By Eric Vandenbroeck

China’s longest lasting dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty lasted from roughly 1000 BC to 221 BC. Initially comparing this with a case study about Rome and France I traced the evolution of transborder sovereignty over the course of China’s longest lasting dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty which lasted from roughly 1000 BC to 221 BC. During the course of the Zhou Dynasty as compared with the case studies about Rome and early Europe, it was shown how feudal states in China were more autonomous, had no overlapping, cross-cutting authorities, and had strong territorial markers. And that during the course of the Zhou Dynasty we see a shift from transbordersovereignty to absolute sovereignty with the Warring States Period representing a transitional phase to imperial China. From the age of Confucius onward, the Chinese people in general and their political thinkers, in particular, began to think about political matters in terms of the world. And that absolute sovereignty, as a principle, had existed prior to the first Qin emperor. The essential structure of the ideological subsystem at the beginning of the Zhou dynasty was built on a two-fold distinction. One tenet held the centrality of the king and the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize his rule. The second tenet held the centrality of law and order variously derived as the overarching legitimating factor for any given ruler. Thus ancient China showed us a highly structured feudalism, a territorially bound state that struggled to develop a bureaucracy to govern it, and a nation rich in tradition before a state, as started to be the case during the Qin, could grow powerful enough to govern it.

The Song dynasty (Chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: Sòng cháo; 960–1279) next was an era of Chinese history that began in 960 and continued until 1279. It was founded by Emperor Taizu of Song following his usurpation of the throne of Later Zhou, ending the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. The Song often came into conflict with the contemporary Liao and Western Xia dynasties in the north and was conquered by the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. The Song government was the first in world history to issue banknotes or true paper money nationally and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy. This dynasty also saw the first known use of gunpowder, as well as the first discernment of true north using a compass.

But while thus the end of Northern Song and the beginning of Southern Song Dynasty is considered a high point of Chinese innovation in science and technology, it is also where we will discover, lay the roots of Chinese Nationalism or the idea Han cosmopolitanism.

Today we know that along the East-West axis of China, demonstrated a general pattern of isolation-by-distance among Han Chinese, and reported unique regional signals of admixture, such as European influences among the Northwestern provinces of China.

A 12th century Hua Yi Tu map covers China during the Song Dynasty.1 The map depicts mountains, rivers, lakes, as well as more than 400 administrative place names of China. It includes Korea in the west of Pamier area, from north to the Great Wall, northeast to Heilongjiang region, to the south of Hainan Island. The texts arranged around the edges of the graphic part of the map provides information from historical and other sources briefly explaining markers such as the Great Wall, the size of the empire, and the states to the west. The stele containing the carved map is thought to be stored at the Stele Forest in Xian, but is not displayed due to the political sensitivity of not depicting the island of Taiwan on it, which can be interpreted as Taiwan not belonging to China at the time of the map's production.

The map was striking for several reasons, first and foremost its chief objective – to inspire irredentist passions. Historians typically associate irredentism of this sort more with the world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than with twelfth-century China. To be sure, Huang himself may have imagined a future emperor as the chief viewer of his map. A few decades later, however, in 1247, an official serving in Suzhou had the map and colophon carved onto a stele – a stele that stands to this day – “in order to maintain its transmission.” Once on a stele, the map and its message would have circulated via rubbings to a broader audience. Another noteworthy feature of the map was the colophon's particular emphasis on the territorial claim to the Sixteen Prefectures. Unlike the lands south of the Yellow River seized by the Jurchens, the Sixteen Prefectures – a region straddling the northern extremity of the North China Plain – was lost to the Khitans before the founding of the Song. Asking to have it “returned to our possession” made sense only insofar as the pronoun “our” referred not merely to the Song state, but rather to a political entity that transcended dynasties. 

