North China as Part of the Inner Asian System, 10th-15th Centuries

North China as Part of the Inner Asian System, 10th-15th Centuries

Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund, Tier 2

Ong Chang Woei, NUS Department of Chinese Studies
Koh Khee Heong, NUS Department of Chinese Studies
Wang Jinping, NUS Department of History
Sng Tuan Hwee, NUS Department of Economics

Recently the Chinese government has coined the phrase “One Belt One Road” to frame its strategies of engaging with the world. This is no doubt a political and diplomatic slogan, but it is also deeply rooted in historical realities and the Chinese perceptions of them. One of the assumptions of this research project is that we cannot fully understand the significance of this seemingly new Chinese take on international relations if we do not go back in time to examine its historical roots, which are based on two different modes of engagement marked by a north-south divide. This project will try to explain the northern mode of China’s interactions with its neighbors in history within the greater context of Inner Asian history.

To date, research on China’s relations with its northern neighbors have mostly either
presented a picture of sinicization or a reverse process, or adopted a sino-centric or steppecentric perspective. As a result, Inner Asian history and Chinese history are more often than not treated as two separate fields and the conversations between the two are limited. In this sort of discourse, therefore, China and Inner Asia are seen as two distinct entities. The purpose of this project is to re-conceptualize the issue and argue that we can gain better insights into the historical development of the region that we call North China if we consider it part of the Inner Asian system.

We use the term “system” to mean a series of intertwined transborder networks of trade, migration and cultural exchange that collectively shapes the administrative, social and cultural structures and everyday experiences of the people in that region. Inner Asia in the 10th to 15th centuries can be considered a system because these multi-layered yet interrelated networks not only linked the various sub-regions, including North China, into a complex whole but also defined its characteristics, which can then be compared with other regions/systems, such as the Indian Ocean maritime system where Southeastern China is a part.

In other words, it is our contention that the political, social, religious and cultural
institutions and expressions we found in 10th to 15th century North China were as much the products of Chinese dynastic endeavors as the results of inter-Inner Asian dynamics. Without taking the Inner Asian factors into consideration, we will not be able to fully explain the disparities in political, social, economic and cultural forms of North and South China. By adopting a “system” approach for studying the development and transformation of China’s various regions over time, we will be able to uncover the historical roots that shape the world into its current form and be in a better position to understand China’s approach to international relations today.

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