Manufacturing Chinese history cheaply

In Ross Terrill’s The New Chinese Empire he makes the assertion that Mao Zedong was the heir of the moralist Confucian tradition, while Deng Xiaoping’s stances looked more toward pragmatic Legalism. I don’t want to rehash why Terrill presented this strange framework as a central thesis in his book. Rather, there was an instance that I found memorable where he observed that Deng was much more particular about pointing out territorial losses that China had suffered with foreign dignitaries than Mao. Deng was more conventionally nationalistic.

I always felt that this required some chutzpah on Deng’s part. The map above shows clearly why I found it curious: the maximal extend of the Chinese Empire in the 19th century was to due to the imperial ambitions of the Manchu people, under whose yoke the Han experienced centuries of being a subordinate group. Of course it is true that just as Greece conquered Rome, so the Manchus assimilated into Chinese society to such an extent that today they have basically been absorbed by the Han in all but name. And famously, rulers such as the Kangxi Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor, became for their Han subjects, that is the vast majority of them, paragons of the Confucian potentate.

But the Manchus always remained Manchus, self-conscious that they were a ruling people. They struggled against their assimilation, and in their conquests outside of their civilized Chinese heartland the emperors became Manchurian warlords (the Kangxi Emperor in particular paints a broadly as a steppe warlord when he deigned to take on that persona). They were a people from from beyond the Great Wall, who had good relations with the Khalkha Mongols, and cultivated the Buddhist statelets of greater Tibet. In China, but not always of it. In other words, the empire which the republic of China inherited by and large was the achievement of a non-Chinese people.

Modern borders are what they are. Accidents of history. I don’t begrudge the Han Chinese for having inheriting the Manchu Empire. To some extent it’s their luck. But it’s a little strange that Deng Xiaoping would assume that the borders of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, were somehow sacrosanct. The Manchus were at this period waxing into the fullness of their powers, and blocked Russia from bringing the Amur basin into its hegemony (and also banned Han from migrating into these new territories!).

China’s most cosmopolitan native dynasty, the Tang*, did have dominion over much of what is today called Xinjiang. Their forces famously clashed with that of the Abbasids at Talas in modern day Kyrgyzstan. But this dominion lasted only a century. The earlier Han dynasty hegemonies over the eastern Silk Road cities were also short-lived.

As you can see on this map the Tang had to contend with a powerful Tibetan Empire, as well as Uighurs and Goturks to their north. On the northeast, in modern Manchuria, were the Khitan people, who would later reappear in Chinese history.

The reality is that for most of Chinese history half of what is today China was not part of China. If the Manchus had not conquered China, and the Ming had been replaced by an indigenous dynasty, it seems entirely likely that the outlines of the modern nation-state of China would be coterminous with with the outlines of the Ming dynasty polity.

To me a plausible “alternative history” then would result in Xinjiang and Mongolia being absorbed into the orbit of the Russia Empire, and perhaps both today being post-Soviet states. In fact, northern  Xinjiang would be a distinct post-Soviet state, because prior to genocidal campaigns by the Manchus in the 18th century this area was dominated by a western branch of the Mongol people, the Oirats. It seems likely that Tibet would have fallen more explicitly under the British orbit, and become independent along with India and other South and Southeast Asian nations after World War II.

This historical context is relevant to the situation of why minority groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans chafe under Chinese rule, especially when told that they have always been part of China. It also is important because it gives a sense of cultural and historical affinities which might go unnoticed.

Broadly speaking Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan and Vietnam (in different ways), have been part of the broader “Sinic civilization.” There are differences of detail, particularly in Japan and Vietnam, in how Chinese culture was interpreted, but its influence is undeniable. This is less clear in places like Tibet and Mongolia. I believe people sometimes confuse Chinese cultural influence with China’s geopolitical heft and the fact that to Westerners these people look East Asian, so how could they not be influenced by China despite their proximity?

The Economist recently published a fascinating article in its 1843 magazine, Animal spirits, about the revival of Mongolian shamanism. But this section is simply false: “While Buddhism is an import from China, shamanism is an expression of Mongolian national identity.” Mongols are mostly Tibetan Buddhists, and they received their Buddhism from Tibetan lamas and monks. Not Chinese. It is technically important to remember that though Tibet is part of China, but it was not part of China when it was propagating Buddhism to Mongolia!

