Monday 20 April 2015

Hong Kong historian deviates from official China line on sovereignty over Tibet

HONG KONG: A leading Chinese historian and a veteran of the committee that advises on official Chinese history textbooks has broken step with the official Chinese line on historical sovereignty over Tibet and said that to claim that the ancient Buddhist kingdom “has always been a part of China” would be a “defiance of history”.

In an article in the China Review magazine, Professor Ge Jianxiong, 62, director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography and the Research Centre for Historical Geographic Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, states that while considering how big China was during the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th century), “we cannot include the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, which was ruled by Tubo/Tufan…”

Tubo/Tufan, notes Ge, “was a sovereignty independent of the Tang Dynasty. At least it was not administered by the Tang Dynasty.” If it were not, he argues, there would have been no need for the Tang emperor of the day to offer Princess Wen Cheng in a “marriage of state” to the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo.

“It would be a defiance of history,” asserts Ge, “to claim that Tibet has always been a part of China since the Tang Dynasty; the fact that the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau subsequently became a part of the Chinese dynasties does not substantiate such a claim.”

Ge’s article is an exploration of a larger theme of Chinese identity in history — and precisely when it evolved. And his comments on Tibet conform to scholarly accounts that acknowledge that the takeover of Tibet during the Qing Dynasty (17th to early 20th century) was the starting point for  “Chinese sovereignty” over the region.

Yet, Ge’s comments are controversial insofar as they deviate from the official Communist Party line that Tibet has always been an inalienable part of China; in the past China has regarded as any weakening of that theory as “anti-national” and “split-ist”. It will be interesting to see how the authorities respond to Ge’s scholarly article.

Ge’s major research fields include historical population geography, population and migration history, and cultural history. He has written and edited numerous books, and over 100 articles on historical population geography, population and migration history, and cultural history.

In his latest article, Ge notes that prior to 1912, when the Republic of China was officially founded, the idea of China (in Chinese, Zhongguo) wasn’t clearly conceptualised. Even during the late Qing period, he writes, the term ‘China’ would on occasion be used to refer to the “Qing State, including all the territory that fell within the boundaries of the Qing empire”; but at other times, it would be taken to refer only to the “18 interior provinces”, excluding Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Therefore, he argues, “if we want to understand the extent of ancient China’s territory, we can only speak of how large the actual territory controlled by a particular dynasty was at a particular moment.” Noting that notions of a ‘Greater China’ were based entirely on the “one-sided views of Qing court records that were… written for the court’s self-aggrandisement”, Ge criticises those who feel that “the more they exaggerate the territory of historical ‘China’ or China’s successive dynasties and kingdoms, the more patriotic they are.”

In fact, he says, the opposite is true. “If China really wishes to rise peacefully and be on a solid footing to face the future, we must understand the sum of our history and learn from our experiences.”

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