Over the long course of the formation and development of the community for the Chinese nation, exchanges and communication between nomads in northern China and farmers in the Central Plains fueled the integration of the two groups in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). In the Tang era, the central court actively engaged in territorial expansion, while deep and extensive interactions between pastoral and agricultural populations enhanced the Chinese nation’s unity.
In the Tang Dynasty, traffic routes through the Eurasian continent concentrated on the steppe, and the most heavily tread route, linking the East and West of the continent, was called the “Steppe Road.” The road was formed to facilitate nomadic movement along the steppe and to strengthen connections with the outside world. Nomads were the first to blaze the trail of the Steppe Road, and they also served as intermediaries for East-West economic and cultural exchanges in Eurasia.
Nomadic groups, and the Steppe Road they opened, remained the anchor of East-West exchanges on the Eurasian continent for a long time. Due to their central geographic position, they had a natural advantage. Communication between these different groups led to population flows and reshaped the landscape of Eurasia. This position was also a fertile ground for nomads’ subsistence and active migratory flow. Their migration and power dynamics had a direct bearing on the Central Plains.
The Tang court encouraged trade between the northern steppe and the Western Regions. Many Tang chancellors were from the nomadic tribes in the north of China. This shows that the Tang Empire was not only established by ethnic Han people, it also represented a new nation that embraced and mixed various cultural traditions. Han culture was substantively enriched during the Tang, as Han people continuously assimilated nomadic cultures from regions to the north and northwest of the Great Wall.
During this period, major breakthroughs were achieved in territorial expansion, extending the borders of the Chinese nation significantly. The Tang Empire had remarkably international features. Ethnic groups within the Tang court’s sphere of social cultural influence became its subjects and vassals. These subjects and vassals considered joining the “family of the Chinese nation” an important political and cultural goal. Therefore, the influence of Confucianism and Chinese civilization on steppe areas grew to an unprecedented degree, a cultural outcome inseparable from the open call of the “Silk Road” and the expanding economy, trade, and transportation.
The Tang regime embraced other cultures with a broad mind. It emphasized integration of Huaxia (Han) and Yidi (non-Han) cultures. It was believed that people within China shared the same “roots” and those outside were like “branches and leaves.” Ethnic Han people living in the Central Plains and other ethnic groups in the borderland were regarded as the main body of Tang’s territory, known as “all under heaven.” These two major ethnicities promoted the gradual integration of the Central Plains and the borderland, and furthered the formation and development of a unified multiethnic Chinese nation.
The vast north of Tang China was a critical region where farmers and nomads exchanged and became increasingly integrated. Due to seasonal migration, extensive economy, low population density, and tribal organization, the nomadic world differed greatly from farming society. Farming society was created out of centralized irrigation agriculture, with a dense population under a bureaucratic government featuring power centralization. Geographically, nomadic and farming societies were separated by the Great Wall.
Tang rulers were familiar with, and tolerant of, nomads’ sustenance models and cultural habits. The settlement of large groups of nomads in northern China altered the ethnic composition of the region, while bringing changes to ideology and tradition. Mixed habitation, with farmers and nomads living in the same communities, gradually blurred the line between Hu (nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples living to the north of the Central Plains) and Han peoples, as the Chinese identity became increasingly strong.
The Tang court overcame military and financial difficulties that the Han Empire (206 BCE–220 CE) grappled with, which fell apart due partly to its failure to defeat powerful enemies from the steppe. The Tang promoted the principle of Hu-Han ethnic integration to the other side of the Great Wall, blending the broad vision and military strength of the steppe with the spirit and wealth of the Central Plains, thus making huge progress in the development history of the community for the Chinese nation.
The belt linking agricultural and pastoral areas along the northern part of the Great Wall was peculiar in the Tang territory and also a key arena for exchanges and communication between farmers and nomads. The two groups varied considerably in terms of culture and lifestyle.
For example, along the northern part of the Great Wall, there were East and West Turks, as well as the Tiele tribes headed by Uighurs and Syr-tardouchs. They steadily moved to the Central Plains, with their culture increasingly “Han-ized,” or Sinicized. Under the rule of the Tang court, these ethnic groups, in diverse forms, kept adjusting and changing their lifestyles to adapt themselves to the Central Plains. Cultural and ethnic identity in this region also showed a trend of Hu-Han integration.
