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The nomadic other: Ontological security and the Inner Asian steppe in historical East Asian international politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 September 2015


A growing literature in IR addresses the historical international politics of East Asia prior to Western influence. However, this literature has taken little note of the role of Eurasian steppe societies and empires in these dynamics. This article offers a corrective, showing that relations between China and the steppe played an important role in regional politics. I argue that Chinese elite conceptions of the steppe as other played an important role in maintaining China’s ontological security. Imperial Chinese elites pursued a deliberate strategy of ‘othering’ steppe societies, presenting them as China’s political-cultural opposite. Doing so both provided a source of stable identity to China and justified their exclusion from the Chinese ‘world order’. Empirically, I proceed in three sections. First, I consider Chinese identity building, framed in terms of ontological security, both under the founding Qin and Han dynasties, and under the later Ming dynasty. Second, I address recent historiography of the steppe, showing Chinese conceptions of it were inaccurate. Third, I address the long history of hybridity between the two regions.

© 2015 British International Studies Association 

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I would like to thank Simon Pratt, Christopher David LaRoche, Lincoln Rathnam, three extremely helpful reviewers, and the editors of the RIS for help in preparing this article.


1 Zhang, Yongjin, ‘System, empire and state in Chinese International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 27:5 (2001), pp. 4363CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kang, David C., East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Zhou, Fangyin, ‘Equilibrium analysis of the tributary system’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 4:2 (2011), pp. 147178CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kelly, Robert E., ‘A “Confucian long peace” in pre-Western East Asia?’, European Journal of International Relations, 18:3 (2012), pp. 407430CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zhang, Yongjin and Buzan, Barry, ‘The tributary system as international society in theory and practice’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 5:1 (2012), pp. 336CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ringmar, Erik, ‘Performing international systems: Two East-Asian alternatives to the Westphalian order’, International Organization, 66:1 (2012), pp. 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Joseph MacKay, ‘Rethinking the IR theory of empire in late Imperial China’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific (forthcoming).

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3 The word is, of course, contentious. ‘Barbarian’ has been use to translate multiple Chinese terms that may usefully parallel the equivalent Greek root, a practice I follow here, for simplicity’s sake. An alternative usage is simply ‘foreigner’. For a detailed discussion of these translation issues, see Nicola Cosmo, Di, Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 9596CrossRefGoogle Scholar, fn. 7.

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7 Neumann, Iver B., ‘Self and other in International Relations’, European Journal of International Relations, 2:2 (1996), pp. 139174CrossRefGoogle Scholar. ‘Others’ have been associated with identity formation by philosophers and social scientists at least since Hegel. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. John Niemeyer Findlay, trans. Arnold V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

8 Rumelili, Bahar, Constructing Regional Community and Order in Europe and Southeast Asia (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Nor, as Abizadeh has recently argued, does identity building require an other. Abizadeh, Arash, ‘Does collective identity presuppose an other? On the alleged incoherence of global solidarity’, American Political Science Review, 99:1 (2005), pp. 4560CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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12 Pines, Yuri, Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), p. 1Google Scholar.

13 Kang, David C., “Hierarchy and legitimacy in international systems: The tribute system in early modern East Asia’, Security Studies, 19:4 (2010), pp. 593CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 595. For a realist account, see Wang, Harmony and War.

14 East Asia Before the West, p. 140.

15 Ibid., p. 10.

16 Kelly, ‘A “Confucian long peace” in pre-Western East Asia?’ The peace was nonetheless puzzling. In contrast, the same period in Europe (roughly the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries) included all the Reformationary wars, including the Thirty Years War, as well as the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. It was an extraordinarily bloody period. Alternately, the East Asian peace was more than ten times as long as, and considerably less violent than, the original ‘long peace’ – the Cold War.

17 This literature belongs to a broader trend toward conceptualising non-Western historical international systems. See especially English School accounts, including Watson, , The Evolution of International Society: A Comparative Historical Analysis (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 8593CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Buzan, Barry and Little, Richard, International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 5760Google Scholar. The subject has often arisen in the context of comparing international systems: Donnelly, Jack, ‘Rethinking political structures: From “ordering principles” to “vertical differentiation” – and beyond’, International Theory, 1:1 (2009), pp. 4986CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Donnelly, Jack, ‘The elements of the structures of international systems’, International Organization, 66:4 (2012), pp. 609643CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ringmar, ‘Performing international systems’. See also Hobson, John M., The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Mitzen, ‘Ontological security in world politics’; Steele, Ontological Security in International Relations.

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20 Ibid., pp. 353–63.

21 Steele, Brent J., ‘Ontological security and the power of self-identity: British neutrality and the American Civil War’, Review of International Studies, 31:3 (2005), pp. 519540CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Jelena Subotić, ‘Narrative, ontological security, and foreign policy change’, Foreign Policy Analysis (2015). See also research by social psychologists – for example, Kinnvall, Catarina, ‘Globalization and religious nationalism: Self, identity, and the search for ontological security’, Political Psychology, 25:5 (2004), pp. 741767CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Mitzen treats ontological (in)security as a property of states as unitary actors. Others, such a Krolikowski, are sceptical. I focus on Chinese elite individual efforts to construct a collective identity, eliding the methodological problem of treating states as unitary, but nonetheless focusing on the collective identity of the state. Subotic adopts a similar approach. Mitzen, ‘Ontological security in world politics’; Krolikowski, Alanna, ‘State personhood in ontological security theories of International Relations and Chinese nationalism: A sceptical view’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2:1 (2008), pp. 109133CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Subotić, ‘Narrative, ontological security, and foreign policy change’.

