The State Formation of Modern China – Unity

Many people may question, politically and culturally, whether the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongols and the Qing Dynasty established by the Manchus are indeed China?
September 15, 2023
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Wu Qina
Associate researcher at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei)
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In the article “On Domestic and International Politics of Traditional China”, we mentioned the traditional Chinese conception of “unification” – “mandate of heaven”. Of which, the “heaven” refers to the universal order and the state political order according to this universal order. The ideal of the state political order is “All land under heaven belongs to the King, and all people living in this land are subject to the king.” But in fact, this is just an ideal, at most an “imagination”. Of course, neither Chinese users nor foreigners beyond the Chinese sphere would take it for real.

However, many perceptions on the formation of traditional Chinese political sphere does not tally with the facts. For example, Chinese people take for granted that the formation of China’s territory is the result of the “Huaxia” people starting from the “Central Plains”, “Huaxia”, as the center, sweeping and conquering far lands thereupon.

However, the truth is that barbarians, or Yidi, the nomad from the dry areas of higher latitude or the fishing and hunting groups from the cold temperate zone, press Huaxia people in the temperate farming area to the undeveloped marshes, hills and rainforests in the warm temperate and subtropical zones. As a result, Huaxia people developed the new settlement into farmland and in turn take up the living space of the scarcely populated local people in the warm areas. However, from the dry area of higher latitude or the cold temperate zone, the nomads, and the fishing and hunting groups, the uncivilized “Yidi”, moved towards the “Huaxia”, the “Central Plains” pressing the “Huaxia” people. This situation started from the first century A.D. and lasted ever since.

The long-term dynamics between the northern nomadic region, the central plain agricultural region, and the southern marsh and hilly regions went on and formed the political ecology in East Asia until late 13th century. Two themes perpetuated in this political ecology: fighting for the control over the “Central Plains” and political “orthodoxy”, and the indirect rule over peripheries which are too far for direct or substantial control.

For instance, the Han and Tang dynasties set up counties and prefectures in the core areas, and “safe guard cities” in the remote areas, reflecting a dual ruling. The Liao, the Northern Song, the Jin, and the Southern Song dynasties all considered themselves “China” and “orthodox”, while demanding equal or unequal political relations with the rivals. This political pattern can be called “pluralism”.

In the last third of the 13th century, Yuan Dynasty, founded by Mongols, for the first time, integrated the political dynamics between the central farming area in East Asia, the dry nomadic area in North and Central Asia, and the hilly areas in the middle and low latitudes of East Asia. It set up primarily a unified country applying a single political rule while maintaining the diversity and the coexistence of cultural traditions. The status of today’s Tibetan speaking and Turkic speaking Muslim regions as a part of China is confirmed by their joining the system Mongols politically integrate and rule China and by their participating China’s political affairs.

To sum up, there are three keys to the success in Yuan Dynasty’s integration of China.

First, taking advantage of the rich resources of the farming areas, concentrated with Han people, as the foundation to maintain political stability beyond. Therefore, setting up the political base is in the thinking of ruling the farming area. That means a ruling system including and relying on Han elites.

Second, using Confucianism and Tibetan Buddhism, politics and religion, the two parallel systems, to link up Han’s farming area, Mongolia, Central Asia and the Qinghai Tibet Plateau. Therefore, Tibetan and Muslim elites must also be extensively involved in the operation of the whole system;

Third, using the transition zone and intermediary groups as the political and cultural ties connecting farming and nomadic regions. This political status has confirmed the transformation to “pluralistic integration” from “pluralism”. In historical perspective, this transformation process marks the beginning that the dynastic China turns into to a territorial state.

The Ming and Qing dynasties, Han or non-Han, being the successors to the Yuan Dynasty, both inherited Yuan’s ruling structure of “pluralistic integration”. This structure is the historical foundation of the pluralistic integration of “five ethnic groups’ republic” of the contemporary China, and “56-ethnic groups family” of the modern China.

As for today’s content, I know that many would still question, if Mongols founded Yuan Dynasty and Manchu founded Qing Dynasty, are China politically and culturally? I would rather put forward that the Yuan and Qing dynasties not only inherited the “China” before them, but also proceeded with the making of an “enlarged China”. Look at Beijing, the capital of modern China. It has been the capital of China since Yuan Dynasty. According to the idea of capital design conceived in ancient China, the Yuan Dynasty set up it political center on the clear central axis, with the altar in the west to honor the country, and the temple in the east to commemorate the ancestors. This is by the rule of ” ancestral temple to the right, and state altar to the left,” in Record of Trades, the encyclopedia of Technology.

Beijing in the Ming and Qing Dynasties inherited the capital design of the Yuan Dynasty. Tian’an men Square as a symbol of space politics of new China has the “Great Hall of the People” to its west, uniting people and the state in one, and the “History Museum” to its east standing for the China’s historical heritage. It can be said that Tian’an men Square symbolizes the successions to Chinese politics (legitimacy and orthodoxy), system, culture and territory.

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Wu Qina
Associate researcher at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei)
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