Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Ancient China and its Enemies

Book Cover

Book Title

Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002


 Di Cosmo, Nicola


Di Cosmo aims to build a basis for the study of early relations between China and Inner Asia by focusing on political and military elements rather than more traditionally pursued economic factors. She approaches the topic from four different angles: archaeological, historical (based on written documents), political, and finally, specifically through the lens of Chinese historian Si Ma Qian. Di Cosmo avoids remaining within the boundaries of any single approach, pointing out that each of them alone has its limits—for instance, relying exclusively on artefacts would restrict her to inferences which are themselves contained by the extent of archaeological discovery. She thus attempts to broaden the foundations of her examination of early China-Inner Asia relations by encompassing all four stated approaches, even if she admits that the the conclusions drawn from each one are not entirely compatible and thus must be treated separately.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book roughly covers five centuries leading to year 1 AD, and focuses primarily on the relationship between the northern Chinese states and the Inner Asian nomadic tribes. Di Cosmo is principally interested in the formation of the “frontier” between the Chinese kingdom and the nomadic peoples. She shows how the four approaches, each of which occupy a section of the book, represent transformations in the nature of the boundary drawn between the two sides, and collectively chronicle the constant shifts in the balance of political and military power. For instance, a political study of the relationship between the newly-formed nomadic Xiong Nu empire and the Chinese Han dynasty would reveal a reversal of roles: the Chinese effectively became a tributary state of the Xiong Nu, when they had in contrast assimilated Inner Asian states and occupied their territory during the earlier Warring States period.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Di Cosmo argues that the cultural boundary between the Chinese kingdom and the nomadic peoples of Inner Asia was in most instances a conscious construction. The emphasis on cultural differences and the claim of civilized superiority over the nomads in contemporary Chinese written documents must be seen against a backdrop of military threat and constant threats of violence. At the same time, one cannot assume that the Chinese and nomads had completely separate cultural value systems, and that the boundary between them was a rigid one; while there was undeniably a sense of “otherness”, archeological studies prove that there was strong Sinitic influence on nomadic cultures. The Chinese frontier in Inner Asia was therefore ever changing.

The Chinese assumption of their own cultural superiority, however, cannot be used as an absolute guide to the manner in which actual foreign relations were conducted with the nomads. Depending on what was politically and militarily strategic for the Chinese empire, the nomads were treated as enemies, peoples to be assimilated (and thus “civilized”), or allies. Ultimately, Chinese attitudes toward the peoples of Inner Asia was dictated by a strong sense of survival: the Chou states, for instance, adopted an expansionist strategy and occupied territories in the north in order to keep Inner Asia in check. The erection of walls, therefore, was a defensive measure.

Finally, Di Cosmo’s decision to devote a quarter of the book to Si Ma Qian is indicative of her appreciation of the nomadic Inner Asian peoples as an equal partner in the construction of early Chinese history. Rather than dismissing them as supporting actors in the Chinese historical narrative, Di Cosmo implies that they are just as influential as the Chinese themselves. The Chinese empire was shaped as much as by the peoples it interacted with as it was by its own internal affairs.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip