Great State: China and the World 
by Timothy Brook.
Profile, 464 pp., £25, September 2019, 978 1 78125 828 6
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Now​ that the long-term confrontation between China and an assortment of countries – Australia, Japan, the US, Vietnam and other less committed fellow travellers (including the UK) – is well underway, interest in Chinese doings and undoings in the past as well as the present has further increased.

Demand evokes supply, and Timothy Brook has supplied his Great State, in which his solid Sinological scholarship is complemented by a very effective use of maps (as well as the world’s first globe, from 1492, which shows China as Cathaja and Japan as Cipangu, with Spain and Africa on the far side of the oceanic blue because America was still absent), to illustrate his uncontroversial depiction of China as entangled in world affairs since early antiquity, but also his unconventional view of the true origins of today’s Chinese state.

Great State is anything but an anti-Chinese polemic, but it will offend even so because it describes the Mongol regime that conquered China in the 13th century, and the Manchu regime of the Jurchens who conquered China in the 17th, as Mongol and Jurchen, instead of retroactively conferring Han nationality on them as Chinese nationalism demands. Their official dynastic names, Yuan and Ching respectively, were impeccably Chinese, but the dynasts themselves retained their Mongol or Jurchen political identities and languages even after centuries in China. To point that out, as Brook does, is impolite, as is his reminder that the borders of today’s People’s Republic of China are those of the Manchu empire (minus vast losses to Russia in 1858 and 1860), within which the Han Chinese were subjects alongside the Turkic peoples of Turkestan (now Xinjiang), the Tibetans, most Mongols, and many smaller nationalities. The imperfect analogy would be India claiming sovereignty over Sri Lanka and Myanmar (as well as Pakistan) because all were once under British rule.

If Brook offends, he doesn’t do so gratuitously. It is the central thesis of his book that today’s imperial and imperialistic China is actually a modern rendition of the Mongol and Manchu regimes, rather than of earlier dynasties going back to the first Qin dynasty, normally dated 221-207 bc. The ‘Great State’ of his title is certainly a Mongol concept (represented though it is by the Chinese characters ‘big’ and ‘state’ that are now used to translate ‘empire’ into Chinese) because the Mongols, intent though they were on global conquest, always recognised that other independent powers existed beyond their imperial borders, with which it might be useful to maintain diplomatic relations. By contrast the benevolent authority of the pre-Mongol Han Chinese emperor had no territorial limits at all, as it extended beyond the lands directly administered by his officials to tributary client-states and then to all other powers both near and far. Some were so distant and so barbarous they didn’t know that they were fortunate enough to be sheltered within the Tianxia, the ‘under heaven’ supervised by the emperor. When merchants or envoys arrived from Japan or from places much further away, they first had to hand over whatever they could come up with by way of tribute, before being allowed to raise any matter of substance. As consolation they were usually given more valuable presents, most often highly portable silk cloths.

Those notions were emphatically reasserted when the Mongols were driven out of China in 1368 by the Han uprising led by the poor peasant, aspiring monk and sometime beggar Zhu Yuanzhang, who became the magnificent emperor Hongwu, founder of the (last Han Chinese) Ming dynasty. Hongwu was an innovator in many ways but insisted on reverting to the pre-Mongol concept of limitless empire, thereby crippling Ming diplomacy with the insistence that any non-Han power near enough to matter was ipso facto an obedient tributary, or else a rebel.

Logically enough, given his thesis, Brook does not go back to the Chinese apparitions in Greek, Roman and late Roman (‘Byzantine’) sources, or to the Roman and late-Roman apparitions in Chinese dynastic histories (notably Book 88 of the Hou Hanshu on the ‘Western regions’, in which the Roman Empire is very courteously named Da Qin, ‘Great China’), because they pre-date the Mongol period. He does pay careful attention to the relations of Mongol and post-Mongol China with the Koreans (much neglected by others) as well as assorted Westerners, including the familiar but endlessly fascinating Jesuit ventures in cross-cultural communications, whose splendid residues include the art of Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), which surprises even jaded visitors to Taipei’s National Palace Museum with its supreme fusion of Chinese and Western painting techniques.

