Imagining the concept of Han in the context of the civilized center and the uncivilized lands on the periphery.

As we have seen the Chanyuan Treaty (simplified Chinese: 澶渊之盟; traditional Chinese: 澶淵之盟; pinyin: Chányuān Zhī Méng) in 1004-1005 was the pivotal point in the relations between the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Liao Dynasties (916-1125). The ruling class of the Liao was a people of nomadic origin known as the Khitan (Qidan in Chinese) who rose in the northeast around present-day Heilongjiang Province. The Song dynasty also referred to as the Northern Song, ruled virtually all of China from the late tenth century when it eliminated the last of the kingdoms in the north and the south that stood against Chinese unification. We also mentioned a 12th century Hua Yi Tu map that covered China during the Song Dynasty. 

But perhaps the most striking and far-reaching of post-Chanyuan developments was the emergence of what essentially amounted to a Chinese national consciousness that entailed the reconceptualization of China's population as a monocultural and monoethnic people – the “Han people.” Simultaneously, Chinese educated elites acquired an increasingly clear sense of the nature and characteristics of space that was defined on historical, ecological, and ethnic grounds.

The fact that this space so conceived, went well beyond the de facto political boundaries of the Song state implied a discrepancy between the geographic extent of the Chinese nation and that of the Chinese state. This perceived discrepancy – fueled by a conviction that Han populations beyond the border would naturally side with a Chinese regime – constituted the driving force for the irredentist ambitions of the late Northern Song and, following the Jurchen invasion, of the Southern Song as well. It also meant that Chinese sovereignty was now seen as bounded, a conceptual development that helps to explain the extensive late eleventh-century boundary demarcation project.

The notion of a cohesive Chinese nation depended in part on the ability of educated elites to see individuals from all social strata, living in all corners of Song territory, as their brethren rather than as social others. Critical to their ability to view other Chinese in this way were two significant post tang dynasty transformations. First, whereas the Tang was dominated by families whose prestige derived from a centuries-long tradition of bureaucratic service, there emerged in the Song a meritocratic ideal that made it now imaginable for any male to educate himself and serve in government. Second, while Tang aristocrats and much of the political elite had been concentrated in the immediate vicinity of the capital cities, by the mid-Song, educated men from all over the empire came to see themselves as belonging to a broad community, bound together by their common pursuits and by the common course of studies necessary to prepare for the civil service examination. Insofar as education was in principle (if not in reality) available to all – including women, who were expected to educate their sons – it was possible now to envision a national community that incorporated all inhabitants of a vast swathe of Song territory.

But the Chinese nation was ultimately defined as much by its boundaries as by the internal cohesion of its community of members. The Chanyuan treaty and the particular geopolitics of the post-Chanyuan period played key roles. Chanyuan created a pattern of diplomatic exchanges unprecedented in terms of their frequency and in terms of the number of prominent policymakers who participated. The result was that a significant percentage of the most powerful statesmen and the most influential cultural elites enjoyed cosmopolitan experiences unusual in China's premodern period. One aspect of this cosmopolitanism involved intensive social interactions between Song and Liao political elites.

Han naturalized by the Song

The geographic range of “Han people” was used both to determine the course of a demarcated border and to lay claim to territory beyond the frontier. Here, it is important to recognize the distinction between a political ideology and the unspoken sentiments that underlie a consciousness or sense of identity. The world of today provides ample evidence that ethnicity can operate under the surface, even when in contradiction to sanctified ideologies.1

Northern Song China, when working out the details of frontier policy at a practical level, policymakers revealed underlying assumptions about who properly belonged to their political community, irrespective of the ideals of their political theories. Though the category Han originated on the Eurasian steppe, it was naturalized in the Song. Thus, a temple inscription dating to the 1030s equated the “Middle Kingdom” (i.e., Zhongguo) with “Han territory.” Later in the century, it became common to assume “Han people” inhabiting the territory of a neighboring state naturally felt loyalty to the “Middle Kingdom.”

