Chinese imperialism?

Apr 8, 2024
Map of china in hand.

I read Professor Percy Allen’s interesting article (P&I, 28/03/24) and was astounded by the claim based on a list of “invasion” he was given that China was historically an imperial nation and thus dangerous.

The fact that China was an imperial nation is as beyond a shadow of doubt as the Pope is Catholic. China was an imperial power since it was unified by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC. However, by extrapolating from the list that China is, by implication, expansionist and therefore dangerous, tells the reader that the “compiler” of the list cannot be a historian. I am no historian myself but like Paul Keating says when he was accused of being out of touch with present day intelligence: “I’ve got a brain, and I can think. I can read, and I read every day …”

Firstly, the history of China is so involved that the list is meaningless. A quick check on just one incident listed as “Qing invade Mongolia” points out simplistic inferences. The Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368) was a Mongol dynasty. Mongolia had been part of China since the Mongols invaded and established the Yuan Dynasty. That lasted until around 1921 when Outer Mongolia, with the help of the Russians broke away and came under Soviet influence. Therefore in historical terms, the distinction of whether it was or wasn’t Chinese is difficult to make, although today we consider Outer Mongolia as an independent country through the passage of history. As I understand it, Mongolia as a whole was ruled by the Qing dynasty from 1635 to 1911.

I was surprised by the indication that China invaded Indonesia. A quick check on the internet indicates that it was archeological speculation based on a sandstone carving. “In 2017, locals on the Indonesian island of Serutu discovered a sandstone boulder carved with Chinese characters. In 2021, scholars published a translation of the inscription, revealing that it records the attempted invasion of the Singhasari Kingdom on Java by the Khan’s forces in 1291”. If it did so during the Yuan Dynasty, no one should be surprised. The Yuan was a Mongol Dynasty. The “compiler” would have bagged themselves a coup if they were to extend to list to Mongol invasions towards the West. The Yuan Dynasty Mongol army moved Westward conquering one city/country after another in Central Asia, Middle East and Europe until the reached Leignitz in Poland. Some historians say that Tibet was incorporated into the Chinese Empire during the Yuan Dynasty. In other periods, Tibet was a vassal state.

Another state that had a complex but involved relationship with China was Vietnam. It was ruled by China from 111 BCE to 938 CE. Vietnamese culture is very much a Confucian culture.

To cut the story short, one would have a truer picture of the relationship of China with those on the list if one were to view these places, with the exception of Japan which was invaded by the Yuan but never conquered, as small domains on the periphery of the Chinese Empire whose influence on these domains waxed and waned in tandem with the strength and economic prosperity of the Central Kingdom. The relationship was very unlike that of the British Empire which went to the other ends of the world to invade and create colonies to be settled by British people such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; or to be exploited for resources, natural and human, like the rest of the 25% of the world that made up the British Empire at its peak.

If we cut out the repeats of “invasioins” on territories which had been under Chinese Dynastic rule or had been vassal states, we have a list of about 8 countries. If we further cut out countries like Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia (Inner Mongolia is still part of China) by accepting that they are, and had been, a part of China, we come down to about 5. That number over 2245 years? If the author of the list considers each historical armed conflict that England has had with Ireland, Scotland and Wales, he might also come up with a deliciously long list.

One major point that may have missed most observers reading history from a Western lens is that historically, until around (before and after) the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty, the concept of a nation, nationality and national borders did not cognate with the Chinese who saw their world as “All under Heaven” or Tianxia. It was when China was invaded by the West and Japan that the intelligentsia began thinking about nationalism and ways to reorganise their country to survive the onslaught. An idea of such thinking could be gleaned from the essays of Liang Qichao, translated by Peter Zarrow (Penguin Classics 2023). As Liang Qichao said in 1902: “In the past, there were only tribal people in China, not citizens. This was not because China could not produce citizens, but simply reflected the conditions of the time. Since China has always majestically dominated the Orient, surrounded by small barbarian tribes and lacking contact with other major states, its people always regarded it as the whole world” (Thoughts from the Ice-Drinker’s Studio; Penguin Classics, 2023, p.44).

The geopolitics of the day that China has understood, and paid cognizance to, can be summed up by the saying: “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu”. The Chinese had been on the menu; and that came with a nice cup of Oolong tea too. However, their current attempts to be at the table with the rich countries have met with all manner of rejection; in much the same manner as Putin’s Russia was rejected by NATO and the European Union. These rejections that come in the form of media distortions, demonisation, economic and technological containment strategies, strategic ambiguity over Taiwan, and even military threats, has motivated it to arm itself to the teeth. A militarily strong China leads to all manner charges of nefarious intent on other peoples’ territories – of which the “compiler’s” list is all about. It is only natural to be wary of a rising power like China. However, China is a nation still in the making but tempered by Confucianism which obligates it to live in harmony with others.


You may also be interested to read Percy Allan:

America’s latest move to block China’s economic rise

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