It is all the more odd therefore that Brook says almost nothing of relations with Russia: odd because of their importance, but also because Russia is the other state essentially and most enduringly shaped by the Mongols, an inheritance manifest in the tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities (in contrast to Western practices) till modern times, in the stubborn refusal of the rule of law (like the Mongol Yasa, Russian laws empower only the state), and in the very concept of the tsar, obtained from the Latin caesar but applied by Orthodox churchmen to describe the Mongol great khan, overlord of Russia’s princes. Also of Mongol origin is Russia’s undeniably superior strategic culture, which does nothing to feed or clothe Russians but does generate disproportionate power (see what Putin does with Italy’s GDP), and the altogether remarkable ability of even the early modern Russian state to operate overland across enormous distances, far, far beyond the reach of any contemporary Western state.

That is how a Russian force encountered the very new Manchu China in 1650, having reached the Amur river at Albazino, more than four thousand miles from Moscow. After prolonged skirmishing in which the Manchu drove back the Russians, boundary talks resulted in the Treaty of Nerchinsk of 27 August 1689, redacted in Latin by an educated Pole with the Russians, and two Jesuit scientist-missionaries at the Manchu court.

That detail at least should have attracted Brook’s attention, given his keen interest in the individuals on both sides who connected China with the rest of the world, though the greater significance of the treaty is that it set a definite frontier, incompatible in itself with the pre-Mongol concept of limitless imperial benevolence, revived under their assertively Han Chinese Ming successors but repudiated by the Manchus.

The Russians’ steppe culture was, no doubt, barbarous by Han-Chinese standards, but it did include the recognition that even the largest empire would share borders with independent powers, with which it might be advantageous to negotiate on an equal footing in order to form useful alliances or divide hostile alliances. A keen interest in foreign affairs and diplomacy was shared by Attila’s Huns, the Avars who arrived on the Adriatic in the seventh century all the way from Manchuria, the Mongols and finally the Manchu, all of whom are much better known for their mounted archery and ferocity than for their intensive diplomacy, notwithstanding the many descriptions of the latter in Western sources.These start with Priscus of Panium, who dined in Attila’s camp in the fifth century, and extend beyond Giovanni da Pian del Carpine’s account of his 12,000-mile journey from the Pope’s residence in Lyon to the Mongol capital of Karakorum and back, on which he set out in April 1245 at the age of 63 – he witnessed the election of a new grand khan, and also the shocking tolerance of diverse religions within the same camp and court.

When it comes to assessing Brook’s fundamental thesis, there are exceptions to every bold conclusion that one might reach. China’s secular tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity – in which both the Mao meat grinder of all identities, and Xi Jinping’s foolish attempt to destroy Islamic sentiments by drilling them into parade-ground obedience, remain exceptions – is very Mongol. On the other hand, the chief characteristic of China as a power in world affairs is its most un-Mongol self-absorption, which exceeds the inherent self-absorption of all very large polities, and of which the most consequential recent example was the post-2009 revival of a territorial claim over the barren rocks known to their Japanese owners as the Senkaku Islands (the Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese) – a claim loudly and insistently advanced at the very time when new, quietly neutralist leaders in Tokyo had started to manoeuvre away from the US alliance. Had anybody in Beijing paid any attention at all to what was happening in Japan, nobody would have mentioned the Senkakus, and Abe Shinzo, prime minister since then, might never have risen to launch the reconstruction of Japanese strategy, materially as well as culturally and politically. I have no evidence at all for my private certainty that the Chinese mission in Tokyo begged the foreign ministry and the rulers above it to shut up, but I do know for a fact that the Chinese diplomats in Myanmar warned Beijing many times about the excesses of China’s state-owned companies, before they finally drove the country’s military rulers to open to the West.

It is an administrative reality that Chinese diplomats report to a foreign ministry that is valued only as a loudspeaker for the top leadership, not as a source of advice, while China is a busy enough world in itself to keep the leader occupied. And there is no longer a collective leadership as there was under Hu Jintao, who was very much a primus inter pares rather than a boss. All of which helps to explain why Xi Jinping has no time to catch up with world affairs, about which he has only the crudest ideas. But it is even worse than that: Xi probably believes that he is devoting much time to foreign affairs, because he is forever receiving visiting foreign potentates, whether from Kiribati or Hungary or a hundred countries in between. Each time there is a formal welcome speech, and the polite audition of the visitor’s own set piece before the ritual exchange of gifts. All this is more than faintly ridiculous and wastes precious time, further reducing Xi’s ability to focus on important and real things in foreign affairs. That too is very un-Mongol.

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