(Essential Questions) Exclusive | Why was China in the Ming Dynasty not an "empire" under the Western definition? 

  China News Service, Beijing, June 11, title: Why was China in the Ming Dynasty not an "empire" under the Western definition?

  ——Interview with Zhang Xupeng, researcher at the Institute of Historical Theory, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

  China News Agency reporter An Yingzhao

Zhang Xupeng.

Photo courtesy of me

  With the rise of the "inner Asian view of history", the issue of inner Asianness in Chinese history has increasingly become the focus of attention of Chinese and foreign historians.

From the popularity of "New Qing History" research in the 1990s, to the obvious increase in the research on inner Asia of the Ming Dynasty in recent years, some Western scholars have begun to emphasize the inner Asia of ancient China and tried to prove that China was once a country full of expansion. The "empire" of sex.

  Zhang Xupeng, a researcher at the Institute of Historical Theory of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, recently accepted an exclusive interview with China News Agency "Dongxi Questions" and pointed out that it is incorrect to refer to China’s Qing, Ming, or other dynasties as "empires" based on the "inner Asian historical view" of.

Studying China's inner Asianness is helpful for understanding the structure of the Chinese nation's pluralistic unity, but this inner Asianness should not be exaggerated or even considered to be more important than "Chineseness."

Part of the "Silk Road Landscape Map" painted by the court of the Ming Dynasty: Jiayuguan.

Photo by China News Agency reporter Zhang Wei

The summary of the interview record is as follows:

Reporter from China News Service: There is no uniform standard definition of inner Asia in academic circles. Some scholars believe that inner Asia exists in all periods in Chinese history, but it is unevenly distributed in different periods and regions.

How do you define internality?

How should the public understand the inner Asianness of ancient China?

  Zhang Xupeng: "Inner Asia" is not only a geographical concept, but also a cultural or civilized concept.

Although academic circles have different understandings of how to frame the geographic scope of Inner Asia, Inner Asia can basically be regarded as the nomadic tribes located in inland Asia and the nomadic civilizations created by them.

The so-called inner Asia can be understood as the characteristics, factors and attributes related to inner Asia.

Inner Asianness in Chinese history refers to the inner Asian characteristics, factors, and attributes contained in the history of various dynasties in China.

From the perspective of the influence of nomadic tribes or nomadic civilizations on China, which is dominated by agricultural civilization, it seems that there is no problem with the existence of inner Asia in all periods of Chinese history.

  However, two issues should be paid attention to when understanding the inner Asia in Chinese history.

  First of all, when talking about inner Asia, it should be understood in the interaction with the farming civilization or the Central Plains civilization with the Han as the main body.

The previous Chinese history was more narrated from the perspective of the Han nationality or the Central Plains, and the nomads emerged as the other in the Central Plains.

Emphasizing the inner Asianness of China's history is helpful to correct this concept and understand the structure of the pluralistic unity of the Chinese nation.

But to think that it is more important than "Chineseness", or to make it independent of China, and to emphasize its opposition to China, exaggerates this inner Asianness.

  The Inner Asian perspective is sometimes presupposed to be opposed to the Han center, in order to challenge the Han centered view of history.

The famous debate between Luo Youzhi and He Bingdi around "sinicization" can be said to be a manifestation of this opposition.

  Race or ethnocentrism is at least a common phenomenon in pre-modern civilizations, but this kind of system centered on a certain race or ethnicity is not completely closed and absolutely exclusive. It gradually It transcends the boundaries of race and blood, and becomes a value system centered on civilization.

Both the "Greek-Barbarians" antagonism model in ancient Greece and the "Hua Yi order" in ancient China reflect a kind of openness.

Especially in the latter, the identities of "Hua" and "Yi" can be transformed into each other.

Objectively speaking, the Han or nomadic peoples were once at the center during a certain period of Chinese history.

The time that the Han nationality has been at the center has a longer and greater impact.

As a historical fact, there is no need to deliberately deny this centrality or dominance of the Han or nomads.

The introduction of the Inner Asian perspective is a supplement and correction to the traditional view of the Central Plains dynasty history, but the two are not in opposition to each other.

  Second, although inner Asia is a useful category for historical analysis, its role and significance should not be exaggerated.

From the perspective of the influence of nomadic civilization on farming civilization, inner Asia cannot even be regarded as an original expression.

  As early as 1983, Mr. Wu Yuyu, a famous Chinese world historian, convincingly demonstrated the complex relationship between the nomadic world and the farming world of mutual influence and entanglement.

Mr. Wu’s point of view, in modern terms, is: Eurasia has always been full of inner Asia from the mid-20th century BC to the 13th century AD for more than 3000 years.

The difference is that Mr. Wu talked about this issue from the perspective of world history. He especially emphasized that the nomadic world or inner Asianness has played a role in breaking the seclusion between various ethnic groups and in the process of historical development into world history. A positive effect that cannot be ignored, although sometimes done in a violent way.

  Mr. Wu also found that the result of the conflict and exchanges between the two worlds spanning Eurasia for more than 3,000 years is the growing expansion of the farming world and the shrinking of the nomadic world.

In this sense, inner Asia is important, but from the perspective of the long-term historical development of a country, inner Asia is finally organically integrated into the country's more mainstream beliefs and value systems.

This may be more prominent in Western Europe and China than in Central Asia.

Data map: Acropolis of Athens, Greece.

China News Agency reporter: Following the "New Qing History", in recent years the so-called "New Ming History" has appeared in European and American academic circles, that is, studying the history of the Ming Dynasty from the perspective of Inner Asia.

American scholar Lu Dawei pointed out that the Ming Dynasty was not a relatively closed dynasty dominated by Han people, but, like Yuan and Qing, it had obvious "Eurasian" or "cosmopolitan".

How do you view and evaluate the "New Ming History"?

  Zhang Xupeng: The first thing to explain is that there is no such thing as "New Ming History" in the international historian.

Obviously, this is an application of the term "New Qing History" to show that "New Ming History" and "New Qing History" have a high degree of consistency in research perspectives and research methods.

As a dynasty established to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty, the history of the Ming Dynasty will inevitably contain some Inner Asian factors.

  The Chinese scholar Zhong Yun believes that the three main inner Asians of the Qing Dynasty are the multi-ethnic "communist" characteristics of the Qing monarchs, the emergence of multilingual documents contrasted with Chinese and non-Chinese, and the flexibility and wealth of "teaching to promote politics" Flexible religious policies were reflected in the Ming Dynasty.

Lu Dawei studied the martial arts activities of the Ming court and believed that the court culture of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties had an amazing continuity. He even believed that the purpose of martial arts activities in the Ming court was to show military power and show the strength of the emperor. Similar activities in the courts of other countries in Eurasia are consistent, and they are all influenced by the Mongol Empire.

  However, the direction of "New Ming History" is completely opposite to "New Qing History".

"New Qing History" tried to prove the rift between the Qing Dynasty and "China" by emphasizing the inner Asianness of the Qing Dynasty; while "New Ming History" wanted to show that the Ming Dynasty, a dynasty dominated by Han people, was not closed and monotonous, but There is already a considerable degree of internality.

In this way, "New Ming History" still played a certain role in refuting the "New Qing History" deconstructive revision historiography.

But even so, we cannot exaggerate the inner Asianness of the Ming Dynasty.

  First of all, the inner Asianness of the Ming Dynasty was more manifested as an external strategy.

In the early days of the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, it always faced severe border issues. In addition to contending with the remaining power of the Yuan Dynasty, the old part of the Yuan Dynasty had to be incorporated into the new state system.

The Ming Dynasty’s “communist”, flexible religious policies, and martial arts exhibitions were basically out of the need to unify Mongolia, Jurchen, and Goryeo from the old Yuan into the new orthodox dynasty.

After the mid-Ming Dynasty, with political and cultural changes, more and more scholar-officials have begun to reject extravagant martial arts displays.

  Secondly, the martial arts exhibition represented by the royal field hunting, on the surface, is a manifestation of inner Asianness, but behind its magnificent scene, numerous participants, and huge expenditure, it relies on a stable farming society and agricultural economy. Support.

Inner Asianness is only the appearance, and it is probably the deeper agricultural economy of the Central Plains that determined the Ming Dynasty's martial arts exhibition activities.

Overlooking the Forbidden City from Jingshan.

Photograph by Chen YianYian Image source: CTPphoto

Reporter from China News Service: What problems do you think will exist in the interpretation of China in the Ming Dynasty based on the "View of Inner Asian History"?

What impact has the rise of "New Qing History" and "New Ming History" studies have on Westerners' perception of China?

  Zhang Xupeng: Interpreting the history of the Ming Dynasty from the "View of Inner Asian History" will definitely bring some different experiences, and at least help to supplement the single-line history centered on the Central Plains dynasty in the past.

Du Zanqi once advocated using a bifurcated history to reinterpret China. The "New Ming History" has its meaning and value in providing a multi-level narrative structure and presenting a richer perspective.

However, as far as the Ming Dynasty is concerned, inner Asia is obviously not dominant in the whole country.

In addition, too much emphasis was placed on the synchronic significance of the history of the Ming Dynasty, and the Ming Dynasty was placed in the context of Eurasia to find the commonalities between China and other countries in Eurasia in the Ming Dynasty.

  The rise of "New Qing History" and "New Ming History" research has roughly two influences on Westerners' perception of China.

On the one hand, it can make Westerners realize that China in history is not a closed and stagnant country, but a vibrant and open country.

Bu Congren, associate professor of the Department of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, believes that China in the Qing Dynasty was not an inland and introverted country as traditionally believed, but both land and sea.

