Some people are very defensive about the issue of the origins of people like Lý Công Uẩn and the Trần family that founded the Trần Dynasty. There are accounts that indicate that these people were from Mân (or what is today Fujian Province) and this gets some people upset.

First, from such accounts we cannot tell for certain what the ethnicity of such people was. All this indicates is that they were “outsiders” who took up residence in the Red River Delta.

Second, and more importantly, that some premodern rulers were not native to the place they governed over should not surprise us, as this was an extremely common phenomenon in world history.

Just by coincidence, I came across an article from an American newspaper called The Clinton Morning Age from 1903 which was about “Kings of Foreign Blood.” That article begins as follows:

“It is strange how little really native blood the royal families of Europe have in their veins. The king of Greece is generally called a Dane, being second son of the King of Denmark, but as the king of Denmark was a prince of Schleswig-Holstein, the Danish and Grecian reigning houses are both of German extraction. . .”

A little over a decade after this article was written, the name of the royal house of the United Kingdom was changed from the German “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to the English “Windsor” due to anti-German sentiment at the time. As for the blood that flows through the veins of the royal family, that did not change.

Then there is the great “Russian” novel, War and Peace. What language does it begin in? French. And who speaks those opening lines in French? Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honor of the empress, and a woman with a German surname.

The world that many people today want to imagine existed in the past (a world of separate nations where everyone united together for a common purpose) simply never existed. It is a product of our twentieth-century imagination.

If there was unity in the past, it was among the transnational elite, rather than within kingdoms. The Russian ruling family had more in common with aristocrats in Paris (hence their preference to use French in War and Peace) than they did with the peasants in their backyards.

The rise of nationalism in the twentieth century changed this. But just as the name “Windsor” can’t eliminate the “German” blood that flows through the veins of the “English” royal family, the twentieth century nationalist imagination of the past doesn’t eliminate the evidence that the past was different. It just makes the differences in the past feel uncomfortable to people today who have been brought up to believe that their nationalist view of the past is true. That, however, is the problem with nationalism, not with history.

Here is the full article from the The Clinton Morning Age: