- Sui-Tang China and Its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power, and Connections, 580–800 by Jonathan Karam Skaff
Generations of scholars in history, linguistics, anthropology, and archaeology have closely studied the intricate relations between China and the sequence of nomadic empires arising from the Mongolian steppes. Jonathan Karam Skaff’s new work offers a thought-provoking reconceptualization of the relations between Sui-Tang China and the Turkic khanates (Türk empires, in Skaff’s usage) in Mongolia from 580 to 800, especially between 580 and the 750s.
Western scholarship on the “Chinese world order”—a framework proposed by John King Fairbank that modeled relations between China and its neighboring states in the premodern era—often divides the region into several ecologically and culturally defined zones: East Asia, Southeast Asia, Inner Asia, and West Asia. According to this framework, relations between China and each of the various states differed depending on how China applied its sinocentric and hierarchical tributary system. Under this system, foreign countries wanting to have relations with China had to acknowledge China’s superiority by coming to the Chinese court to pay homage to the Son of Heaven and presenting local products as tribute. When confronted by powerful empires in Inner Asia, China often had to compromise its tributary system by forming marriage alliances with those empires and agreeing (by signing treaties) to provide them with large amounts of tributes.
In contrast to this “Chinese world order” paradigm, Skaff proposes an integrationist approach in which he envisions a broader East Eurasian region comprising all of the above-mentioned zones. Instead of stressing differences among major powers in these zones, he meticulously examines the political and diplomatic similarities of these powers. He further argues that Inner Asians were crucial in fostering connections among all the East Eurasian zones. “The Sinic zone,” he writes, “. . . was nested inside a broader ‘Eastern Eurasian’ region of political and diplomatic uniformities, which in turn was contained within a wider ‘Eurasian’ sphere via links with South Asia, West Asia, [End Page 423] and Byzantium.” In this sphere, Skaff argues, “Inner Asia played a key role connecting all major regions via its trade routes and steppe zone stretching from Manchuria to Eastern Europe” (p. 7). Although it will require more in-depth study to prove his hypothesis that political and cultural elements were shared across East Eurasia, and it will be an even more daunting task to demonstrate beyond doubt how Inner Asians and the steppe roads facilitated the exchange of ideas with such faraway lands as Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia before the Mongol expansion of the thirteenth century, Skaff’s book nonetheless provides a convincing account of political and diplomatic uniformities shared by Sui-Tang China and the Turkic states.
Part 1 provides a geographical and historical background of East Eurasia, and emphasizes the importance of the borderlands between Mongolia and north China. Instead of assuming that there was a clearly defined boundary between the Chinese agricultural and the nomadic pastoralist states, Skaff expands upon Owen Lattimore’s theory of “marginal zones” to argue that these borderlands and the ethnic peoples who inhabited them played a crucial role in the competition between China and its steppe rivals.1 He convincingly demonstrates that it was the control of the borderlands in Inner Mongolia—and of the pastures in the Longyou region, in particular—that determined the balance of power between the Tang empire and its Turkic counterpart in Mongolia.
Pursuing his integrationist approach in Part 2, Skaff demonstrates that, as a result of their entangled histories, Sui-Tang China and the Turkic empires shared ideologies and common forms of rulership, diplomacy, political networking, and ritual beliefs. Both China and the Turkic empires, for instance, governed with the principle of patrimonialism, which was sustained by the investiture of titles with ranks and salaries and by the reward of gifts. The nomadic leaders of the Turko-Mongols, Skaff argues, established their patriarchal form of power relations by cultivating three types of clients: personal retainers...