Especially during the period from 1680 to 1799, the state was actively involved in maritime affairs in terms of political vision, military deployment, and administrative practice.

  On the other hand, because the "New Qing History" and "New Ming History" focus on issues such as borders, empires, race, multiple sovereignty, etc., their theories and experiences mostly come from Western countries, which inevitably cause misunderstandings and misunderstandings on Chinese history. read.

The most typical is that China is an empire full of expansion.

Palace of Versailles, France.

Photo by China News Agency reporter Li Yang

China News Agency reporter: Do you think China in the Ming Dynasty fits the "empire" defined by the West?

What are the similarities and differences between the concept of "empire" in the Chinese and Western contexts?

Can feudal dynasties such as Tang, Ming and Qing in China be called "empires"?

  Zhang Xupeng: The definition and imagination of empire by Western scholars basically comes from the Roman Empire.

In their view, the empire has the following characteristics: expanding boundaries, multi-ethnic or racial composition, and universalism.

In contrast to China, all generations have never referred to themselves as "empires." Chinese people generally describe themselves as "the world" or "our dynasty."

In ancient Chinese writings and poems, although the word "empire" is occasionally used, it mostly refers to "the city of the emperor", which means the capital.

For example, the famous sentence in Wang Bo's "Preface to the Banquet in the House of Wu Shaofu in Jiangning" in the Tang Dynasty: "The ruins of the old soil, the imperial city of tens of thousands of miles; the tiger occupies the dragon plate, the empire of three hundred years." It was Jiangning that is today's Nanjing.

In other words, before modern times, there was no expression of "empire" in the Western or contemporary sense in Chinese literature.

  Calling China an "empire" mainly came from the mouth of the Jesuits who came to China in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.

According to the textual research of Cao Xinyu and Huang Xingtao, in 1615, the first edition of Matteo Ricci's "The Christian Expedition to China" by Matteo Ricci was translated and compiled by Jinnige, and the "China University" by Zeng Dezhao published in 1642. In the works of Jesuit missionaries such as The History of the Empire, Ming Dynasty China was clearly referred to as an "empire", mainly from the perspective of its vast territory, large population, and the governance of multi-ethnic subjects.

After the Qing Dynasty entered the Central Plains, Wei Kuangguo’s "Tatar Wars", Athanasius Kircher’s "Chinese Illustrated Notes" and other books recorded this event, and continued to call the Chinese dynasty an empire. Traditionally, the Qing Dynasty was also called an empire.

Olid believes that by this time, the title of the Qing empire already had important meanings such as conquest and multi-ethnic government.

  From the perspective of the country's vast territory and the rule of multiple ethnic groups, the Qing Dynasty also seems to be in line with the characteristics of the so-called "empire."

However, the other two basic characteristics of Western empires, namely colonialism and enlightenment mission, did not exist in the Qing Dynasty.

Colonialism often means the deprivation of the political status and economic rights of the colony, the plunder of resources and even genocide.

The mission of enlightenment is to try to change the language, religion, and cultural customs of the colonial residents.

Argentine-American scholar Walter Minoro divided the Spanish colonization of American Indians into three levels, namely, the colonization of language, the colonization of memory, and the colonization of space.

It can be seen that the colonialism of Western empires is all-round, involving territory, language, culture, identity, etc., basically allowing colonies to "subjugate the country and destroy the species."

In this regard, it is incorrect to refer to China's Qing, Ming, or other dynasties as "empires."

Chang'an, the ancient name of Xi'an, was the first capital in history to be called "Beijing", and it was also the first city in history in its true sense.

Image source: Visual China

China News Agency reporter: From a global perspective, how should we examine the increasingly prominent differences and even conflicts of civilizations between the East and the West in the world today?

  Zhang Xupeng: There are indeed differences and even conflicts between the East and the West, but I don't think this is a clash of civilizations. Rather, it is caused by the unequal and unequal international relations system and the international economic system.

In fact, in today's world, conflicts within civilizations deserve more attention.

Because civilization has contained elements of disagreement and even opposition since ancient times, the immigration problem since the 20th century seems to have aggravated this internal division.

  In recent decades, there have been constant conflicts between races, ethnic groups, and sects within civilizations, and even Western societies can hardly get rid of this predicament.

Many conflicts that seem to be between civilizations are actually the externalization of conflicts within civilizations.

Of course, the only effective way to resolve these conflicts is to strengthen dialogue between countries and establish a more fair and reasonable global order.


  Zhang Xupeng is a researcher at the Institute of Historical Theory of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a visiting professor at the University of Göttingen, and a PhD in world history from Sichuan University.

The main research fields are the history of European thought and culture, and contemporary western historical theories.

Publications include "A Brief History of Western Civilization", "Cultural Theory Studies" (co-authored with He Ping), "Contemporary Historical Philosophy and Historical Theories: Characters, Genres, and Focus" (co-authored with Wang Qingjia), etc. He has published dozens of Chinese and English papers Articles.