Chinese historian: To exaggerate the size of China's historical territory is not patriotic

Via CDT: Letters from China blogs about an article in the magazine China Review by Fudan University professor Ge Jianxiong. The CDT brief and the Letters from China post both feature the title "Tibet not always a part of China: Chinese Historian."

Taken in context, Professor Ge's comments are not quite so shocking. While he does mention Tibet as not being a part of the Tang Empire, the article itself I think is more interesting for his broader argument. When discussing what is and, perhaps more importantly, what is not China, it's crucial to keep in mind both the context and that the term "China" is not as certain a historical term as we might assume. Professor Ge argues that if we are to gauge the limits of territorial control in China's history, it's also important to specify who is doing the controlling and what is it we mean by "control."

Chinese textbooks do attempt to hammer home the idea that Tibet is a part of China and often use some somewhat specious historical arguments in the process.  Nevertheless, most scholars in the PRC look back to the mid-Qing takeover of Tibet as the real beginning of "Chinese" sovereignty over the region and the official position is that it begins during "China's Yuan dynasty." (Ahem.)

The notion that Tibet was not under direct Tang administrative is perhaps less controversial, but it's sure to get some attention nevertheless, especially since Professor Ge also is the Director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography. For the CCP, it seems any weakening of China's "historical" sovereignty over the Tibetan plateau is a slippery slope that can only lead to a Dalai Lama Day parade through the streets of Lhasa. I will admit to not being the best translator (suggestions for fixes are welcome) in the Chinese blogosphere, but I felt the article was of sufficient general interest that I'm posting it here. I also wanted the original Tang Dynasty/Tibet claim to be in its original context.

When discussing the peaceful rise of China and the history of the great powers of the world, it is natural to think of ancient China. Can ancient China be considered a “Great Power”? If so, how big was it? This is a prerequisite for knowing the history and comparing development. But up to now, people have held on to not a few misunderstandings.

First of all, “China” (Zhongguo) only officially became the name of our country with the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. Before this, the idea of China ("Zhongguo") was not clearly conceptualized. The concept of "China" has continued to expand. From referring specifically to the central plains of China, the concept has since grown to now refer generally to a whole nation. Even during the late Qing, “China” would sometimes be used as a name to refer to the Qing State, including all the territory with in the boundaries of the Qing Empire, but other times it would only refer to the “18 Interior Provinces” and not include Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Therefore, if we want to understand the extent of ancient China’s territory, we can only speak of how large was the actual territory controlled by a particular dynasty at a particular moment. For example: How big was the Qin Dynasty? How big was the Tang Dynasty? How big was the Qing Dynasty? If you want to say how large was “China” at a certain time, you need to explain how “China” is conceptualized, including explaining which Dynasty or regime is being discussed.

*For example, if we ask: How big was 8th century China and if we speak about the borders of the Tang Dynasty, we cannot include the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. This was ruled by Tubo/Tufan (吐蕃), and so does not count. Tubo/Tufan was a sovereignty independent of the Tang Dynasty. At least it was not administered by the Tang Dynasty. Otherwise, there would have been no need for Tang Taizong to marry Princess Wencheng to the Tibetan king; there would have been no need to erect the Tang-Tubo/Tufan alliance tablet. It would be a defiance of history if we claim that since the Tang Dynasty, Tibet has always been a part of China - the fact that the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau subsequently became a part of the Chinese dynasties does not substantiate such a claim. Of course, to look back from the perspective of contemporary borders, China’s current territory contains many areas that, from the perspective of 8th century political control, were independent of the authority of the Tang court including Tuobo/Tufan, Nanzhao [in Yunnan], and Bohai.

Second, it goes without saying that since the different dynasties lasted both a long time and a short time, it also goes without saying their territory similarly fluctuated. This is especially so of those dynasties that greatly expanded the scope of their borders from the beginning to the end of their rule, the territory under their control could vary considerably over time. Take for example the Western Han. In the beginning, their western border extended to the Hexi/Gansu corridor. Later, it expanded to Lake Balkhash only to then shrink back to the Yumen Pass in the latter years of the dynasty. In the early years [of the Han] the southern boundaries reached only as far as the Southern Ling Mountains. Even what is now Guangxi and Guangdong was under the contol of the Nan Yue. Yet by the middle and later periods, control in the south extended as far as what is today Vietnam.

