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Intermingling of past and present in territorial claims

Two insights from the discussions on the nature of rule and interpolity relations in historical Inner and East Asia struck Kreddha as being of particular importance to resolving how historical arguments can be treated with respect while defusing their polarizing and obstructive effects in current and future peace processes. The first concerns the practice in the past of using historiography for the legitimation of rulers and their rule. The second concerns the practice today of projecting modern terminologies and concepts onto history. These two practices are also at play at the negotiation table in peace processes today and we therefore made them the focus of three follow-up seminars held from 2015 to 2017.

Through the centuries, Inner and East Asian rulers placed great importance on asserting the legitimacy of their rule but used different rationales and methods to do so. Historiography was one of the methods used, and it therefore provides us today with valuable insights into not only the worldviews of respective rulers and elites but also their needs and ambitions. Significantly, today historiography continues to be used to legitimize rule and claims to rule. From a conflict resolution point of view, facilitating understanding and dialogue on how this practice worked in the past affords a valuable opening to achieving an appreciation of how it may be at play in the present. This helps negotiators transition from the polarizing and obstructing ‘my version of history is right and yours is wrong’-discussion toward one that addresses how present needs can be satisfied.

The second insight concerns the projection of modern terminologies and concepts onto history. This is a widespread practice in the presentation of ‘national’ histories.Even scholars, including historians, often have difficulty presenting the past without at least implicit reference to concepts and geographies associated with today’s world order. Political and legal concepts associated with modern statehood and international relations, including those of sovereignty, independence, nation, and territorial ownership and borders, are routinely used to describe a past reality in which those concepts did not exist, did not apply or, had different meanings or implications than they do today. This practice stands in the way of a proper nuanced understanding of the past. Negotiators presenting their historiography in peace processes also project modern political and legal concepts onto history. This is highly problematic when parties in conflict use historiography to legitimize their present day claims.

By presenting the past using modern concepts, negotiators consciously or subconsciously attach present day international law meanings and consequences to historical polities, political formations and relations from a time in which the world was organized on the basis of not only one, but multiple systems of ‘international law’. For example, in Inner and East Asia alone as many as three distinct civilizational worlds existed, each with their own legitimating ideologies and practices, rules of conduct and centers of civilizational authority - comprising what one might call distinct systems of international law -, which informed the conduct of relations between rulers and polities until the 20th century. And each of these systems differed fundamentally from the present single system we call international law today. Modern concepts of territorial statehood and sovereignty cannot be projected into historical Asia. Today, unless a territory is disputed, it is either part of some state or independent. These categorizations cannot be applied to pre-modern Inner and East Asian polities, where notions of overlapping sovereignties and multiple allegiances formed the contexts for constructing relations. It is the intermingling of past and present in historical narratives used to strengthen present day claims in peace processes that is highly problematic and that requires untangling in order to address the deadlock conflicting historical narratives can cause.

In order for Kreddha to analyze the various forms in which this intermingling of past and present manifests, we selected a case in which this practice is particularly pronounced, namely the stalled Sino-Tibetan dialogue process. One party in this case has in fact made acceptance of its historical narrative by the other a precondition to substantive talks. Building on the insights from the roundtable series on the nature of rule in Inner and East Asia, we organized a further three two-day seminars for which we asked scholars to examine how contemporary sources viewed the Mongol empire and the Yuan, how they treated “Tibet,” “China/Zhongguo,” the Qing empire and the Mongol polities and how they interpreted the relations that existed between them at different times in history, in ways that would enable Kreddha to compare and contrast the scholars’ findings with how parties in this conflict present the past and deploy it to advance political and legal claims today.

The insights we gained in these seminars are being used to complete and refine Kreddha’s practitioner oriented methodological contribution to the conflict resolution field. At the same time, the project outcomes are expected to be of value to those engaged in efforts to resolve the Sino-Tibetan conflict by shedding light on how the intermingling of past and present is at play in the deployment of historiography in this particular case and by proposing ways to untangle them. 

For a short description of the subject matter of each seminar, including a list of participants and the topics of the papers they contributed, click below:

Seminar 1: The Nature of Inner- and East Asian Polities and Inter-polity Relations from the 13th to the Early 18th Century; Perspectives of Contemporary Sources

Seminar 2: The Nature of Inner- and East Asian Polities and Inter-polity Relations in the 18th and 19th centuries, focusing on Qing –Tibetan-Mongol relations; Perspectives of Contemporary Sources.

