How northern ethnicities integrated into Chinese nation

By YANG JUN / 09-14-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A glazed pottery Chiwen, a type of roof ridge ornament from the Tangut-led Western Xia Dynasty, unearthed at the Ningxia Hui autonomous region in Northwestern China Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the academic community regarding the national identity and a sense of belonging to China of the historical ethnic groups. However, the majority of discussions tend to focus on the influence of the dynasties in the Central Plains on shaping the Chinese identity among these groups, rather than exploring the evolution of their own ethnic identities.

Evolution of social structures 

From the Eastern Han (25–220) to the Liao Dynasty (907–1125), the pre-state society of northern ethnic groups recorded in historical texts was predominantly characterized by a two-tier system, which is recorded in detail in the Book of the Later Han, [an ancient text that covers the history of the Han from 6 to 189 CE]. 

According to the Book of the Later Han, the Qiang people [refers to various groups of people at different periods in ancient times, originally living in the northwest of China] had a singular form of primitive social structure known as the “Zhong” (a tribe-like social unit). The development and evolution of Zhong tribes exhibited two tendencies: fission and fusion. As the population increased, new parallel social units would split off from existing ones, leading to fission. This was a consequence of increased strength and expansion. Vise verse, some Zhong tribes with dwindling populations found it difficult to sustain themselves independently and sought to align with more powerful Zhong. These tribes became what the Book of the Later Han called—fu-luo, that is, a tribe attaching itself to a bigger power. This process can be described as fusion. This was also a general rule for the evolution of pre-state societies among northern ethnic groups. When the trend of fusion surpassed fission, the ethnic group would transition into an early state. If fission prevailed, the group would remain in a pre-state society.

The most important means to strengthen cohesion within a Zhong tribe and foster a sense of identity was to establish a shared ancestral identity with a common male progenitor. This shared ancestor would often be a real historical figure and possibly an ancestor of the tribe’s leader. Under the dual forces of fusion and fission, the Zhong tribes underwent continuous merging and splitting, ultimately evolving into the predominant social units among the Qiang people.

Evolution towards nationhood

In the pre-state society, there were three factors that could strengthen tendency towards fusion: alliances, master-subordinate relationships, and marriage.

Alliances between complex Zhong tribes were often formed for military purposes. Qiang tribes, for example, would align with each other to collectively take military action against the Han Empire. The process of forming an alliance included resolving the internal conflicts among the tribes first, followed by forming an alliance through the exchange of hostages, and finally making a “blood alliance” via some mysterious rituals. 

An example is the Xianbei people [ancient nomadic people that once resided in the eastern Eurasian steppes in what is today Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeastern China], specifically the prominent alliance led by chieftain Tan Shihuai. The objective of the Xianbei alliance was to expand their influence over the Han’s border regions. The leader of the alliance, like Tan Shihuai, had to demonstrate strong leadership in military operations and impartiality in distributing the spoils. Therefore, when Tan Shihuai’s successor failed in these aspects, the alliance came to an end.

Both above cases failed to break through the bottleneck of pre-state development and did not successfully transition into an early state. The failure to solve the internal identity problem well was one of the significant reasons.

Regarding the master-subordinate relationships, charismatic authority often emerged during the evolution towards nationhood in pre-state societies. Leaders with exceptional personal qualities would attract followers through their charisma. For instance, the relationship between Yelü Abaoji [the founding emperor of the Khitan-led Liao Dynasty] and Yelü Helu [Abaoji’s confidant, who made great contributions to Abaoji’s control of the Khitan regime and the unification of the steppes] was characterized as a charismatic leader and a loyal follower. Helu had been close to Abaoji since childhood and served him faithfully. This kind of master-subordinate relationship among complex tribe leaders symbolized a political relationship, indicating the development of political identity and the initial transition into an early-stage nation.

As for marriage, northern ethnic groups commonly practiced exogamy. Tribes connected by marriages were inherently alliances, often taking collective actions against their common enemies. The intimate relationship and shared interests between these tribes could facilitate a considerable degree of identification. Therefore, marriage relationships became opportunities for surpassing the identity of composite tribes within advanced social organizations. 

