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18 September 2019

The myth of China’s “Great State“

The modern Chinese state claims to have always been one state with immutable borders – despite its many languages and cultures, and a Great Wall that is now in the middle of the country.

By Isabel Hilton

Timothy Brook likes maps. He reads them with a forensic eye and interprets them with a historian’s imagination. In an earlier work, Mr Selden’s Map of China, he explored the conundrum of an anomalous map of the South China Sea, bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in the 17th century, to illuminate the fact that China was a power on the seas through its active community of traders.

Maps also feature large – as we might expect – in Great State: China and the World, a history of China’s relationships beyond its shifting borders. It is told not, as he explains, through a long march down the centuries, but in the way that Brook prefers to tell stories – through 13 encounters across seven centuries that, he argues, “reflect significant facts of the historical relationship between China and the world”.

One key map that he presents helps us to see how China viewed the world around it. The map is dated 1593 and entitled The Ten Thousand Countries between Heaven and Earth. It includes the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole, places far beyond Chinese vision, so where did it come from? The answer is that it was derived from a map brought to China by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci and displayed in Nanjing; that map was in turn derived from Typus Orbis Terrarum, the first map of the world, published in Antwerp in 1570 by the cartographer Ortelius.

Scattered across the maps and paintings that Brook invokes, his 13 encounters take in pirates, merchants, soldiers, traders, explorers, emperors and spiritual leaders – characters in China’s complex trade, military, spiritual and political relationships down the centuries. Brook unravels the threads of these relationships across a canvas of war, friendship, savage struggles for power, lethal epidemic disease, triumph and calamity. It is a dizzying and exhilarating journey.

As China makes its presence felt in the world again, advancing its own ideas of statecraft and its own view of world order, do Brook’s encounters help us read China’s behaviour? And if so, what do they tell us?

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Brook argues that the shape of the Chinese state and contemporary China’s approach to the world was determined less by its Han Chinese rulers than by the legacy of the two great empires that conquered and ruled China for several centuries – the Mongols and the Manchu. Both were, as the Chinese would see it, barbarians from beyond the Great Wall: a large part of the case for that expensive folly was to keep people like them out.

The fact that the Great Wall is now in the middle of the country should tell us all we need to know about the Chinese claim that its modern boundaries are immutable, and that Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet and Xinjiang – which all lie far beyond the Wall, have “always” been part of China. How, then, did the contemporary Chinese state attain its present dimensions?

China’s idea of itself as one country, despite the many languages and cultures it encompasses, goes back to Qin Shihuangdi, who conquered his immediate neighbours to become the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. He died in 210 BC and was buried surrounded by a terracotta army, perhaps to ensure that his military campaigns continued in the next life.

Qin Shihuangdi’s empire, which he predicted would last 10,000 years, collapsed three years later, but his legacy – the idea that China is a united polity – endured. In practice, however, it was not until the Mongol conquest in the 13th century that it became a more or less settled reality. Qin Shihuangdi’s China was tiny compared to the present country, and China has been broken up and reassembled many times since his day. But unlike Europe where, despite the Romans and a few later attempts to recreate that empire, individual nation states prevailed, in China the idea of one unifying state has grown stronger. The key to this, Brooks argues, was the introduction of the Mongol concept of the Great State.

The Chinese theory of the state rested on the belief that the emperor is the Son of Heaven and commands all under heaven –  tian xia in Chinese. Internally, this became a story of dynastic succession that ended only when the dynasty lost favour with heaven and could be successfully challenged.

But the Great State, Brook argues, is an inner-Asian concept brought to China by the Mongols who extended the claim to rule tian xia, without limit, building an empire that was created and maintained by military superiority. What that meant was that “the sovereign of the Great State was endowed with an authority that was potentially universal: those within must submit to his authority, those without must defer to it”.

China did not expand by conquest, Brook explains, but by being conquered and then claiming, retroactively, the other acquisitions of its conquerors. When the vast Mongol empire disintegrated and the Chinese section – the Great Yuan Dynasty – collapsed, its Ming successors declared their own “great state” and sought to maintain the authority and lands bequeathed by the Mongols. After all, how could they present themselves as less powerful than their predecessors?

