How Kublai Khan’s Yuan complicates the notion of ‘China’

Society & Culture

Our understanding of Chinese history — specifically, what constituted “China” throughout history — is fundamentally flawed. The result isn’t merely academic: It has profound implications in our present.

This Week in China’s History: December 18, 1271

Students of Chinese history often memorize the “parade of dynasties” — Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing (sometimes with a preamble of Xia, Shang, Zhou) — using cram sessions and mnemonic jingles. But though the effort has resulted in a lot of A’s, the dynastic hit parade is poison when it comes to understanding history. With that in mind, this week we look back to December 18, 1271, when the Great Khan of the Mongols — Kublai Khan — proclaimed the new Yuan dynasty and fashioned himself a Chinese emperor.

Kublai’s empire, a successor to one of the Khanates that comprised the vast Mongol empire that traversed Asia in the 13th century, would reign over much of what is now China, as well as Mongolia and other territory in Central and Eastern Asia. The following year, he moved his capital from Shangdu — the Xanadu of Coleridge’s dreams — to the former capital city of the Jin dynasty. Renamed Dàdū 大都, the city would be better known by the name it assumed in the Ming dynasty: Beijing. Himself a Mongol, Kublai Khan established what would be (usually) the capital of China for nearly a millennium.

The fact that Kublai took a Chinese dynastic and reign name, and its new capital at the site of what is China’s capital today, contributes to our sense that this was a new Chinese dynasty. The Yuan dynasty’s subjects were not exclusively Han Chinese, but by claiming the Mandate of Heaven — the mythic, supernatural credential that legitimated Chinese rulers — the Mongols were joining a lineage that has defined Chinese statecraft and Chinese civilization.

You can see it right in the batting order of dynasties: Yuan is a Chinese dynasty.

Except it’s not. Or at least, not only.

And I’m not (mainly) talking about the “conquest dynasties,” like the Mongols’ Yuan or the Manchu Qing. These are often presented as exceptions that prove the rule: foreign powers who conquer China but — in the traditional historiography — are both too impressed by, and too much of a minority within, China to change it. There are other exceptions too: both the Sui and the Tang royal houses mixed Han Chinese and central Asian blood, and occasionally the Jurchen Jin or Khitan Liao dynasties get promoted to the top tier, but even these observations are problematic. Claiming that some dynasties “weren’t really” Chinese suggests that the others were, and that’s where the problems really lie, because the issue is not who rules China, but what is China.

Georgetown historian James Millward argued recently on Medium that we need nothing less than a completely new approach to how we teach Chinese history. His ambitious and insightful essay has many targets for reform, including chronology and eurocentrism, but for my money the most fundamental are his calls to overhaul our “examined yet problematic conception of ‘China’ itself.”

This is the problem with the “parade of dynasties”: it presumes that there was a single thing that could uncontroversially be called “China” across the span of (at least) 2,200 years, taking today’s Chinese borders and projecting them back into the past. The People’s Republic of China — like every modern nation-state — presents itself as the heir to an immutable, timeless entity. It draws its legitimacy from this past, enabling a claim that it is not just 70 years old, but “heir to” the cliched “5,000 years of history.”

I often think of it this way: the parade of dynasties gives the impression that there is a ship we call China that has sailed through, and throughout, time. Since ships are pretty stable, we assume that it has remained the same basic size and composition as it ploughs the waters of history. And since we are assigning it today’s boundaries, we are also meant to assign it today’s linguistic, ethnic, and cultural features.

In this model, dynasties are essentially captains. Captains change from time to time, and might plot a new course, but their ship is fundamentally the same. Through this logic, the China that the CCP rules in 2020 is essentially the one ruled in 1900 by the Qing dynasty, in 1400 by the Ming dynasty, in 1300 by the Yuan, in 800 by the Tang, and so forth, back through the millennia.

Convenient, but mostly wrong.

There are a lot of issues, but I’ll focus on just two problems caused by projecting China’s current boundaries back into the past.

Problem one overstates the size and power of China in many periods. The boundaries of each of these dynasties varied markedly. Frequently, the “official” Chinese dynasty was just one of several states existing within the boundaries of today’s PRC, and not always the most powerful. After the fall of the Tang dynasty, for instance, a quick check of the parade of dynasties tells us that the Song took over China, but the Song’s area was much smaller than Tang, and just a fraction of today’s PRC. It was one of a dozen or so states within the borders of today’s China, and by no means the most powerful. Its neighbors defeated the Song in war repeatedly, pushing back its borders, and occasionally kidnapping its emperor. Not exactly the immutable force that “Chinese empire” conjures.

The second problem with retrofitting today’s Chinese state onto the past is that the ethnic policies of the PRC find their way into our understanding of the past, with the Inception-like effect that today’s ideas about what constitutes China are placed ahistorically into the past, and then used to justify the present policies as continuations of what had gone before. The example of Xinjiang is one very current instance of this. Rarely were the parts of central Asia now called Xinjiang part of a Chinese dynasty, and when these places were occupied by one of the standard dynasties, they were not often thought of as “China.” We can look to Kublai’s Yuan dynasty to illustrate this: the Yuan ruled from Beijing and incorporated Xinjiang (not by that name) into their empire, just as they did Tibet and Mongolia and, for that matter, China. But Tibet and Mongolia weren’t considered “Chinese” any more than China was considered Mongolian.

None of this is to diminish the importance or longevity of Chinese culture across eastern Asia. “Rooted in classical Chinese written language and early Chinese literary, historical, and philosophical texts,” as Millward puts it, “the role of Chinese classical civilization is in fact strikingly reminiscent of the Greco-Roman linguistic and cultural tradition in the Mediterranean and Europe, and of the Arabic- and Persian-language Islamic tradition of much of Asia and north Africa.” Parallel to these cases, Millward suggests we think of a Chinese cultural legacy and tradition “rather than an uninterrupted and unitary ‘China.’”

The implications of misunderstanding China as a parade of dynasties has profound implications not only for how we interpret the past, but also the present. Policies in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan are framed as though these places have always been part of “China,” governed by a single state that extends back five millennia. Viewed in the context of a changing and contingent landscape, space opens for options that are far more creative and humane than the territorial anachronism at the foundation of what much contemporary policy allows. If Xinjiang or Taiwan are fundamental and eternal parts of China, then their autonomy or independence from Beijing is an existential threat. If not, then possibilities exist for meaningful change.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.