The East Asian World Order

Throughout the period under consideration here, Song China coexisted with several other important East Asian powers, though not all were of equal concern to Song policymakers. Contact with states in Korea, Japan, and maritime Southeast Asia was generally limited to trade (often under the guise of tribute missions), although, due to its shared border with the Khitan Liao empire – to be examined in some detail below – the Koryō Kingdom in Korea would come to play an important ancillary role in Song– Liao relations. To the south, the two most significant states, the Kingdom of Dali (937– 1253) in Yunnan and the Ly Dynasty (1009– 1225) in Vietnam, remained separated from China by a buffer region inhabited by autonomous tribes. During the Song, Chinese colonists spread relentlessly southward, recurrently provoking armed opposition from tribal groups in their path. Some of these tribes were held under a “haltered-and-bridled” system, whereby in exchange for maintaining their de facto independence their chiefs accepted Chinese bureaucratic titles and other symbols of subordination to the Chinese throne. 2 Contact with Dali, however, was restricted to an important trade that supplied horses for Song China's northern campaigns.3 Military confrontations with Vietnam broke out only after the destruction of one of the intervening tribal regimes in the late eleventh century.4 In sum, due to the relatively limited scale of direct political interaction or military confrontation, the southern and maritime frontiers were never the main focus of attention at the Song court.

By contrast, the steppe-based regimes on the northern and northwestern frontiers were understood to be an immediate threat to the Song's very existence. In the words of one mid-eleventh-century statesman, in response to a policy question from the emperor regarding unrest in the south, “How are these trifles worth exhausting imperial power and intruding on the emperor's concerns? … The most significant border issues lie in the west and the north!”5 Indeed, in the 1120s, the Jurchens, precursors to the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty, would sweep down from Manchuria to conquer the whole of North China, forcing the Song court to flee southward and establish a new regime – the Southern Song – based beyond the Yangzi River. In the next century, the Mongols descended from the Eurasian steppe, first destroying the Jin Dynasty (1113– 1234) of the Jurchens, and then overrunning the Song four decades later. But long before the Jurchens and Mongols arrived on the scene, China already faced two major steppe powers.

To the northwest were the Tanguts and their state of Xi (Western) Xia (982– 1227). In the early decades of the Song Dynasty, the court paid little attention to this state, which was generally seen as posing no substantial military threat. A peace agreement in 1006 ushered in three decades of good relations. By the 1030s, however, the Xia Kingdom had expanded significantly, mostly by seizing territories further west from various Uighur and Tibetan tribes and chieftaincies. The first significant war with China broke out in 1038, when the Tangut ruler had gained enough confidence to proclaim himself emperor, thereby undermining the symbolic superiority of the Chinese monarch. During the subsequent years of warfare, the Tangut regime amply demonstrated its military might. After a temporary peace treaty in 1044, hostilities broke out again two decades later following repeated Tangut incursions – exacerbated by the military adventurism of Song frontier commanders, and the simultaneous disintegration of Song China's Tibetan client state based in Hehuang (in modern-day Qinghai). Thereafter, the Song emperor Shenzong (r. 1067– 85), guided by his hawkish advisors, embarked on a series of large-scale military campaigns. Over the next sixty years, under Shenzong and his successors, this irredentist agenda fueled repeated wars, leading to crippling losses of men and resources on both sides. Nevertheless, by the 1120s, Song China had managed to capture large swathes of Tangut territory, while simultaneously annexing Hehuang.6

The Northern Song's most formidable neighbor, however, was undoubtedly the Liao empire (916– 1122), established by nomadic Khitans in the early tenth century. Even before the founding of the Song, during the Later Jin Dynasty (936– 47), the Liao had obtained sixteen prefectures in northern Hebei and Hedong that had been traditionally under the control of Chinese regimes. The result was an unusual geopolitical situation, whereby the Song– Liao border cut directly across the North China Plain. Song China's second emperor, Taizong (r. 976– 98), twice attempted to recapture this territory – in 979 and again in 986 – but both military campaigns failed miserably. The next two decades saw nearly continuous border skirmishes, culminating in a massive Liao invasion in 1004 that brought Khitan troops to within a hundred miles of the Song capital of Kaifeng. The Khitan invasion was halted only after the Song emperor Zhenzong (r. 998– 1023) personally led his troops into battle. At this point, realizing that their army was precariously over-extended, the Khitans agreed to a peace settlement. Thus, in January 1005, Zhenzong and his Liao counterpart exchanged oath letters at Chanyuan on the northern banks of the Yellow River.7 Thereafter, there were two significant confrontations, first in 1042, when the Khitans took advantage of the Song– Xia war to claim ten counties in Hebei that they had controlled prior to the founding of the Song Dynasty; and second in the mid-1070s, when the Song and Liao courts had a heated disagreement over the proper course of the border in Hedong to the west. But both disputes were resolved diplomatically. Peaceful relations broke down only in the late 1110s when Song China embarked on a misguided alliance with the Jurchens against the Liao, an alliance that went sour and led both to the fall of the Khitan state and to the Song's loss of all of North China.

