To understand the past we have to know the history of ideas. If we do not know when the ideas we have about the world emerged, then we can easily make the mistake of using concepts which we take for granted today for times when they did not exist.

One concept that gets mentioned a lot today is “sovereignty.” Today the term sovereignty refers to a supreme power over a group of people and territory. It is a modern concept that emerged in the West, and which started to take form in the seventeenth century with the Peace of Westphalia.

The American missionary, W. A. P. Martin is generally credited as being the first person to translate this concept into an East Asian language. He did so in 1866 in his Chinese-language translation of Henry Wheaton’s Elements of International Law (first published in 1836, Martin used an 1846 edition).

Martin translated sovereignty by using four characters which mean “the right of self-mastery” or “the right of autonomy” [zhizhu zhi quan 自主之權].

While the term does not appear to have been discussed much in the following decades in China, in Japan a great deal of intellectual energy was spent attempting to understand and clarify the meanings of Western terms such as “sovereignty,” which eventually came to be referred to by the two characters shuken [Chn., zhuquan 主權]. [See Chapter Five, “Differentiating Right and Sovereignty” in Douglas Howland, Translating the West: Language and Political Reason in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001)]

In the late nineteenth century, this information was then learned by Chinese reformers like Liang Qichao. And while the concept may not have been very difficult to understand, it was an extremely difficult concept to apply to “China” at that time.

If sovereignty by that point referred to a supreme power over a group of people and territory, who was the group of people and what was the territory that the Qing Dynasty empire had supreme power over?

The Qing Dynasty was established by Manchus. They brought many different ethnic groups under their control, and through campaigns of conquest they extended their control, particularly towards the west, over an enormous territory. Finally, beyond the areas that they controlled themselves, they claimed authority over numerous tributary states.

This was thus an international order of states that differed from the Westphalian order of nation-states. First, the Qing Dynasty empire was not a nation-state. Second, its relations with its neighbors was not based on a recognition of equality.

Liang Qichao recognized some of these points in 1900 in an essay he wrote entitled “On Tracing the Source of China’s Weakness” [Zhongguo jiruo suyuan lun 中國積弱溯源論]. He pointed out that Chinese did not know the difference between a nation [guojia 國家] and All Under Heaven [Tianxia 天下]. He stated further that China had historically been surrounded by barbarian lands that did not have cultural institutions or political structures and which did not form nations, and that “Our people also did not view them as equal nations” [吾民亦不以平等之國視之].

Given that this world was not the same as the one which Westerners had created by that time, viewing it through a Western perspective was problematic. Take, for example, the concept of sovereignty.

How far did the Qing Dynasty’s “sovereignty” extend? Did the Qing court, for instance, have sovereignty over its tributaries? The fact that the rulers of these states had to seek the approval of the Qing court to rule over their own lands is a clear sign that they did not possess “supreme power.” At the same time, that was essentially the extent of Qing Dynasty control over those lands, and that was certainly not an example of “supreme power.” Finally, some of the Qing Dynasty’s tributary states had tributary states of their own. Did they have sovereignty over those lands?

While Liang Qichao recognized that points like these were not clear and encouraged his fellow Chinese to change the way they thought, many of the ambiguities about the extent of the Qing Dynasty’s power were actually clarified through violence.

In their efforts to bring the areas of Korea and Vietnam under their respective control, the Japanese and French both forced the Qing court to give up its claims to partial control of these lands. In the process, they both played a role in defining what have become modern China’s borders and sovereignty. Through their conquests, All Under Heaven began to disappear from Chinese minds.

Or did it?

William A. Callahan has a wonderful article in which he examines Chinese maps from the twentieth century. What he finds is that there are many maps which essentially combine the idea of China as a modern sovereign nation possessing clearly defined national borders with the premodern concept of China as an unbounded domain at the center of a hierarchical world order.

Many of the maps Callahan examines are literally called “national humiliation” [guochi 國恥] maps, and they were meant to educate people about whatChina “should” look like. These maps are thus not “real,” but the emotions they evoke certainly are.

One of the first such maps was this one created in 1912 by the newly-formed Republic of China. The national borders are not clearly defined. Further, next to lands which had formerly been tributary states of the Qing Dynasty, it contains comments which state: “Originally belonged to our kingdom/country, now it belongs to. . .” Japan/France, etc.

Then there is this map from 1927, entitled “Map of China’s National Humiliation.” This map does indicate “clearly defined borders” of a sort. The red line indicates China’s current borders at that time (or what the ROC claimed as its current borders), while the black line indicates “lost territories.”

Why did the Chinese create maps like this? The answer to this question has many aspects to it, but it lies in the complex and violent transformations that took place in Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

On the one hand, people in Asia became exposed to a new way of viewing the world, as consisting of independent sovereign nations with clearly defined national borders.

On the other hand, the process of transforming one’s view of the world to fit this new concept proved to be very difficult. As Liang Qichao noted in 1900, the Qing Dynasty’s domain was not a nation. However, in the century since that time Chinese intellectuals and political leaders have worked hard to transform what was once an empire into a “nation” and to make the boundaries of this “nation” seem natural and uncontested.

Further, this process was infused with emotion from the start. This intellectual transformation took place in part as a response to the imperial conquests of Western nations and Japan. At the same time, the new way of thinking which the Chinese adopted relies heavily on emotions.

In the Qing Dynasty empire, subjects were supposed to be loyal to the emperor. In the modern Chinese nation, citizens are supposed to be patriotic to, and to feel for, their nation and their fellow citizens.

Emotion plays a much bigger role in modern nation than it did in premodern empires. This is partly due to the way in which nations justify their existence, but it is also a result of mass education. In modern China, all school children can look at a map of “national humiliation” and can feel for their “nation’s” losses. In the Qing Dynasty empire, by contrast, only a tiny percentage of the population would have ever even seen a map of the empire.

To be fair, these issues are not unique to China. The same process has occurred in other places in Asia, particularly in those places where in the past you had a political power that expanded its authority over time (especially over areas inhabited by different ethnic groups) and that claimed to have authority over vassal states.

As in China, the transformation into modern sovereign nations of these former empires with their hierarchical view of the world has been complex, and in many cases remains incomplete. Thailand is a classic example of this, and has been written about in detail [See Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation], but there are other places in Asia which fit this pattern as well.

When we study history, we have to keep all of this in mind. We need to know when and how the way people view the world today emerged and to be careful not to apply modern ways of thinking to times and places where such concepts did not exist.

For Callahan’s article, see William A. Callahan, “The Cartography of National Humiliation and the Emergence of China’s Geobody,” Public Culture 21.1 (2009): 141-173.