China and East Asia

The overland system

The Chinese government, we said, organized foreign relations in two distinct ways depending on the degree of threat posed by the foreigners they confronted. Political entities to the south and the east of China never posed serious challenges since the land borders here were well protected. Political entities to the north and the west were an entirely different matter. Here the land was only sparsely populated, the borders diffuse and impossible to conclusively secure. The result was an international system which took two quite distinct forms. Perhaps we could talk about the “overland” and the “tribute” system, respectively. Although there was considerable overlap between the two — in particular, many of the overland states were also tribute bearers — the systems were nevertheless governed by quite different institutions, rules, and norms.

It is easy to explain the attraction which China held for the peoples on the steppes. They were predominantly pastoralists who followed their herds — of goats, sheep, and horses — to where they could find pasture. Nomads are always potentially on the move, and since they never stay long enough in one place, they cannot accumulate many resources. The Chinese, by contrast, were overwhelmingly farmers and some were city-dwellers, meaning that they lived sedentary lives and stayed put in one place. Every Chinese family had a home, be it ever so humble, where they gathered possessions which they were prepared to defend with their lives. And of course, some Chinese families were very wealthy indeed. To the nomads, this constituted an obvious temptation. The nomads were interested in all kinds of resources as long as they were portable — gold and silver, animals, and women and children who could be turned into slaves.

It was always difficult for the Chinese to defend themselves against these threats. The steppes were easily crossed by the nomads on their horses, but they were more difficult for the Chinese armies to cross on foot. Deserts like the Gobi and the Taklamakan constituted obstacles for both parties, but they were far more likely to keep the Chinese in than the nomads out. The borders which separated China and the peoples of the steppes were difficult not only to defend but even to define. Besides, the peoples of the steppes were ferocious warriors. Although they initially at least had little by means of military technology and made few inventions of their own, they had access to the best horses in the world. On the back of a horse, they could cover large distances very quickly and attack an enemy at full speed, wielding their spikes and firing off arrows with high precision. The perennial question for the Chinese was how best to deal with enemies such as these. The most obvious option was to pursue a defensive strategy, and this is what the Chinese did for much of their history. One way to do this was to build walls.

Impressive as these physical structures no doubt were, a defensive strategy never worked all that well. The Mongols soon learned how to besiege a city using catapults and various ingenious siege engines. For that reason, it was better for the Chinese to go on the offense, and this is what the emperors did on numerous occasions. Already the first Han emperor undertook large military campaigns and these campaigns continued during his successors. The Chinese built fortified towns on the steppe moved convicts there and encouraged ordinary people to migrate to the frontier. Yet these settlements, as the nomads saw it, provided only another target which they could attack. The nomads were infuriatingly difficult to defeat. They simply retreated across the steppe and would outrun, or ambush, any Chinese soldiers that came in pursuit of them. If the Chinese managed to hold on to territory, the nomads could indeed be pushed further and further away, yet this only meant that they would return on some other occasion to raid and pillage.

If defense was impossible and offense difficult, the question was what to do. The option which the imperial court eventually arrived at was to engage the peoples of the steppes in various ad hoc arrangements designed to give them a stake in the system. By establishing common institutions there was a chance that the nomads gradually would come to see things China’s way. The most obvious option was to conclude a treaty. This was a strategy which the Chinese tried in relation to the Russians. Another strategy, used in relation to Tibetans and Mongols in particular, was to incorporate elements of the foreign culture into the practices of the Chinese state. Thus, Tibetan-style Buddhism was a common point of reference during the Qing dynasty and Mongolian references could be found everywhere. For example, the Qing emperors constructed a to-scale replica of the Potala Palace in Lhasa at their summer retreat, and they established Tibetan temples in Beijing to which high-ranking Buddhist monks were invited. Whenever such cultural measures were unlikely to work, the Chinese government tried more hands-on tactics. They would, for example, give away imperial princesses as wives or consorts to the rulers on the steppes in order to bring their respective families closer together; or they would engage in elaborate gift exchanges in order to establish relationships of mutual dependence; or, in cases where the emperors were particularly desperate, they would even place themselves in the subordinate position of tribute bearers to the foreigners.