For example, writing in the mid-eleventh century, the statesman Fan Zhongyan (989– 1052) asserted that “in the prefectures of Yan, the population originally was Han in customs; their descendants continue to long for Han.”2 One finds similar accounts regarding a region under Tangut control in the northwest: “Around Xingzhou and Lingzhou, there are many former Han people, all of whom were seized by the [Tangut chief] Yuanhao; they often have feelings of longing for Han.”3  In both cases, the expression “longing for Han” presumably entailed yearning to fall under the political (and therefore moral and cultural) sway of the Song emperor. A 1075 memorial regarding the Hedong frontier is more explicit that the object of longing is Song China: “the people beyond the mountains [in Liao territory], who have long suffered under tyrannical rule, all have feelings of longing for the Middle Kingdom.”4 Finally, one finds additional accounts of this sort of reference to Han populations on the southwestern frontier.5 To be sure, Xingzhou and Lingzhou had been under Song rule up until 1001. As such, one might imagine that the Song commentators simply believed their populations to have maintained their allegiance to the dynasty that their ancestors had once served. But in other cases – notably the people of Yan and of Liao-controlled Hedong, as well as the Han people living in Tibetan lands – the populations in question had never been under Song control. The feelings they purportedly felt for Song China were the feelings of loyalty that ethnically Han people were imagined naturally to feel for a Han-ruled regime.

Faith in the political allegiance of Han people had important policymaking implications insofar as it spurred a conviction that those living across the borders constituted a potential military resource. Very early in the dynasty, in a 986 edict seeking to justify the seizure of Yan from Liao, In a frank assessment of the failure of Taizong's 979 and 986 campaigns, the court official Wang Yucheng (954– 1001) explained that “the borderlanders [i.e., people of Yan] are ignorant, and were unaware of your wise plan; they all thought you coveted their land, and so they invited the northern barbarians [i.e., Khitan troops] to come south [in their defense].”6.

 As Fu Bi explained in 1044, after one of his diplomatic missions to Liao:

Although it has been over one hundred years since the land of Yan was ceded to the Khitans, yet the customs are all those of the Hua people, irrespective of the fact they are controlled by barbarians. In the end, they are of the mind to submit [to Song], and frequently resent the fact that the Middle Kingdom is not able to rule them; they are always filled with frustration, and appear to weep bitterly.

According to Fu, some of the people of Yan had assured him they could raise a militia of several thousand loyalists prepared for martyrdom in defense of the Song cause. “We are after all Hua people; dying would be all the more fortunate!” Fu's informants zealously exclaimed.7

Fu Bi went on to suggest that – though he himself did not advocate war with Liao – the population of Yan would prove a valuable ally if war ever were to break out. In the early 1060s, in a civil service examination essay, Su Shi made a similar argument, first proposing as potential Song allies the “Middle Kingdom [i.e., Han] shidafu” at the Liao court, before focusing in greater detail on the population of Yan:

The land of Yan has, since antiquity, been known for its abundance of vigorous men, who grace the pages of the historical chronicles; it has always been thus. When the Song was established, worthy men everywhere congregated together regardless of distance, all wishing to be deemed deserving of imperial grace [i.e., all wishing to join the Song cause]; only this one territory [of Yan] fell into the clutches of men of another kind. Formerly, Emperor Taizong personally led a campaign to retake Youzhou [i.e., Yan], but failed and withdrew his troops. According to the reports of our spies, the population of Youzhou had plotted to seize [the Khitan] commanders and to surrender the city; when they heard the imperial carriage had returned [back to the south], there was no one who did not shed tears.8

By the 1110s, hawks at court pushing for an alliance with the Jurchens against Liao exploited much the same claim to further their agenda. One Liao defector brought to court by Song hawks declared that Song armies would be welcomed into Yan with tea- and wine-laden banquets.9 The claim of Yan support for the Song invasion was repeated frequently by the hawks. In a report submitted to the court probably around the year 1115, the official Zhao Dingchen (b. 1070) hypothesized that “those people longing for Han will together take control of the land of Yan and submit it to our administration.”10 Then, just prior to the final invasion of Yan, in early summer 1122, hawks circulated rumors that “the Han people [of Yan] all day long lift their heads and crane their necks, awaiting day after day the imperial troops, yearning to submit to the [Song] emperor's civilizing influence.”11 It is certainly telling that, when the Song troops managed to break into the walled city of Yan (before being chased out the next day), they embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing, systematically killing all non-Han people among the city's population. According to one account, “the slayings numbered in the tens of thousands; the main thoroughfares were drenched in blood.”12 Evidently, due to their expected loyalty to the Song, Han Chinese among the population of the city were not assumed to be the same threat.

