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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Constructing Memories: The Making of Song Historical Sources
4: Carved in Stone: Stele Building, Public Memories, and Local Politics in Southern Song China
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Ithaca College, United States
Stone stelae inscribed with records have been widely established in local societies to commemorate local religions, philanthropy, public works, and local governance. Both the texts carved in stone and the material form of the stelae constituted public memories shared by each local community. Focusing on stelae recording local administrative issues such as taxation, welfare projects, and land use, this paper examines how the public memories were made through stele building and used by various players of local politics in Southern Song China. In some cases, local officials and local elite collaborated in establishing stelae to archive memories about favorable policies they had enjoyed (e.g. tax cut). Their use of the archived memories would in turn increase their leverage in future bargaining with higher authorities. In some other cases, stelae about local welfare projects, which were engraved with detailed records and thus materialized public memories, helped to protect these projects from encroachment by clerks or members of local elite. In all these cases, local officials and local elite not only preserved memories of local affairs but also deliberately concretized them in stone stelae for public display. Through the media of stelae, these political players translated the literal and symbolic meanings of public memories into power, which helped them in competition or negotiation about local affairs with one another or with higher authorities. I argue that the use of public memories played a critical role in the operation of Southern Song local society.