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This research paper aims to describe the ancient Chinese cultural self-consciousness and the attitude of the Chinese to foreigners. The integration of all Chinese states under the rule of Zhou initiated this cultural mentality among the Chinese who are also referred to as Han people. The distinction between the Chinese and non-Chinese is also known as the Sino-Barbarian dichotomy (Fairbank & Goldman 2006). This dichotomy is an ancient conception that distinguishes the culturally defined Chinese people (Hua or Huaxia or Xia) and ethnic outsiders (Yi). The Hua-Yi distinction is primarily based on the superiority perception of the Chinese culture and further implies that immigrants could become Hua by adopting their customs and values (Wang 1988). For thousands of years, this dichotomy has become an inherent characteristic of the Huaxia values, which determine not only its geographic surrounding ethnics but also to all the non-Chinese people. It has been implemented via the famous ancient Chinese tribute system based on the typical Sino-centralism ideology in the Chinese golden ages. However, it is also one of the reasons for the decline of China during the Qing dynasty. In other words, this dichotomy has created the brilliance of ancient China but also led to the defeat of the nation.

The Definition of Hua and Yi

  • Hua, Xia, and Zhongguo (Chinese)

In the early Chinese culture, the expression of cultural identity implied the usage of the fundamental terms to denote the self, as well as Hua and Yi respectively. This ethnocentrism of the ancient Chinese culture is even portrayed in some of Confucius’s works, for example, Zhuo Zhuan, where he states that “those distant people have nothing to do with our great land; those wild tribes must not be permitted to create disorder among our flowery States.” Even the terms above used by the ancient Chinese citizens to describe themselves exhibit their superiority attitude (Shin 2006). The word Hua refers to a flower; Xia denotes dynasty, and Zhongguo indicates the center of the kingdom (ancient geographical China).

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The ideology of Hua was formed in the early Zhou period. After the establishment of Zhou by Zhou Wu Wang, he divided his country into pieces and presented them to his relatives as a reward. Therefore, at the day of the time, Zhongguo was the central kingdom surrounded by a number of vassal states, and the whole Zhongguo was surrounded by other ethnicities, which are known as the barbarians.

  • Yi (Barbarians)

The cultural chauvinism of ancient China is also evident in their perception of foreigners and their cultures. Some terms including Rong, di, Yi, and man are the broad categorizations, into which the Chinese people used to classify ethnic foreigners. In this context, aliens denote persons who lived outside the direct control of the Huaxia cultural-political influence. Although Yi was the word commonly used to refer to these aliens, the terms described above differentiated the aliens by four directions: Yi (East), Rong (West), man (South), and di (North).

In the Zhou Empire, the Di and Rong representing Western and Northern wild tribes were referred to by the name Xianyun (Di Cosmo 2002). The reason for this was the constant raids they carried out on the Hua people and hence painted a picture of an aggressive, acquisitive, and greedy people. Poetry books often describe the Xianyun as stubborn and willing to destroy the peace of the Chinese.

The southern and eastern groups, that is the man and Li are often belittled. In poetry books, they are termed foolish in trying to challenge the Chinese power (Liu 2004). The term Huaiyi is used to belittle and collectively describe these Southern groups. The Huayi were not as brutal and fearless as the Xianyun and were gradually integrated into the Huaxia culture (Turchin 2009).

  • The Differences between Hua and Yi

During the whole history, the concept of the Hua-Yi distinction was cultural. It also tended to take ethnic or racist overtones if the country found itself at war. In that case, the concept turned into Han chauvinism. The Hua–Yi distinction stated the dominance of Chinese culture compared to the neighboring ones as well as to all possible cultures in the world. At the same time, this concept implicated that foreigners could become Hua if they appear to be capable of adopting Chinese traditional customs and values. When this “cultural universalism” emphasized racial differences, it could have dangerous effects on everyone not considered Hua. In years of the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the Xianbei Emperors, for instance, considered regimes of the Han in southern China as “barbarian” because they refused to resign under Xianbei rule. One more example is the Qing Dynasty that found the wave of European interventions during the middle of the nineteenth century as “barbarians”.

Confucius himself believed that Yi could be attracted by “universal” culture and morals of Xia so as to come under control. In other words, people who could not accept the universal values set by Confucians would be regarded to have no willingness to stay in but to exercise self-exclusion from the Chinese society instead (Yi 2008).