After Tang Taizong defeated the Eastern Turks, the northern reaches of the Tang Empire extended all the way to the area around Lake Baikal. But when the Turks later regrouped, Tang control retreated to the Yinshan Mountains (in today’s Mongolia). Up to the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor during the Qing Dynasty, China’s borders did not include Xinjiang and it was not until the middle of the 18th century that the Qianlong Emperor was able to pacify the regions to the north and south of Tian Shan and extend Qing territory as far as Lake Balkhash and the Pamir Plateau. However, beginning around 1860, the northern reaches of Heilongjiang, the area east of the Ussuri River, and the northwest part of what is today Xinjiang—over 1,000,000 square kilometers of territory—was seized by Russia. In the 20th century, China for all practical purposes lost 1,500,000 square kilometers of territory that is Outer Mongolia.

Moreover, we must differentiate between territory that was actually under administrative control of a dynasty, that which was a vassal state, and that which was “within the reaches of our prestige.” [Within a dynasty’s sphere of influence?] For example, take the later stages of the Western Han. Even though the leader of the Xiongnu surrendered to the Western Han, Han Wudi was not able to incorporate the Xiongnu into the Han Empire. Moreover, he had to pay off the leader of the Xiongnu in order to have a guarantee that there would be not attacks across a border marked by the Great Wall. As a result, the borders of the Han Empire did not extend beyond the Yin Mountains and the Xiongnu were never a part of Han territory.

In another example, several times the children and grandchildren of Ghengis Khan marched westward, their cavalry sweeping over Asia and Europe. But by the time that Ghengis’ grandson, Khubilai, established the Yuan Dynasty, Ghengis’ other descendants had already split apart his empire, after which they became known as the Four Khanates. These other Khanates and the Yuan court were independent political entities, only that their rulers had the same ancestors. The borders of the Yuan Empire did not include parts of Xinjiang and the southern territory belonged to another Khanate, never mind Central Asia, Western Asia, and Europe.

Another example is Vietnam, the larger part of which was under the administrative control of the Han and Tang Dynasties. But beginning in the 10th century, Vietnam founded its own independent kingdom, after which, during the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, it was a vassal state. Of course, this is not the same as complete independence, therefore before France made Vietnam a French colony, France had to force the Qing government to relinquish its sovereignty and claims over Vietnam. Nevertheless, we are not able--at least after the 10th century—to regard Vietnam as a part of “China.” Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, Burma are also in a similar category.

Now, what of the countries of South East Asia and Japan that have never officially been the vassals of any dynasty? Chinese history books call them “Tributary States.” Actually, it was either international trade under the “tribute” banner or else it was only temporary visits. Most of what the books call “Tributary States” are like this. What is more, we have only the one-sided views of the Qing court records that were based on past precedents and written for the court’s own aggrandizement. For example, people also called Russia, France, Portugal, and the “Red Hairs” as tribute states. (During the Ming, Dutch people were called “Red Hair Foreigners,” After the mid-Qing they also called the English, “Red Hair Foreigners”) Can we possibly accept that these states were also vassals of the Qing?

Until now, there are those people who feel that the more they exaggerate the territory of historical “China” or China’s successive dynasties and kingdoms the more patriotic they are. Actually, it is exactly the opposite. If China really wishes to rise peacefully, we must understand the true facts of history, only then will we be able to know the sum of our history, learn from our experiences, and so be on a solid footing to face the future.

(* Note: the third paragraph was translated by the good people at Letters from China, which is why it reads better than the rest of the text.)

Like other areas that only came under the control of Beijing in the Qing period, the historical question of Tibet depends in large part on whether one sees the explicitly anti-imperialist/anti-feudal PRC as the legitimate heirs to a multi-ethnic empire that included the Chinese but that was ruled by Manchus. The Qing Empire incorporated large swaths of territory that had never been entirely under "Chinese" control, including Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. Not surprisingly, it is those areas that give the current regime in Beijing the most headaches today.

I like the fact that Professor Ge problematizes our understanding of "China." One of the first questions I ask my students each quarter is what does "Chinese history" mean? The history of what? Well, of China. Okay, but how do we define "China"?