China’s borders and China’s history

May 20, 2014 by Timothy Beardson

The head of Indonesia’s armed forces wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently that Indonesia is “dismayed” that its waters – around the Natuna Islands – are included in China’s extensive claims over the South East Asian seas.

He followed up with the observation that “the Indonesian military has decided to strengthen its forces on Natuna. We will need also to prepare fighter planes to meet any eventuality stemming from heightened tensions on one of the world’s key waterways”.

Beijing’s recent attention to land and maritime claims suggests a newly-found focus on reclaiming areas which incontestably had once been part of an enduring Han Chinese imperium over the millennia. However, the actual situation is much less clear.

Rather than examine the claims to uninhabited rocks in the eastern seas, it might be more interesting to track the big moves in the main land area of China over the centuries.
At its height in 750 the Tang dynasty (618-907) held Xinjiang – before it was expelled in 751 – and a part of Vietnam. However, it didn’t possess the north-east of modern China, including Manchuria, Yunnan, parts of Sichuan, inner Mongolia, Gansu, Qinghai or Tibet.

The succeeding Sung Dynasty (960-1279) occupied part of the Han Chinese heartland for half its history and was then reduced by its non-Han neighbours to a smaller rump for the rest of its time. The Sung lived throughout under military pressure from its non-Han neighbours. At times it paid tribute to them; at times it acknowledged vassal status and at times chose war, but generally lost.

The invading Mongols – first Genghis Khan and then his grandson Khublai Khan – put the Sung state out of its misery and finally formed the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The Yuan was sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhism, along with several other religions, and was consequently able to subsume independent Tibet. With the collapse of the Yuan and the emergence of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Tibet resumed its independence.

The ethnically Han Chinese Ming dynasty occupied substantially less land than its predecessor Mongol empire, the Yuan dynasty. According to Timothy Brook’s Troubled Empire, “The Ming was a large realm, but in every direction it was less extensive than the Yuan empire, even the Tang empire, for that matter… By the mid-Ming, the regime had drawn well back from Yuan borders; according to the geographer Wang Shixing, five hundred kilometres on the north, two hundred and fifty on the northeast, a thousand on the northwest, and a thousand on the southwest.”

When the Ming state was destroyed by the ethnic Manchus, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was formed and China was extended again. The Manchu already ruled over Manchuria and Tartary in the northeast and Mongolia. Later they conquered Xinjiang, Ladakh and Tibet. The Qing empire was always larger – but eventually far larger – than the Ming state which it replaced. It was the Qing administration, not China, which governed these newly-acquired non-Chinese territories.

In the centuries after the Tang were expelled from Xinjiang in 751, it was run by Uighurs, Kitan and Mongols at different times, but never by Han Chinese. In 1759, over a thousand years later, it was conquered by the Manchu, fresh from absorbing China. Xinjiang was from that time run by a separate office in Beijing which had no Chinese officials and was only transferred into the government of occupied China in 1884.

When Tibet was absorbed by the Mongols and again by the Manchu it was approximately one quarter the size of the current state of China. However since its invasion in 1950, Beijing has redrawn boundaries and placed parts of Tibet in several other provinces so what we see as Tibet province today is a shrunken relic of the old Tibetan empire.

There is a myth that non-Han invaders eventually succumbed to the charms of Chinese culture and became “sinicised” and thus they soon became Chinese rulers. The fact that they may have employed the Chinese language or issued instructions in Chinese means little. The Yuan and the Manchu allocated senior posts overwhelmingly to the very small “conquest elite” of Mongols, other ethnic foreigners and Manchu in their respective periods. Despite being vastly outnumbered by Chinese in the Yuan dynasty, according to Ray Huang in China: a Macrohistory, “as a rule, top officials in charge of all governmental departments were Mongols”. The same applied under the Qing.

A similar example is that of the imperial harem, where for all the conquering dynasties established by non-Han people, the ethnic background of consorts was also emphasized to maintain the ethnic purity of the ruling house. Chinese consorts were rare.

If we take some rough and ready estimates of land area for the dynasties over the last one and a half millennia, the Tang at their height in 715 might have held 5.4m square kilometres, while the ethnic Chinese Sung held 3.5m sq.kms in 1100, falling to 2m in 1142. When the Mongol Yuan conquered China the area peaked at maybe 12 m sq.kms. The Han Chinese Ming dynasty could only govern 6.5m. However the Manchu Qing dynasty at its height in 1790 built the area up to 14.7m sq.kms.

There are only two facts we can see from history. The first is that over 1,500 years China’s borders have continually changed. The second is that China was generally a larger country with more extended frontiers when it was ruled by foreigners and smaller when it was run by Han Chinese.

The tragedy is knowingly to teach generations of school children to believe that China’s borders are in some way enduring and sacrosanct. This makes them prey to xenophobia and ill-founded irredentist rhetoric. At worst it risks military conflict.

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