These ethnic groups integrated both in their bloodlines and cultures. In the Tang Dynasty, cultural integration between Hu and Han was more important than the fusion of blood lineage. Along the northern Great Wall, different lifestyles of farmers and nomads intermingled and interrelated, yet the Han culture played a dominant role in this integration. Han poetry, calligraphy, rites, and music were admired by the ethnic groups in border areas. This region became crucial to Hu-Han integration at the time, and later provided experiential and model references for ethnic integration in the Central Plains.
In the Tang Dynasty, the migration and flow of pastoral tribes along the borders of the steppe towards agricultural settlements in modern-day Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, and other areas, facilitated the formation and reinforcement of the Chinese identity. Profound cultural traditions of Chinese civilization suggested that the Central Plains was the cultural center. Especially when the Tang Empire pushed its borders northward to the steppe in North Asia and the Western Regions, foreign ethnic groups in neighboring regions were directly incorporated into the Chinese culture. Countries in East Asia, such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, also adopted Tang’s state apparatus and its model of foreign relations, writing, food, clothing, and calendar styles.
Within the vast north, cultures differed immensely. In areas filled with nomadic settlements on the steppe, the borderland linking the Central Plains and the northern steppe formed a natural political boundary. The boundary crossed the steppe occupied by nomads and therefore was influenced by both the steppe and farming areas. During the Tang Dynasty, most of this region’s population and culture were Sinicized. The Han culture in the Central Plains understood and accepted northern nomads and opened its arms confidently to embrace useful elements of pastoral nomadism. Some nomadic customs were brought into daily lives of ethnic Han people in the north, particularly dignitaries in the central court, while its politics and military also evolved under the influence of steppe cultures.
Deepening ethnic integration
With the Central Plains at its core, the Tang Empire fostered a new system for the international landscape of East Asia. This new system was built upon elements of ethnic integration in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589) and the unity achieved by the preceding Sui Dynasty (581–618), representing a big step forward after neighboring ethnic groups flocked to the Central Plains.
Although the system was attacked by ethnic groups such as the Turks from time to time, most neighboring tribes highly identified with this system, and migrated to establish permanent dwellings in the Central Plains. Even people from Persia, Sogdia, India, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam came to live in the Central Plains.
With its strong composite national strength, the Tang Empire instituted a system of “dual suzerainty,” in which the Emperor was also known as “Tian Kehan,” Heavenly Khan, to non-Han peoples. Moreover, Tang’s enormous deterrence and charm attracted leaders of other states to exchange with the empire friendly. Due to its extraordinarily vast territory, almost the entire East Asian region was influenced by Chinese civilization.
In the Tang era, the central court vigorously carried forward Confucian traditions and established stable relationships with neighboring countries. Here we must emphasize the Tang Empire’s economic might and composite national strength. An advanced culture, powerful regime, strong economy, and the capability to meet neighboring countries’ need for exchanges and communication were prerequisites for stable foreign relations. History has proven that the advanced culture, great composite national strength, and remarkable social wealth contributed to Tang’s huge appeal to ethnic groups from afar.
The expansion of the community for the Chinese nation in the Tang Dynasty was also about absorbing and integrating Hu or non-Han cultures. In fact, the Tang accepted other ethnic cultures to an unprecedented extent, as foreign influence was extensive, not merely related to material life. As part of their aesthetics, many people in the Tang wore exotic jewelry and accessories, decorating and beautifying every aspect of their life. Meanwhile, Tang elites also adopted intellectual and cultural elements from foreign regions to enrich their spiritual world, including music, dance, and religious beliefs.
Therefore, Tang society was brimmed with exotic air. Foreign ethnic groups shuttling back and forth along the Silk Road acknowledged the Han culture and lifestyle of the Central Plains and made significant contributions to spreading them to the world. During this period, Hu-Han integration was bidirectional, free, open, and diverse, strengthening the political ties between the borderland and the Central Plains, and actualizing the vision that “all under heaven are a family.”
It was the Han and Hu mutual attraction, two-way integration, and innovative development that accelerated ethnic integration in the Tang Dynasty. Nomadic groups in the north paid tributes and became vassals to the Tang court. Their high opinion of the Tang’s political culture enhanced the cohesion of the empire, laying the foundation for the gradual formation and eventual establishment of the united Chinese nation.
Feng Min is a professor from the School of Politics and History at Ningxia Normal University.