a "modern" look metropolis relate to the major economic and cultural changes taking place in China of 16th and 17th centuries? These are the questions I hope to answer in my dissertation.

Scholars in the field of Chinese history have so far mainly focused either on general cultural changes or the emerging trade network at the national level. The knowledge we have so far, therefore, is derived either from quantitative cultural analysis of changing social customs and cultural mentality or qualitative economic statistics on the scale of long-distance trade and urbanization. The question of how these national trends merged to shape specific urban spaces has not yet been addressed. Shifting the focus from the nation to the city, this dissertation will contribute to the field of late imperial Chinese studies by bridging the gap between cultural and economic histories during this critical time period. It offers a more historicized understanding of the ways Chinese local-place society can respond to large scale commercialization that is still relevant to China today.

Specifically, this project will analyze the changing social composition of the Nanjing city in relation to the cultural and economic development at that time. Unlike other contemporary urban centers such as Beijing and Suzhou, Nanjing's social population was not only more diverse in terms of the wide-ranging cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds of its residents, but also more transient in that they resisted enduring kinship formation. Throughout the fourteenth and mid-fifteenth centuries, Nanjing witnessed several waves of forced migration: its original residents were moved to the south-west periphery of China, replaced by the rich and the skilled from the Lake Tai area in the lower Yangtze delta and by the refugees from the Shandong peninsula. Later, in 1436, another wave of forced immigration brought in a group of central Asian Muslims. The migrants peacefully merged with the existing residents. Nonetheless, in contrast to other lower Yangtze delta cities with numerous renowned family lineages, Nanjing was noted for the rarity of its rooted and enduring families.

In order to further understand the transient and diverse urban demography of Nanjing and its cultural and economic ramifications, this project will examine contemporary gazetteers, literati causeries and miscellaneous notes, genealogies, and records at Nanjing Muslim temples. In sum, this proposed study intends to examine the formation of the pre-modern metropolis Nanjing from the sixteenth through the mid-seventeenth centuries, with an eye to issues of time and space: its unique position within the Chinese empire at the beginning of the long-duree commercialization that lasted through the late imperial period. In doing so, the study will contribute to a more historicized understanding of China today.