The Chanyuan peace

Two important consequences of the Chanyuan peace are worth stressing. First, the many years of diplomatic exchanges, spanning the eleventh century and lasting over a hundred years, spurred a new form of cosmopolitanism, whereby Song political elites acquired firsthand experiences traveling into the steppe and socializing with Liao diplomats. Second, the unusual geopolitical configuration of the Song– Liao border brought a large ethnically Han population under the control of the Liao state. These Han people were recruited in large numbers to staff the Liao civil administration at all levels, even as the Liao state sought actively to preserve the sharp ethnic divide between them and the Liao Khitans. The significant presence of ethnic Chinese in influential governmental positions undoubtedly contributed to Liao's unique relationship with Song China.

The century of peace between Song and Liao also played a critical role in the evolution of the structures and norms of traditional Chinese diplomacy. An influential thesis, put forward three decades ago in a volume edited by Morris Rossabi, emphasized the pragmatism and innovation evident in Song China's relationship with Liao. According to Rossabi, the diplomatic parity that existed between the two states – whereby the monarchs of both Song and Liao recognized each other as an “emperor” equal in status – discredited once and for all the notion of a “Chinese world order,” formulated by John King Fairbank, an interpretation holding that external regimes could interact with China only on China's terms, by accepting their subordination and offering regular tribute to the Chinese ruler. To the extent that Song– Liao relations took on certain characteristics of the post-eighteenth-century European state system, Rossabi's thesis seems to underline yet another area in which Song China was ahead of its time.8

It is possible to expand on the implications of Song– Liao diplomacy by exploring the cultural dimensions of inter-state systems. The contemporary world order does not, of course, constitute the only legitimate mode of inter-state relations. One might argue that a maximally rational system of inter-state relations is any system in which all participants generally agree to a single set of rules.9 These rules may well develop over time as different regimes, perhaps with very different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, are compelled to find ways to coexist. Prior to the arrival in East Asia of large numbers of Europeans,10 those East Asian regimes that came into frequent contact with one another had already developed their own set of arrangements for inter-state interactions, arrangements that I refer to here as the “East Asian world order.” Such an understanding differs from Fairbank's original thesis. First, it does not assume that China had exclusive control over how the inter-state system developed. Second, it does not consider inter-state dynamics to have been fixed and unchanging. As is true of the modern world order, the East Asian world order was a constantly evolving system, developing at the interface between the political cultures of several coexisting East Asian states.11 Indeed, as we shall see below, Song foreign relations contained elements of earlier inter-state dynamics, even as they would also include important new developments.

How then can one characterize the East Asian world order as it existed by the beginning of the Song period? In the first place, it was clearly hierarchical. Not surprisingly, the hierarchy in question generally reflected the relative political and military might of the various constituent states. It was made explicit in the language of diplomatic correspondence, in the titles given to envoys, in the “appointment” edicts sent to the rulers of subordinate states, in the choice of whose calendar was used in dating documents, and, of course, in the symbolic tribute offered by smaller states to their larger neighbors. Because it was largely expressed symbolically, hierarchy did not preclude pragmatic negotiations between nominally unequal regimes. In fact, in some sense, it expanded the flexibility of diplomacy, allowing one state to accept a putative subordination as a concession for some other gain that it might consider more valuable. In general, it was unusual for any two states to acknowledge equality, but the Song– Liao example makes it clear that parity was not impossible. Though tributary states were expected to subordinate themselves to only one other state, instances of “multiple sovereignty” – whereby one small regime simultaneously offered tribute to and recognized the suzerainty of more than one larger neighboring state – were probably quite common.12