Centuries later, after the collapse of the Manchu Great Qing Dynasty in 1911-12, the successor states – first the republic, then the People’s Republic – saw it as natural that they too should hang on to the neighbouring territory that the Manchu had conquered. Their near neighbours, understandably, saw things differently: when the Qing collapsed in 1912, Mongolia and Tibet expected to return to statehood, and East Turkestan, which the Manchu called Xinjiang (New Territories), hoped for its own autonomy. In Beijing, however, the outer elements of the land empire the Manchu had built over more than two centuries were reinterpreted as “always” having been part of “China”. Outer Mongolia was the only state that recovered its independence, helped by the support of the USSR. For the others, the 20th century brought increasing colonisation and subjugation.

In diplomatic practice, the Great State meant that the countries of the near abroad were invited to present tribute to the Chinese emperor, who would in turn lavish gifts on the visitors. Princesses would be exchanged to populate the rulers’ respective harems, and the hope was that harmony would prevail. From the Chinese perspective, the tributary system confirmed that barbarians acknowledged Chinese superiority. From the viewpoint of the neighbours, getting on with China made more sense than challenging it, and if they were seen to be onside, China might be called upon to assist in moments of difficulty.

Diplomatic validation was a key element in shoring up the sometimes dubious claim to legitimacy of the Han Chinese regimes that succeeded the Great Yuan and the Great Qing. That was particularly true for Emperor Hongwu, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who was anxious to receive foreign tribute to reassure his own people that the mandate of heaven had indeed landed on him. In his first year of rule, 1368, nobody showed up. The following year, pressing invitations were sent out to neighbouring kingdoms, but yielded only three incoming delegations. More invitations went out, this time to Japan, to the Uighurs, and to princely states in India and Java.

Hongwu died in 1398, having appointed his grandson as heir. Emperor Jianwen ruled for four years before his uncle mounted a savage coup and set himself up as the Emperor Yongle. The new emperor was in even more need of validation and to aid the process, he had the imperial records rewritten to falsify the date of Hongwu’s death and to erase his nephew from the record. (Rewriting history is a time-honoured tradition in China.) He also erased the record of all previous diplomatic visits, sent out his own round of invitations, and ordered the construction of a huge fleet of vessels that would reinforce his influence over the maritime domain.

It was one of these fleets that visited Ceylon in 1411, in one of the encounters Brook describes. It was commanded by a man who is now celebrated as a Chinese hero. In fact, he was not born in China, but captured, castrated and enslaved when Chinese forces conquered what had been an independent kingdom in present-day Yunnan, bordering  Myanmar and Laos. The boy, Ma He, was ten years old and a Muslim. He began by serving in the imperial house, caught the emperor’s attention and was put in charge of the fleet. Renamed Zheng He, he now figures as a heroic Chinese explorer and founder of China’s maritime traditions.

Zheng He’s first visit to Sri Lanka was in 1406, when he was charged with inviting the king to submit to a Ming Dynasty investiture – essentially installing him on the throne he already occupied. The king was unenthusiastic, and the return visits were to reinforce the invitation by force of arms. Yongle was too weak at home to brook insubordination from barbarians in the neighbourhood.

Yongle’s example reminds us that China’s rulers have always paid close attention to the historical record and to the exercise of symbolic authority in every encounter. But history needs to serve the present. Chinese leaders today base the country’s claim to exceptionalism on the dubious assertion of 5,000 years of continuous civilisation; a singular record, they argue, that justifies China’s right to remake global rules in its favour – an exercise that draws upon its past experience of the world.

In imperial times an emperor would turn to the historical record as a source of legitimacy. Today, Xi Jinping has returned to the deep past to claim continuities of statecraft and to invoke tradition to justify a never-ending right to rule. The communist theory that history marches firmly towards one conclusion – the triumph of communism – has also been cited, but it does mean that history has to be helped to that conclusion when it shows signs of being disobliging. Brook’s vigorous account is a refreshing challenge to China’s heavily policed historical sphere.

His conclusions are downbeat: China insists on seeing itself only as a victim of colonialism, but today it is one of the major perpetrators of both colonialism and neo-colonialism, through continuing occupation of the lands beyond the Wall, and through debt diplomacy – in Africa and elsewhere – that has created the kind of dependencies that small post-colonial states rightly complain about. China is not good at colonialism: Tibet and Xinjiang are under lockdown and Hong Kong is in rebellious turmoil. 

China is not the first or the only big state to refuse to obey the rules that it has signed up to, but it offers perhaps the most important challenge to the postwar global order, in particular to the UN system, since its foundation. Understanding how China sees itself and how it justifies its actions is critical to understanding today’s world. Great State offers some compelling lessons for today, and for all our futures. 

Isabel Hilton is editor of

Great State: China and the World
Timothy Brook
Profile, 464pp, £25

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