For example, Yelü Abaoji’s wife, Shulü Ping, was a Uyghur woman. The Uighur Shulü clan and the Khitan Yelü clan had been intermarrying for generations, resulting in a special sense of identity between the two. This Uighur clan played an important role in establishing the Liao Dynasty, and the identification stemming from these kinship relationships eventually evolved into an ethnic identity. After the establishment of Liao, the Shulü clan fully assimilated into the Khitan people.

Before the northern ethnic groups transitioned into early-stage nations, their shared ancestral traditions played a significant role in shaping their sense of identity. Although their societies were no longer united by kinships following repeated fission and fusion, their psychological identity remained rooted in the era of kinship, resulting in a lag in their consciousness compared to social development. This lag, as observed in the cases of the Qiang people and Tan Shihuai, posed a significant obstacle to the evolution of northern ethnic groups towards early-stage nations. 

Consequently, when seeking new way to facilitate a sense of identity from external sources, the northern ethnicities turned their attention to the dynasties in the Central Plains, with whom they had close interactions. By adopting practices from the Central Plain dynasties to break free from their outdated kinship-based identity, these new ethnic regimes inevitably aligned themselves with the broader Chinese nation.

Integration into Chinese nation

As early as the Pre-Qin period, China had already formed the concept of “Wu Fu” [lit. five kinds of mourning garments worn according to the relationship to the deceased, used to refer to grades of kinship] with the core idea of “all the states in the Xia [a general term for the states in the Central Plain] adopted the same dressing code and practiced the same ritual system, while the states of the barbarians such as the Man, Yi, Rong, and Di followed the same dressing code but with different rules.” 

Following the Han era, the development of a sense of identity among the northern ethnicities towards the Central Plains can be categorized into four types. The first type involves the ethnic tribes that were already under the rule of the Central Plains. The Central Plain dynasties were also the only state-level entity they could come into contact with and the only regime they were willing to accept. 

According to the Book of the Later Han, leaders of the primitive-level tribes of the Qiang people used to participate in wars against the Han Empire. However, when they stepped out of their own societies, the sole great power they faced was the Han. Their new sense of identity, which transcended their old ancestral identity, could only be a political identity, and quickly evolved into identification with the Han. This was how a national identity with China was established.

The second type was observed when a complex Zhong tribe was formed. Its contact with the Central plains might lead to a sense of belonging to the Chinese regime or to a national identity with China. The Book of Jin recorded that there were 19 Zhong tribes of the Beidi people [various ethnic groups who lived north of the Chinese realms] who chose to settle to the south of the Great Wall [culturally the Great Wall was a dividing line between the agricultural civilizational region in the south and northern nomadic tribes]. This decision reflected the significant allure of the Central Plains and served as a prerequisite and foundation for the formation of a national identity with China.

The third type occurred during the evolution of alliances among complex Zhong tribes into early-stage nations. While these nations develop their own ethnic regime, their political identity with the earlier-formed Central Plain dynasties cannot be completely erased. A typical example is the Balhae Kingdom [a multi-ethnic kingdom situated in present-day Northeast China, the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and the southeastern Russian Far East from 698–926]. Before the establishment of the kingdom, the Mohe people, the ancestors of Balhae, had been subordinate to the Sui Dynasty (581–618). After its founding, the Balhae received investiture from the Tang Empire (618–907). In 726, when Heishui Mohe [a tribe of Mohe people] in the north of Balhae came under the direct control of the Tang, King Dae Mu-ye of Balhae wanted to attack the Heishui Mohe [fearing a pincer attack]. His younger brother Dae Mun-ye disagreed, stating that attacking Heishui Mohe meant going against the Tang. Their conversation reflects the conflict between their recognition of their own regime and their identification with the Tang Empire. Nevertheless, Balhae maintained its tributary relationship with the Tang, which revealed the overall tenor that their identification was still with China.

The fourth type refers to ethnic groups that assumed control of the Central Plains, and claimed themselves as part of China. Typical examples included the Liao Dynasty established by the Khitan people and the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) established by the Jurchen people.

In summary, the crucial stage in the development of the northern ethnic groups from pre-state societies to nations occurred during their extensive interactions with the dynasties of the Central Plains. The political ideology, advanced socio-economic and cultural prowess of the Central Plains were particularly attractive to the northern ethnicities. The ultimate result was the formation of a shared national identity with “China.”

Yang Jun is a professor from the School of Humanities at Jilin University.