In the second place, communication between regimes within the East Asian inter-state system was generally embodied in formal missives written in classical Chinese, dispatched to the court of a neighboring state via an ambassador and his retinue. With no tradition of permanent diplomatic representation, premodern East Asian regimes relied on traveling embassies for inter-state communication. Ambassadors were dispatched to neighboring states bearing “state letters” or other types of diplomatic correspondence,13 along with a large number of valuable gifts.14 These embassies did not stay abroad long, returning home soon after delivery of the letter. Thus, there were no ambassadors based permanently or semi-permanently at foreign capitals. A variety of additional protocols developed over time, including, for example, restrictions on the sending of envoys whose given name violated the “taboo” name of the host country's ruler.15

The Chanyuan Oath seems to have spurred further developments in this East Asian inter-state system. The oath letters exchanged between the Song and Liao emperors provided the language used in subsequent inter-state agreements, notably between the Song and the Jin, and between the Song and the Xia.16 There is also evidence that, in the century after Chanyuan, agreements between states were increasingly seen both as contractual in nature and as built upon an accumulation of precedents. But it was only in the late eleventh century that the Song central government began insisting upon the consistent archiving of all past agreements. These archives provided the late Northern Song government with what one might call “archival authority.” After convincing its neighbors to accept the principle that countries should abide by past agreements, the Song regime began to benefit directly from the relative comprehensiveness of its own archives. Its ability to produce agreements from a past generation helped it maintain a degree of hegemony on the world stage.

In addition, the large number of embassy missions traveling between Song and Liao over the course of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, brought about the routinization of procedures governing how foreign ambassadors were accompanied from the border to the capital, how they were received at court, the seating arrangements at diplomatic banquets, and the type and number of gifts exchanged.17 One can contrast this routinization with the much more ad hoc diplomatic ceremonies of earlier times, such as the late eighth-century oath ceremony between Tibet and Tang China.18

During the same period, several East Asian regimes seemed to move toward a common model for legitimating rulership, evident in the circulation and widespread influence of certain specific texts. Although the “Confucian” classics remained popular throughout East Asia, new works on political philosophy gained currency in the eleventh century, notably the early eighth-century Zhenguan zhengyao (The Essentials of Government of the Zhenguan Era). Perhaps deemed more practical and up-to-date, this text – which provided advice on statecraft in the form of dialogues between the early Tang emperor Taizong (r. 626– 49) and his ministers – became influential at the Khitan, Tangut, Koryō, Jurchen, and Mongol courts.19

Diplomatic cosmopolitanism

Finally, the Song– Liao border demarcation prompted by the Chanyuan Oath led to a systematization of techniques for designating inter-state boundaries. Clearly, for the demarcation to be effective, the frontier had to be marked onto the landscape in a way that was recognizable by neighboring populations. The fact that a particular combination of trenches and tumuli was used to indicate both the Song– Liao and the Song– Xia frontiers suggests that the populations of multiple states had come to accept and recognize this particular means of territorial demarcation.

How did the eleventh-century multi-state system influence the emerging Chinese sense of self? In response to this question, most historians of the period focus on the combined military threat of the Tanguts and the Khitans, which are said to have compelled the Song Chinese to reimagine their place in the world. But the annals of Chinese history are filled with instances of great nomadic confederations developing on the Eurasian steppe, threatening China's existence, and even – on occasion – invading the Chinese heartland.20 The mere existence of powerful neighbors on the frontiers, then, is insufficient to explain developments that date specifically to the eleventh century. Moreover, Northern Song policymakers were not nearly as concerned about the threat of a northern invasion as has sometimes been imagined. The impact on Chinese mentalities of the new East Asian world order of the eleventh century was complex. The military threat from the north did play a role in forcing Song statesmen to reassess the limits of imperial power, but so did the formal recognition of a second emperor – the ruler of Liao – within that world order. Perhaps even more significant, was the diplomatic “cosmopolitanism” emerging in the era, a cosmopolitanism that involved both new forms of sociability and new travel experiences to lands beyond the frontier. This and more we explain in the next part.


Case study about the Qin Empire  

Han Dynasty



1. For images of Huang's map, see Cao Wanru et al. (eds.), Zhongguo gudai ditu ji, pls. 70– 72; for a study and transcription of the colophon, see Qian and Yao, “Dili tu bei.”

2. Von Glahn, Country of Streams and Grottoes; Von Glahn, “Conquest of Hunan”; An Guolou, Songchao zhoubian minzu, 54– 62.