Seminar 3: The Effect on Inner- and East Asian Relations of the Advent of Modern International Law and the End of the Qing Empire in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries; Perspectives of Contemporary Sources


The first seminar, co-hosted by the Institute for Social Sciences of the University of California at Davis, examined how Inner and East Asian rulers and elites viewed their own polities and neighboring ones as well as the relations between them in the 13th to the early 18th century. It took place on 22-24 September 2016. Participants were asked how we might usefully describe the polities of Inner and East Asia in existence in the period under review and the relations they maintained without using modern, often Eurocentric, concepts and terminologies or, alternatively, by appropriately qualifying them so that their current political and legal implications are not inappropriately attributed to very different Asian historical realities.

‘Tibet’ and ‘China’ are both generally represented as geographical entities, or geo-bodies, that have existed continuously for centuries. Thus Tibet is often rendered historically as a more or less unified state. China is routinely presented as a succession of Chinese dynastic empires comprising, for the most part, the peoples and territories of today’s PRC. Current knowledge of the nature of the Mongol, Chinese and Manchu empires and of historical Tibetan polities, however, brings both renderings into question and the seminar participants helped us reflect on the origins and implications of different characterizations of historical Inner and East Asian polities.

The program consisted of the presentations and extensive discussion of the following papers by the named scholars:

Arif Dirlik, former Cecil H. and Ida Green Visiting Professorship at the University of British Columbia, and Professor, Duke University and University of Oregon: Born in Translation: ‘China’ in the making of ‘Zhongguo’

Hodong Kim, Professor, Seoul National University: China and Khitay: Historical Images of ‘China’ in the Western World 

Jesse D. Sloane, Assistant Professor of History, Underwood International College, Yonsei University, Seoul: The Central Territories as an Anti-China: the Jurchen Jin in its Contemporary Regional Discourse

Sergey Dmitriev, Senior Researcher, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences: Conquest Dynasties of China or Foreign Empires? The Problem of relations between China, Yuan and Qing (papers prepared with Sergei Kuzmin)

Timothy Brook, Professor of History and Republic of China Chair, University of British Columbia: Great States

Prof. Peter Schwieger, Professor of Tibetology and Head of the Department of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies, University of Bonn: The nature of Tibetan polities and their external relations (13th to the Early 18th Century)

Hon Siang Lau, Professor, retired, and former Chair of Operations Management, City University of Hong Kong: Chinese Historical Geography References to Tibet: an Inquiry in to China’s Perception of Tibet  during Ming Dynasty

Marie-Dominique Even, Senior Researcher, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique: Mongol perceptions of their own and other polities

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, Associate Professor in Political Science, University of Notre Dame: Problematizing ‘China’ and the Dream of Historical Greatness

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, The Royal Institute of International Affairs: Lines in the sea: the construction of China’s maritime geobody

The paper prepared by David Robinson, Professor in Asian studies and History, Colgate University, entitled The Ming Court and ‘Tibet’, was introduced and discussed in his absence, as health reasons hindered his ability to attend the seminar.



Kreddha and Waseda University’s Institute of Central Eurasian History and Culture hosted the second seminar in Tokyo, on the nature of the relations and relationships that existed between Tibetan, Manchu and Mongol rulers and their polities in the 18th and 19th centuries. It took place on 6 and 7 March 2017.

The seminar participants explored the most intense periods of interaction between Tibetan hierarchs, Mongol khans and the Qing court from the mid 17th to the end of the 18th century, and the effect of European imperial policies on Qing and Tibetan perceptions of their respective polities and of relations between them.  The seminar was co-hosted by Prof. Akira Yanagisawa, Director of the Institute of Central Eurasian History and Culture, and Prof. Yumiko Ishihama, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University.

