Credit: HarperCollins

China's road to its empire, and the expansive borders it claims today, started not with Han Chinese dynasties in 221 BC but with the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, historian Timothy Brook argues in a new book.

What they're saying: "Great State: China and the World," published by HarperCollins and slated for release on March 17, argues that the Mongol concept of the "great state," or yeke ulus, was adopted by China's subsequent dynasties and would later define China's relationship with its neighbors and the world.

China today is "burdened by the fact that it has often been an expansive and an aggressive power towards its neighbors," Brook tells me. "China is stuck with parts of the Eurasian continent that it really doesn’t want and doesn’t benefit from."

  • "All of its major problems — its inability to deal with Tibetans, Uighurs, Vietnam, border anxiety with India and Russia — all of this was the heritage of its experience as a Great State," Brook says.

This thesis is unlikely to be popular in China, because it contradicts three widely-held beliefs:

  1. China's unification in 221 BC under the Qin emperor, who was of Han ethnicity, was the key historical moment that laid the early foundations for China as we know it today.
  2. Chinese civilization absorbed non-Han nomadic invaders such as the Mongols, influencing and gradually swallowing their culture — not the other way around.
  3. Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia have always belonged to China and are an indelible part of its territory.

"China today is far more the successor of the Mongol age than the Qin," Brook writes.

  • The great state mandate "entailed the right to extend the authority of that one family out across the entire world, incorporating all existing polities and rulers into a system in which military power is paramount."
  • "This was the Great State, and this is what China became."

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