The extensive Song use of “Han” as an ethnonym – as well as the common Song and Liao visual representations of Khitans and their daily life – can be explained in part by the intense diplomatic and social interactions between Song and Liao bureaucrats. The cosmopolitan experience of the Song envoys involved more than a new sociability. As part of the Chanyuan system, political elites embarked multiple times a year on lengthy journeys from the Song capital of Kaifeng to the sites of the mobile Khitan court on the Eastern Mongolian steppe. The experience of following a standard itinerary, first across the vast North China Plain, then through Liao-controlled Yan, and on beyond Gubei Pass in the Yan Mountains – an itinerary described in official reports and private poetry – reinforced the sentiment that the northern mountains marked China's natural boundary. Not only were they physically imposing, they also constituted an important cultural barrier that, as a result of Liao ethnic policies, separated a relatively homogeneous ethnic Chinese population based in Yan from a mixed steppe– Chinese culture in the lands further north. Although Song literati frequently wrote about the great variety of regional customs in the Chinese interior – regional customs they also encountered firsthand as traveling bureaucrats – none of these internal boundaries compared in significance to the stark divide between Chinese agriculturalists and the non-Chinese pastoralists and agro-pastoralists of the zone to the north. This experience was a major factor prompting the Song political elite to envision the territory of Yan as being rightfully Chinese. It also became possible more generally to treat a Chinese population that was culturally and linguistically heterogeneous as a single “Han” people. Although the cross-border travels of Song bureaucrats were usually limited to Liao territory, it was no great conceptual jump – especially given the bureaucrats' panoramic perspectives on the entire empire – to imagine terre irredente on other frontiers, also inhabited by ethnic Han “people left behind.”

The imagined community

But Song nationalism, of course, differs from its modern alternative. Rather it is in terms of national consciousness (the feeling of belonging to a homogeneous nationwide community) that Song nationalism most resembled its modern incarnation. By the late eleventh century, men at the Song court conceived of a bounded “imagined community” of brethren, and of a national territory partially “lost” under a past dynasty. Although in Song times one encountered such sentiments primarily among educated elites, it is worth remembering that, in Benedict Anderson's classic account, national consciousness also emerged initially among elites, first among “creole elites” in the Americas, then among Eastern European intellectual elites, then among native elites of colonial Africa and Asia. Moreover, as in Song China, it arose in the Americas (according to Anderson) as a self-contained phenomenon. One could imagine one's own national community without necessarily having on one's mind other such communities in neighboring states. In contrast to national consciousness, Song nationalist ideology (the principle that the boundaries of the state ought to coincide with the geographic extent of the national community) diverged in more significant ways from the ideology of modern times. Although Song Chinese clearly associated Zhongguo (the transdynastic entity to which they belonged) with a single people – the Han people – when defining Zhongguo, they more commonly focused on its culture and its geography, not its ethnic composition. It was only when forced to make certain pragmatic decisions concerning frontier policy – where to demarcate the Song– Xia border, for example, or whether to exterminate ethnic Khitans in territories captured by Song armies – that Song decision-makers revealed their intuitive sense that ethnicity (i.e. ancestry) was a determinant of culture. Whereas modern nationalists usually define their state in terms of a particular people, whose culture they then strive to characterize, Song elites defined their state in terms of a particular culture which they then equated with a particular people.13

However, unlike in later times, the Song state did not seek to indoctrinate the masses of the population in order to harness the power of mass action for the nationalist cause. In fact, technologies of propaganda were available to Northern Song bureaucrats. Woodblock printing was widespread by the eleventh century, and policymakers understood its value for purposes of indoctrination. In order to propagate orthodox interpretations of the Confucian classics, for example, the Song state sought for a time to monopolize the printing of these texts.14

A more creative use of print for propaganda purposes was outlined in a memorial by Fan Chuncui (1046– 1117), in response to a court call for proposals on how to deal with the Tangut Xia regime. According to Fan, the Tangut ruler had succeeded in rallying his people only by spreading lies about the Song. The solution was straightforward:

Order the various circuits to produce printed pamphlets, with everything written in both Chinese and Tangut. Dispatch lone horsemen to gallop at least a hundred miles into [Tangut] territory. With one [pamphlet], [our message] can be conveyed to ten people; with ten, it can be conveyed to a hundred people. Thus, [the Tangut ruler's] perfidy will be known to all.15

If the eleventh-century Song court had the technology and the imagination to disseminate political messages, why did it not do so to rally its own people to the irredentist cause? Why did it only think to spread propaganda to the subjects of the Tangut monarch? One possibility is that the military value of the mobilization of mass sentiments is not self-evident. Mass indoctrination for military purposes was a technology of governance that was recognized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries only after the power of armies of indoctrinated soldiers had been demonstrated empirically on the battlefield.

