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A socio-cultural history of sites in Ming Hangzhou Cheung, Desmond H. H.


This dissertation takes a fresh approach to the study of place for parsing Ming society. Through a close analysis of the construction and representation of five famous places in the former imperial capital of Hangzhou – a pair of official shrines, a Buddhist monastery, the city god temple, and West Lake – I develop the dual idea of the “site” as a physical place that people made and maintained, and also as an imagined place that had important meanings in the cultural landscape. I argue that no individual group – not even the Ming state – was able to maintain a site on its own, nor was it able to control the meanings ascribed to it. Rather, members of different social groups participated in the construction of a site and the production of its historical meanings, and drew on particular meanings to advance their own concerns. This place-based history was an open resource that was constructed, used, and contested by multiple parties. While it could prompt people to contribute towards the restoration or maintenance of a site, in some cases it also provoked violent engagement with it. This included the intended destruction of statues of villains who engineered the death of a loyal hero, and also the unintended (and mistaken) smashing of religious carvings to punish a nefarious monk. This place-based analysis presents new possibilities for understanding the dynamics of Ming society by focussing on the interactions between its constituent groups. Each site had a particular place within the political order of the state, and also its own relevance to wider society. The interplay of cultural imagination and physical engagement that underlay the making of historical sites reveals the multiple voices involved in the production of meaning in Ming society, and the cooperation, negotiation, and contestation among the groups to whom those voices belonged.

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