24 Neumann, ‘Self and other in International Relations’, p. 165, emphasis in original. The article also reviews self/other logics in IR and social theory. See also Inayatullah, Naeem and Blaney, David L., International Relations and the Problem of Difference (London: Routledge, 2004)Google Scholar.

25 See, for example, Rumelili, Constructing Regional Community and Order in Europe and Southeast Asia.

26 Steele, , Ontological Security in International Relations, p. 40Google Scholar.

27 Not all ontological security frameworks in IR emphasise self/other relations. While Mitzen makes no direct reference to it, the concept is important to Steele’s account. Ibid., pp. 26–7, 30–2.

28 Neumann, Iver B., Uses of the Other: The ‘East’ in European Identity Formation (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 218219Google Scholar.

29 As Neumann and Wigen have recently argued, steppe societies have been ‘roundly neglected’ in IR, in terms of understanding relations both between steppe polities, and between steppe and settled peoples. Neumann and Wigen, ‘The importance of the Eurasian steppe to the study of International Relations’.

30 Lewis, Mark Edward, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010), p. 1Google Scholar.

31 Ibid., p. 2.

32 Pines, Yuri, The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 34Google Scholar.

33 Lewis, , The Early Chinese Empires, pp. 135136Google Scholar, emphasis added.

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36 Qian, Sima, Records of the Grand Historian of China, trans. Burton Watson (Hong Kong: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 12Google Scholar. Sima Qian’s account of the nomadic other had historical parallels, including the Greek view of the Scythians, found in Herodotus. Stuurman, Siep, ‘Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the anthropological turn in Ancient Greece and Han China’, Journal of World History, 19:1 (2008), pp. 140CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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38 The tian-xia concept has been revived as a normative political-theoretic programme by the Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang (‘Rethinking empire from a Chinese concept “all-under-heaven” (tian-xia),” Social Identities, 12:1 (2006), pp. 29–41; ‘A political world philosophy in terms of all-under-heaven (tian-xia)’, Diogenes, 56:1 (2009), pp. 5–18.) For critique, see Callahan, William A., ‘Chinese visions of world order: Post-hegemonic or a new hegemony?’, International Studies Review, 10:4 (2008), pp. 749761CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a defence, see Ren, Xiao, ‘Traditional Chinese theory and practice of foreign relations’, in Yongnian Zheng (ed.), China and International Relations: The Chinese View and the Contribution of Wang Gungwu (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 102116Google Scholar.

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44 A Song dynasty historian took an analogous view of steppe peoples: ‘Let us not seek victory over them … They are like unto all manner of insects, reptiles, snakes, and lizards. How could we “receive them with courtesy and deference”?’ quoted in Wright, David C., ‘The northern frontier’, in David Andrew Graff and Robin D. S. Higham (eds), A Military History of China (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2012), p. 57Google Scholar.

45 This view was not limited to the steppe – it applied to multiple peripheral peoples. See Scott’s account of imperial relations with Southeast Asian hill tribes. Scott, James C., The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009)Google ScholarPubMed. Tellingly, Scott references Barfield’s ‘shadow empires’ in framing his account. Barfield, Thomas J., ‘The shadow empires: Imperial state formation along the Chinese-Nomad frontier’, in Susan E. Alcock et al. (eds), Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)Google Scholar. Only the steppe both received this rhetorical treatment and presented a military threat. Exceptionally, Ming and Qing authorities had difficulty dealing with pirate polities on the Chinese coast. Being relatively short-lived, institutionally adaptable, and opposed to Chinese rule, they had striking parallels with the steppe. MacKay, Joseph, ‘Pirate nations: Maritime pirates as escape societies in late Imperial China’, Social Science History, 37:4 (2013), pp. 551573Google Scholar.

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47 By this time, the states were states, in the sense of being centralised and bureaucratised. For example, civil service exams dated from the Han dynasty, and were formalised during the Tang dynasty (618–907). Woodside, Alexander, Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 12Google Scholar. East Asian state consolidation thus predates equivalent processes in Europe. It occurred in China, Korea, and Vietnam, and to a lesser extent in Japan, where a feudal warrior aristocracy persisted. Kang, , East Asia Before the West, pp. 2553Google Scholar.

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58 Chiefly Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian of China.

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77 Barfield, The Perilous Frontier.

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79 Ibid., p. 306.

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81 Roads plural – multiple routes intersected, overlapped, and varied over time. Parzinger, Hermann, ‘The “Silk Roads” concept reconsidered: About transfers, transportation and transcontinental interactions in prehistory’, The Silk Road, 5:2 (2008), p. 7Google Scholar.

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84 Skrynnikova, Tatyana D., ‘Relations of domination and submission: Political practice in the Mongol Empire of Chinggis Khan’, in David Sneath (ed.), Imperial Statecraft: Political Forms and Techniques of Governance in Inner Asia, Sixth-Twentieth Centuries (Bellingham, WA: East Asian Studies Press, 2006), p. 86Google Scholar.

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91 Thus, for example, Honeychurch cites positively elements of Lattimore’s and Barfield’s arguments.

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