27 June 2016

Was Jıngghıs Khan Chinese?


Jıngghıs Khan (元太祖)

When we were still living in Baotou – a city which, by the way, has a booming trade in ‘regional items’ and Mongolian specialities – one of the ways in which I would at times annoy my wife Jessie was to pick debates with her about whether she considered Jıngghıs Khan, the Supreme Ancestor of the Yuan Dynasty 元太祖, whose face adorned practically every other pillow and wall-hanging in every other local-style restaurant and curio shop in Baotou, to be Chinese. (Naturally, whichever side she picked, I would always play devil’s advocate for the other.)

The reason for this, of course, is that there are good arguments to be made for either side. Jıngghıs Han (and his descendants Ögetay and Qubılay) shared little culture in common with the people they set out to conquer. They were nomadic pastoralists who spoke a language very different from Han Chinese. They valued very different skills, knowledge and forms of technology than the Chinese did, and had very different cultural outlooks. They are also claimed as the historical fathers of the (modern) nations of Mongolia and Kazakhstan. And – a point not entirely without relevance – they killed a lot of Chinese people during their conquest of China! On the other hand, China, as was, accepted at least Qubılay Han as its unquestioned sovereign, upon whom had fallen the Mandate of Heaven. Qubılay subsequently conferred Chinese Imperial titles and status upon his ancestors. Many of Jıngghıs Han’s Mongols who entered China essentially became culturally and linguistically Chinese – or at least, Chinese enough that they could govern the Chinese state effectively for several generations after Qubılay.

I go to such lengths to point this out, simply to show that such a nationalism is essentially ad hoc; particularly as it pertains backwards to times and places where the modern ideology of nationalism simply does not apply. China was never a nation-state until at least 1689 (with the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which established the first Chinese-Russian border), and arguably not even until 1911 with the Xinhai Revolution and the ascendancy of Sun Yat-sen’s ‘nationalist’ ideology (which was itself arguably ad hoc). There are a number of points at which the formation of China as a nation may be interrogated, as they were by Dr Wang Hui in his excellent literary-social-historical treatment of the transition. If nationalism simply consists in a shared culture, shared values, shared print-literature, why, asks Wang, didn’t the ‘nationalist’ Sun seek to form ‘China’ from the Han, together with the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Burmese? Why instead did he insist on forming ‘China’ from the culturally, linguistically disparate peoples of the Han, the Manchus, the Mongols, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans – whose commonality lay, rather, in their common rulership by the Manchu Qing? His argument in answer is somewhat interesting: he argues that the formation of the Chinese nation-state out of the remains of the Manchu empire rests in certain canons of Confucian political argumentation and methods of legitimation (the ‘heavenly principle’ 天理). Here Wang’s ‘leftist’ intellectual history points, ironically enough, to the traditionalist political theory of Jiang Qing, Kang Xiaoguang and others.

Even in modern Europe, questions of nationalism are very difficult to answer – even in the very places where nationalism could first be said to have arisen. It would seem on first glance hypocritical, for example, for the advocates of Brexit in our own time to deploy arguments about national sovereignty versus the supranational European Union, but turn around and declare the question of Scottish nationhood irrelevant. But it would not be hypocritical to do so, because the European Union is not a state. It doesn’t serve the same common good of collectively-organised pity which the state is meant to serve. On the other hand, the United Kingdom herself is a state so-organised (with a long and continuous history of institutions, organisations and services to prove it), in spite of its being a similarly-supranational project, the fruit of a personal union in the Stuart line of kings, and of the personal efforts of those same kings to foster unity between the Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish nations, all under the state they ruled! Even if there was never any such thing as a single ‘British people’ in the narrow sense (unless, by argument from etymology, only the Welsh are so indicated), there was certainly a single, shared British solidarity that came from long personal rule under the same state. Even the wars which led to the unjust overthrow of the Stuart kings were themselves transnational in character: Catholic and Anglican Scots, English and Irish all banded together in support of their native king, to fight off a foreign Dutch usurper backed by Puritan Scots, English and Irish.

The question of the relationship between nation and state becomes even stranger and more convoluted when applied to polities like Russia. Like China, the modern state of Russia (though naturally imbued with the character of its majority constituency), still sways the loyalty of a number of different narody: Tatars, Chuvash, Bashkir, Chechens, Karelians, Siberians and half a dozen others. And yet the Russian narod itself, together with its civilisational influence, spans the borders of Belarus and the Ukraine, along with parts of non-Russian states such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Moldova.

Susanna Rabow-Edling talks about a distinction, which she goes on to critique from within, of the difference between political and cultural forms of nationalism. Even though I think she overstated her case a little bit in portraying the Slavophils (Russia’s nascent cultural ‘nationalists’) as crypto-anarchists in a Herderian mould, I still believe her book on the Slavophils to be essential reading, if for no other reason than that it illustrates so nicely some of the essential differences in tenor between the nationalism that makes an explicitly-political project of engaging the people, and the ‘nationalism’ (possibly a misnomer) that engages the people outside the state. Even though their instincts could be thought of as localist, democratic, distributist, radical or even anarchist, Khomyakov, the brothers Kireevsky and the brothers Aksakov did not seek to involve the Russian people in a constitutional or a parliamentary project. They felt both that statecraft would corrupt the people, and that pandering to the people would introduce evil aims into statecraft. Ivan Aksakov went so far as to develop the idea of obshchestvo, wherein the people developed a shared customary consciousness outside of and in parallel to the state.

The reason why I put the Slavophils’ cultural ‘nationalism’ in scare-quotes is because even though they were as concerned with the narod (if not more so!) than the narodniki themselves, and even though they were concerned with preserving the privileges and powers of the Tsar – hence my reticence at labelling them ‘anarchists’ of any sort – it blessedly never occurred to them to make the one dependent on the other. The life of the people and the life of the state were to be kept in their separate realms. Though Ivan Kireevsky in particular with his anti-Roman qualms might be mortified by my saying so, the Slavophils did evince some of the Byzantine mentality which approached the basileus in one way, and the ethnos in another way entirely. Put another way: I get the strong suspicion that the Slavophils would not hesitate to agree that Jıngghıs Khan was the tsar of the Chinese land and the papa of the Chinese household – but they would revolt against any further claim the Chinese narod would make upon him as demeaning to the Chinese people themselves, and they would detest his being made a political icon in modern Chinese culture and society. I can imagine they might advise the Chinese people to seek their political awareness, their obshchestvo, in other and healthier directions.

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