For a detailed exploration of the Mongol religious conversion to Tibetan Buddhism, and their flirtation with Islam**, see Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. What I will say is that it does not seem to be a surprise that Mongols seem to have a history of flirting with non-Chinese religions. Many of Genghis Khan’s subjects during his rise to power were at least nominally Syriac Christians. Though Genghis Khan was an adherent of shamanism, he patronized religious professionals of many sects, and had a particularly close relationship with a Daoist monk.

Ambiguities as to the genealogy of cultural relationships also crops up in this piece in The New York Times, China and India File Rival Claims Over Tibetan Medicine. Obviously Asia’s two most powerful nations fighting over the heritage of Tibetan medicine is unseemly and gauche, though perhaps a little less worrisome than the saber rattling which is occurring on the northeast border right now.

Geographically Tibet is obviously within the borders of the modern Chinese nation-state (though Ladakh in India is arguably a fragment of Tibet which landed on the Indian side of the border). But recall that for most of its history Tibet has not been under Chinese rule. Perhaps even more importantly, Tibet has not been under much Chinese influence. On the contrary, Tibetan lamas have been cultural impresarios, exporting their religious vision to the court of Kublai Khan, then that of the Manchus, and the finally converting the Khans of the various Mongol tribes.

And in terms of its precursors, Tibetan Buddhism is the child of the last flowering of North Indian Buddhism, not Chinese Buddhism, which had evolved into an independent tradition by the time the Tibetan Empire was deciding on an institutional religion to adhere to (Chinese Buddhism was reputedly brought to the kingdom first, by a Chinese princess).*** And the Tibetan alphabet is also derived from an Indian script. Curiously, just as Indian high-level cultural influence is very salient in Southeast Asia, so it is in Buddhist Inner Asia. But while Southeast Asian Indian influences were usually maritime South Indian, those of Tibetan are from a bygone North India where Islam was marginal and Buddhism was still a presence.

Despite being a far weaker military power than the United States China is already flexing its muscle and bullying its neighbors. There are a million Chinese in Africa. Even though China may not catch up with the United States in median affluence any time soon, the trajectory of aggregate economic production is such it will likely become the the largest economy within the next half generation. The Chinese know this, and are already acting as if they are #1. They’re preparing for their “time in the sun.”

Unfortunately this will exacerbate some of the unfortunate intellectual tendencies among the Chinese due to arrogance combined with a lack of total confidence in their new position. The Chinese view of their past has strange distortions, generally having to do with the fact that they don’t want to admit that their possession of vast swaths of Inner Asia was more a matter of historical happenstance than a necessary consequence of the geographical logic of the Chinese civilization-state.

But the truth is what it is. Unfortunately I suspect implicitly the media will begin telegraphing the Chinese viewpoint without much challenge because it seems plausible enough to those that they don’t know. It will be up to us to keep the unknowing propagandists in check.


* I am aware of their Xianbei heritage, but they were highly Sinicized and by the time of great Xuanzong Emperor they were mostly Han in origin.

** Mongols outside of the homeland invariably eventually became Muslims over time.

*** I am aware that Chinese Buddhism itself has an Indian source, though mediated through the cities of the Silk Road.

8 thoughts on “Manufacturing Chinese history cheaply

  1. For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly agree, including with the predictions.

    About this part: China’s most cosmopolitan native dynasty, the Tang*, did have dominion over much of what is today called Xinjiang. Their forces famously clashed with that of the Abbasids at Talas in modern day Kyrgyzstan. But this dominion lasted only a century.

    We moderns tend to draw maps with bright colors saturating a territory marked with bold lines of borders, but in reality control over periphery of most pre-modern historical civilizations was usually tenuous and frequently notional. That was the case with the western (Turkic) regions of the Tang Dynasty. It’s control, as such, over the region was high dependent on the cooperation of local “allies” who could turn on a dime (as did happen at Talas).

    Also, you are quite right that the Tang were most likely the most cosmopolitan of the Chinese dynasties – aside from wide-ranging trade and international relations, their own military commanders were often non-Chinese (e.g. the Tang commander at Talas was of Goguryeo heritage; the infamous rebel general An Lushan was Sogdian-Turk).