3. Yang Bin, Between Winds and Clouds, chap. 3, paras. 59– 69.

4. J. Anderson, “Treacherous Factions.”

5. Zeng Zaozhuang and Liu Lin (eds.). Quan Song wen. Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 2006. 38: 24.

6. For more on Song– Xia relations, see Dunnell, “Hsi Hsia,” esp. 168– 97; P. J. Smith, “Irredentism as Political Capital”; P. J. Smith, “Crisis in the Literati State”; Lamouroux, “Militaires et bureaucrates”; Li Huarui, Song Xia guanxi shi.

7. For a good summary of Song– Liao relations up until the Oath of Chanyuan, see Lau and Huang, “Founding and Consolidation of the Sung Dynasty,” 247– 51, 262– 70.

8. Rossabi (ed.), China Among Equals; Fairbank (ed.), Chinese World Order.

9. Though such an ideal-type inter-state system is stable in the sense that all participants agree to the rules, stability did not preclude the possibility of war. Throughout the late imperial period, Chinese regimes fought wars with their neighbors to the north and to the south. The violent conquests of Yunnan, Guizhou, and other parts of the south should not be treated as “internal” conflicts – as a nationalist might insist – but rather as wars of conquest against established neighboring polities.

10. The earliest Europeans arriving in East Asia were willing to integrate into the East Asian inter-state system. Thus, e.g., when the Portuguese reached Southeast Asia, they agreed to receive the tribute that the Malaysian sultan had once sent to China. See Santos Alves, “Voix de la prophétie,” 43.

11. On the role of non-Chinese regimes in defining East Asian diplomatic practices during the Tang, see Skaff, Sui-Tang China; Wang Zhenping, Tang China in Multi-Polar Asia.

12. For a discussion of “multiple sovereignty” in Southeast Asia, where it seems to have been a common practice, see Thongchai, Siam Mapped, 81– 94. A comparison of Tibetan and Chinese chronicles reveals that, already in the eighth century, the Yunnan-based state of Nanzhao simultaneously accepted the suzerainty of both the Tang and Tibet (unbeknownst to the Chinese). See Backus, Nan-chao Kingdom, 40– 45.

13. Franke, “Sung Embassies,” 119– 21. In fact, the term “state letter” (guoshu or guoxin) was only used for Song– Liao correspondence; “edict” or “decree” was used in the case of letters sent to Koryō and the Xia, which were not treated by the Song as diplomatic equals.

14. Ibid., 130– 31.

15. E.g., the powerful Song minister Sima Guang (1019– 86) could not serve as ambassador to Liao because his given name coincided with part of the name of the second Liao emperor, Yelü Deguang. See QSW 55: 123.

16. Franke, “Sung Embassies,” 119. E.g., the oaths with Liao, Jin, and Xia all included nearly verbatim clauses regarding the repatriation of cross-border fugitives. See XCB 58.1299; Yuwen Maozhao, Da Jinguo zhi jiaozheng, 37.527– 28; XCB 80.2022.

17. For descriptions of proper ritual protocols for the reception of envoys and of the choreography of diplomatic visits to the Song and Liao courts, see SS 119.2804– 10, 328.10565; Li Xinchuan, Jianyan yilai chaoye zaji, vol. 1, 3.97– 98; Ye Longli, Qidan guo zhi, 21.200– 03; Zeng Zaozhuang and Liu Lin (eds.). Quan Song wen. Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 2006 (henceforth QSW) 27: 104– 06; QSW 50: 228– 37.

18. To sanctify the oath, the Tibetans and Chinese had initially agreed to sacrifice an ox and a horse, respectively. But the Chinese representative had second thoughts “as Chinese cannot farm without oxen, and Tibetans cannot travel without horses.” He proposed sacrificing sheep, pigs, and dogs in their stead. His Tibetan counterpart agreed to the idea, but no pigs were available, so the diplomats had once more to change plans. Eventually, the Tibetans settled on a ram, and the Chinese on a sheep and a dog. See Liu Xu et al. Jiu Tang shu. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975.  196b. 5247.

19. Franke and Twitchett, “Introduction,” 33, 34; Franke, “Chinese Historiography,” 20, 21, 22; Bol, “Seeking Common Ground,” 503; Lee, Sourcebook, 1: 273– 74.

20. For a history of sino-steppe encounters over the longue durée, see Barfield, Perilous Frontier.