The program consisted of the presentations and extensive discussion of the following papers by the named scholars:

Yumiko Ishihama, Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University: Qing Emperors as Cakravartin Raja incarnated by the  Bodhisattva Manjusri

Hiroki Oka, Professor, Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University: Cenggünjab and Sangjayidorji: The Qian-long’s way of governing the Mongols

David Robinson, Professor in Asian Studies and History, Colgate University: The Ming Court’s Forgotten Inner Asian Legacy

Dorothea Heuschert Laage, postdoctoral assistant, Institute for the Science of Religion and Central Asian Studies at the University of Bern: The bond between the southern Mongolian nobility and the Qing emperor according to different Qing dynasty sources

Akira Yanagisawa, Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Director of the Institute of Central Eurasian History and Culture Waseda University: The three Kalmyk embassies to Tibet in 18th century and Qing's reaction to them 

Vladimir Uspenski, Professor and Chair, Department of Mongolian Studies and Tibetology, Faculty of Asian and African Studies, St. Petersburg State University:About the State created by Gushi Khan 

Brenton Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Religion, Colgate University: Monguor Middlemen in Sino-Mongol-Tibetan Relations

Yingcong Dai, Professor of History, William Paterson University of New Jersey: The Gurkha crisis and the Qianlong Emperor’s changed view of Tibet

Dr. Komatsubara Yuri, Lecturer, Meiji University: A study of how bka’-blon were chosen in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century and the Nineteenth Century

Geoff Wade, Australian National University: Chinese Expansions: From Ming to PRC



The Oxford University School of Geography and the Oriental Studies co-hosted the third seminar with Kreddha in Oxford on September 24-26, 2017.The seminar focused on (1) the consequences for Inner and East Asian polities of the advent of Eurocentric international law, the concept of nation states and territorially defined sovereignty and (2) the end of the Qing empire and the post-imperial trajectories of its component parts and dependencies. In particular, the seminar looked at how these developments affected Tibet and its relations with the newly created Republic of China, Mongolia and other states in the region.

Before the advent of modern international law, the Sinic, Mongol and Tibetan Buddhist worlds –and the polities within them— each operated on the basis of their own interrelational rules and norms that corresponded to their respective world views, but accommodated those of other worlds; these constituted what we may call distinct international legal orders and systems.

Not only did the development or adaptation of notions of nationalism, national independence and exclusively defined sovereign statehood among Chinese, Tibetans and Mongols bring about a change in their polities and in relations among them, but it also required the abandonment of their accommodating international legal systems and the recasting of those relations to fit into the straight jacket of a single and unaccommodating system of modern international law.  Participants examined how the earlier relations and relationships were re-interpreted or transformed by the elites and rulers of these polities to serve new realities and political objectives. 

The program, co-caired by Associate Professor Fiona McConnell (St. Cathrine’s College, Oxford University), and Prof. Ulrike Roesler (The Oriental Institute, Oxford University), consisted of the presentations and extensive discussion of the following papers by the named scholars:

Joseph W. Esherick, Professor Emeritus, University of California San Diego: Defining 'China' at the Empire-to-Nation Transition

Mark Elliott, Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History, Harvard University: The Qing Discovery of Empire in the Late 19th c.

Fabienne Jagou, Associate Professor, Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; H.D.R., École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris: From chaplain-donor to nation-state relations between Tibet and China 

Hon-Shiang Lau, Professor, retired, and former Chair of Operations Management, City University of Hong Kong: Was Tibet Part of Qing China? Some Evidence from Official/Authoritative Qing-Dynasty Documents

Makoto Tachibana, Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Shimonoseki City University: Expanding the World of Wanguogongfa ????: The Case of Mongolia in the Early 20th Century

Scott Relyea, Assistant Professor of Asian History, Appalacian State University: Gongfa Daoyuan and the Indigenisation of Territorial Sovereignty in Eastern Tibet

Heather Stoddard, Professor Emeritus, Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO): 30-year friendship and 'action pact' between the 13th Dalai Lama (1876-1933) and Lerab Lingpa (1856-1926) 

Yumiko Ishihama, Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University: Emerging split within Dalai Lama and rJe btsun dam pa: Confrontation between universal and local church

Ryosuke Kobayashi, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences Kyusyu Universit: TheEmerging Concept of  "Autonomy" in Early 20th Century Tibet 

Amanda Cheney, postdoctoral researcher, Political Science Department, Lund University: Tibet Lost in Translation: Power Politics, Language and Manipulating Diplomatic Success and Failure at the Simla Convention, 1913-1914

Ross Anthony, Director, Center for Chinese Studies, Stellenbosch University: Urban Transformation and Identity in Late Qing- Early Republican China: The Case of Urumqi

Uradyn Erden Bulag, Reader in Social Anthropology, Cambridge University: Referendum as source of international legitimacy: Mongolia’s path to independent nation-state in 1945

Dibyesh Anand, Professor in International Relations and Director of Research in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster: China in Tibet: Contesting Politics of (Non)Sovereignty, (Anti)Colonialism and Victimhood