Finally, we turn to an important component of nationalism: the nation view. It is in terms of this component that modern times are most at odds with how educated elites of the Northern Song envisioned their world. By the second half of the twentieth century, after the demise of Western colonial empires, it became the norm to see all territory and all people as belonging to one and only one nation-state.16 Prior to World War Two Each nation-state was in turn conceptualized according to a common modular framework, with each having its own flag, its own national anthem, its own cuisine, and its own national pastimes. There is no evidence that educated elites of the Song imagined the world in modular terms. The “Chinese nation” was not perceived to exist in a sea of other nation-states. Nevertheless, there are a few intriguing hints that suggest how the eleventh-century East Asian world order might have spurred over time the development of an alternative modular nation view based on the concentric square model, in which multiple centers of civilization coexisted, each with its own distinct cultural practices and its own uncivilized peripheries. The Liao court seems to have self-consciously developed a Khitan imperial culture, with its own set of costumes, court rituals, and written script. Further to the west, the Tanguts followed suit in conscious imitation of the Liao. By the 1030s, they insisted upon the right to “establish a state” (thereby freeing themselves of Song suzerainty) partly on the grounds that they had fashioned their own Tangut script, clothing, court rituals, and music.17 Some eleventh-century Song statesmen embraced this logic. Following his diplomatic mission to Liao, Su Song wrote a treatise describing Liao court rituals and costumes, in which he implied that the Liao empire, like China, was composed of a civilized center defined by distinct Liao cultural practices – surrounded by an uncivilized “wilderness zone.”18 Indeed, in describing their respective civilizations, other East Asian states – the Korean Koryō regime, for example – also turned on occasion to a discourse based on peripheral “zones of submission” encircling a unified center ruled by a single monarch.19 The Vietnamese Chu Nom script, modeled on and yet distinct from the Chinese script, constitutes another intriguing example. Developed no later than the twelfth century, it apparently served partly as a tool to “tame” the uncivilized people of the south.20

The 12th century

After the Jurchen invasion of the 1120s, the East Asian world order remained much the same for another century. Although the Khitans disappeared from the scene, the Jurchen Jin regime replaced them as the most powerful rival of the newly reconstituted Southern Song. Both empires continued to coexist with the Tangut Xia state, which persisted into the twelfth century, as well as the Koryō Kingdom and the Vietnamese Ly Dynasty. The Song leadership established a peace agreement with Jin modeled on the Chanyuan agreement, and they exchanged frequent embassies with their new neighbor to the north, much as they had done with the Liao in the previous century. Simultaneously, Southern Song elites maintained the idea of the Song as an ethnic Han nation. Indeed, the Southern Song is remembered for its passionate irredentism, an irredentism driven to some extent by widely circulating cartographic representations of what was considered to be the true geographic extent of the empire.

The Mongol tsunami of the thirteenth century brought an end to the multi-state system of the post-Chanyuan period, ensuring that, in subsequent centuries, the idea of the Chinese nation and the structure of the East Asian world order would follow complex evolutionary paths. In the post-Song period, China was ruled by two types of dynasties.21 The Mongol Yuan (1271– 1368) and Manchu Qing (1636– 1911) dynasties, representing the first type, were both multinational in conception, not unlike the Liao and Jin. These regimes, founded by non-sinic peoples from the north, conceived of ethnic Han populations and the territories they inhabited as merely one part of a much larger empire. The ruling minorities sought to preserve their political dominance through the careful implementation of a policy of “ethnic sovereignty,” which emphasized the special abilities of their ethnic group to rule the empire, and maintained a clear distinction between conqueror and conquered.22 Meanwhile, ethnic Han intellectuals at the Yuan and Qing courts, partly in order to preserve their own relevance, sought to highlight the universal appeal of Confucian values and rejected earlier Song efforts to equate Confucian culture with sinic space alone. The. Ming Dynasty (1368– 1644), by contrast, which was founded by an ethnic Chinese military man in the middle of the fourteenth century, was much more like the Song Dynasty in terms of conceptualizing itself as a Chinese nation.23 In the Ming, one found literati once again arguing for the maintenance of a clear cultural, ethnic, and geographic divide between China and the lands and people beyond.24