  2. We moderns tend to draw maps with bright colors saturating a territory marked with bold lines of borders, but in reality control over periphery of most pre-modern historical civilizations was usually tenuous and frequently notional. That was the case with the western (Turkic) regions of the Tang Dynasty. It’s control, as such, over the region was high dependent on the cooperation of local “allies” who could turn on a dime (as did happen at Talas).

    one way to measure depth of control is later cultural influence? vietnam and korea remained in the sinic orbit despite breaking away?

    a roman example might be better: gaul and spain remained roman after political loss of control. africa, somewhat, but less so (latinate gave way to arabic soon after muslim conquest). britain changed even faster.

    re: tang. the monarchs of the 7th century were more xianbei ancestrally than han. though xianbei were relatively sinicized barbarians….

  3. After visiting Beijing in 1984 to sign the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Zhao Ziyang, and meeting Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, Margaret Thatcher declared to the press that Deng was “the cruelest man I have ever met.” She was no cuddly pussycat herself, and she didn’t elaborate. But from that plus his personal history, it’s safe to assume that Deng was one very tough, mean little bastard with chutzpah by the truck load.

  4. You don’t begrudge the Han Chinese for having inheriting the Manchu Empire, but end up writing a grudging long article anyway.

  5. Agree with Twinkie’s agreement. This article is an excellent summary.

    I’ve been paying attention to the Free Tibet movement for twenty years or so. It’s hard to put my finger on details, but it seems clear that there’s been a palpable waning of hope and interest in that movement. Thirty years ago, of course, Tibetan independence seemed like it might as possible as independence for the Soviet republics. But Deng Xiaoping made sure that didn’t happen. After the protests and riots in 2008, some people may have hoped that Tibet would remain a frontburner issue, but really protests and riots only get attention for so long after they’re over. The only more recent protests in Tibet that have been getting much attention have been the horrifying self-immolations.

    One thing I’d point to is the failure of Tibet-sympathetic trends to develop much of a presence on the internet. There’s a lot more content on the web now than there was 10 years ago, and the difference between 1997 and 2007 was perhaps even greater. But where are the Tibet blogs and podcasts? They are strikingly few. I used to contribute to but it’s been dormant for years. was founded to cover internal Tibetan exile elections, but it used to also have regular coverage of general Tibet-related developments. My supposition is that people don’t feel motivated to create Free Tibet content because they see their goals receding, becoming more and more impossible.

    Another trend I’ve found quite striking over the last fifteen years or so is that, in many (English-language) comment threads, etc., pro-PRC voices from people in China or people of Chinese descent dominate the discussion (making little effort to hide the fact that they are motivated by Han ethnic solidarity). For instance, on Quora: any political question about Tibet attracts mostly people with Chinese names arguing that Tibet was always part of China, etc. Back in the 90s, discussions tended to be lopsided the other way. This isn’t inherently a good or bad thing, of course: headcount doesn’t make either side’s arguments valid. I’m not 100% sure what the cause is. A lot of the commenters appear to be ABCs, so it can’t be purely due to increased internet access in China. A working hypothesis is that the influx of English-using commenters from China plus China’s increasing international prestige and the decline in interest in Tibet have combined to make overseas Chinese feel their views are no longer socially unacceptable, and so they became willing to show up and express them.

  6. largely OT: I’ve often marveled at the what-ifs presented by the early Ilkhanate viz it was originally distinctly hostile to Islam. What if the Ilkhans had decisively converted to Nestorian Christianity or, heaven forfend, Vajrayāna Buddhism, and that had become the state religion in Mesopotamia and Persia for an extended period? Of course, there’s no telling how well that would have entrenched itself. By choosing to convert to Islam, the Ilkhans were taking the path of least resistance. Still, it’s tempting to wonder what the Middle East would look like today with Iran as a Tibetan Buddhist country. Perhaps the Dalai Lama would be in exile in Tehran rather than north India.

    I haven’t found very much material on the history of Shiism before the Qara Qoyonlu (“Black Sheep Turcomans”), which was basically an Ilkhanate successor state. I’ve always tended to think of Shiite Iran as something that happens because of the Safavids full stop. But that may have been a false assumption on my part: sure, the Safavids transformed Iran into a nearly 100% Twelver Shiite country, but were Twelvers already a majority or a very large minority beforehand? Regardless of numbers relative to Sunnis, was that area already the de facto center of world Twelver Shiism?

  7. there were lots of buddhists in iran before ghazan kicked them out. apparently there was a buddhist renaissance.

    there were shia in iran before safavids as a minority. though tended to be around areas of early arab settlement, as well as north. remember, the buyids were shia in the 10th century.

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