The Song compared to China today

As for the People's Republic of China today, though driven what are perceived as Han Chinese at its core, it is a multinational state modeled more closely on the Manchu empire than on the Song or the Ming. Like the Manchu empire, its territory includes Manchuria, part of Mongolia, Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, Yunnan, as well as China Proper. Nevertheless, elements of the earlier Song vision of the Chinese nation persist to the present day. First and foremost, as mentioned, is the belief in the objective reality of a homogeneous Han people. The sense that Chinese civilization is fundamentally Han at its core has fueled the awkward relationship that continues to exist between the Chinese state and its fifty-five non-Han minority nationalities.25  One also recognizes in the twentieth century an enduring expectation of Han ethnic solidarity, whereby both early twentieth-century nationalists and the People's Republic of China have expected Han Chinese abroad (but not necessarily Uighurs or other minority nationalities) to exhibit loyalty to their motherland. 26 Finally, whereas European and American nation-states are portrayed as sharing together in the heritage of “Western civilization,” Chinese nationalists today lay claim to an entire “civilization” as its past heritage.


Bibliography upon request.

1. E.g., ethnic-based nativisms are prevalent in the United States and Western Europe today, despite state promotion of inclusive ideologies defining the people of the nation in cultural rather than ethnic terms.)

2. QSW 18: 159. For similar examples dating to the mid to late eleventh century, see QSW 17: 55, 78: 266, 129: 407; Ding Chuanjing, Songren yishi huibian, 20.1103.

3. XCB 316.7637.

4. XCB 260.6335.

5. E.g., after a fortress was abandoned on the southern frontier, one official feared that “there still might be people left behind in the land of streams and grottoes [i.e., tribal territory], who have not managed to come home to Han.” See XCB 458.10960.

6. XCB 30.672. Wang went on to propose that, prior to another invasion of Yan, the court should first embark on a propaganda campaign to announce the Song emperor's intentions and promise financial rewards to those taking up arms on behalf of the Song.

7.QSW 28: 317– 18; XCB 150.3650.

8. Su Shi wenji, 1: 288.

9. SCBM Zhengxuan, 1.3.

10. QSW 138: 156.

11. SCBM Zhengxuan, 9.83.

12. Ibid., 11.98. Subsequently, as part of the 1123 Sino-Jurchen agreement, the Song court agreed to relocate all remaining non-Han residents of the Yan region into Jurchen territory (ibid., 14.125).

13. One should not take this distinction too far. Even in today's world, certain nations – the United States and France, for example – define themselves according to the culture of the national people rather than its ethnic composition. Thus, the United States during certain periods of its history welcomed in immigrants who accepted American civic principles and agreed to learn the national language. Though one might argue Song Chinese also differed from modern nationalists insofar as they believed their culture defined what it meant to be civilized, the American impulse to civilize the world with “democracy” and “freedom” suggests that modern populations can hold a similar faith in the superiority of their culture.

14. Cherniack, “Book Culture,” 28.

15. XCB 466.11136– 37.

16. Prior to World War Two, as a result of social Darwinism and other related ideologies, Western colonial powers deemed some peoples insufficiently advanced to have their own state. See, e.g., Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity, 16– 17.

17. McGrath, “Reigns of Jen-tsung and Ying-tsung,” 302; XCB 123.2893– 94.

18. Su Song, Su Weigong wenji, 2: 1005.

19. Breuker, “Koryō as an Independent Realm.” For a more extensive discussion of Koryō's perception of itself as an “ontological equal to the Chinese [i.e., Song] and Manchurian [i.e., Khitan and Jurchen] Sons of Heaven,” see Breuker, Establishing a Pluralist Society.

20. Phan, “Chu Nom and the Taming of the South.” For the argument that the Chu Nom script developed around the twelfth century, see Nguyen, “Graphemic Borrowings,” 384– 97.

21. Cf. Seo, “Toshi no seikatsu to bunka,” 411– 16.

22.  Elliott, Manchu Way, 2– 8.

23. As observed by one prominent historian of China, “Ming China was arguably a nation-state emerging in the wake of the Mongol empire, with borders roughly following the Han Chinese ethnic frontier, a shared culture, and a ‘national’ education system institutionalized through the examinations.” See Esherick, “Introduction,” 9.

24. Bol, “Geography and Culture,” 98.

25. In the early twentieth century, many Chinese nationalists preferred a monoethnic Han state that excluded non-Han territories in the northeast, west, and southwest. See Esherick, “How the Qing Became China.”

26. Duara, “Nationalists among Transnationals”; Ford, “Guiqiao.”


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