The Development of “Hua-Yi” Concept

  • Sino-Centralism: the Tribute System

Sino-Centralism is the historical ideology based on the notion of Chinese centrality and superiority. Chinese relations with other states were hierarchic and non-egalitarian (ed. Yongnian 2012). This model prevailed until the decline of the Qing Dynasty and the invasion of the Europeans and Japanese during the nineteenth century.

The Chinese Dynasties could rule the country because they had presumably gained the Mandate of Heaven. Thus, this Celestial Empire had all rights to stand in the center of the system. Due to the distinction by Confucian codes of morality and propriety, this state proclaimed itself as the only possible civilization in the known world. The only legitimate emperor of the entire world (lands all under heaven – tianxia) was the Chinese Emperor (Di Cosmo 2002).

The Sinocentric system was reflected in the form of concentric circles. Northern peoples (the Jurchens, Manchus, and Xianbei) were located in the center, with different degrees of success. Local ethnic minorities were governed by their own leaders and were not seen as outsiders: they used the protection of China as a legitimate part of its bureaucratic system. The surrounding countries were practically vassals of China and carried the Yi name. They offered China tribute and received privileges in return. China was the only state to have an emperor (Huangdi) – the “Son of Heaven” with sacral qualities. Rulers of other countries received titles of less importance such as king (wang).

Under the Ming Dynasty, the system of tributes reached its peak. Therefore, they produced the classification of all outside states. The southeastern barbarians included Japan, Korea, Annam, Vietnam, Siam, Cambodia, and Java; the second group comprised Malacca, Sulu, and Sri Lanka. In addition, there were northeastern, northern, and western barbarians. The hierarchy of the system could be brought to a deeper level because a number of tributary states owned their tributaries (Laos was in order of Vietnam).

Along with that, Sino-Centrialism possessed an important economic advantage by forming the framework of international trade. States that wanted to trade with China had an obligation to submit to suzerain-vassal relations with its sovereign. If other counties wanted to open relations with China, they had first to acknowledge the Chinese superiority. The model posits that the Chinese rulers initiated tributary relations because they recognized the prestige that foreign tribute would bring to their rule while foreign rulers agreed for tributary politics because they appreciated the advantages of this trade (ed. Yongnian 2012). Merchants accompanying trading missions to China received special licenses and allowance to trade at specified ports and land frontiers. The basis of this trade was referencing silver to Chinese prices.

The Impact of this Dichotomy to the Chinese History

  • The Northern Wei Reform

The Tuoba clan of the Xianbei tribal group established the Northern Wei Dynasty. The Tuoba clan had united the north of China and used Chinese officials in their administration system. However, many nuances of the old nomad tradition remained the same. Emperor Shaowu attempted to eliminate Yi from the Northern state by the implementation of Sinicization on the Xianbei (Yuan 2010). The Tuoba aristocracy had to submit his orders and adopt Chinese-style surnames. Tuoba Hong himself became Yuan. The use of the native language and even Xianbei costumes were prohibited. Nevertheless, once Emperor Xiaowen’s sinicization campaign began changing the fundamental principles of social organization, it caused a range of problems in military service. This type of service did not bring an honorable status any longer; traditional warrior families were disallowed many of their previous privileges and generally disrespected; those who had previously been held as the upper-class then appeared at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In addition, it influenced negatively the level of northern borders protection. As Xianbei accepted the Chinese culture, they negated their Yi status while they still were considered strangers by Han. In the sixth century, North China returned under the rule of the Han Chinese. It meant the end of all the Xianbei’s and other non-Chinese groups’ power over China, as well as the decrease of racial tension.

Nevertheless, the Yi-Hua differences and confrontations continued influencing the following dynasties, especially the Yuans because they were non-Han themselves. It raised the concerns over the legitimacy of the rule that is why the Yuan dynasty had to adopt a different approach to overcoming this conflict (Yuan 2010).

On the one hand, the Yuan asserted the legitimacy of the Liao, Song, and Jin; on the other, they segregated their people racially into four categories:

  1. Mongols – the ruling group;
  2. See – the foreigners of non-Chinese and non-Mongol origin who occupied the second slate;
  3. Han – the Han Chinese, Khitan, and Jurchens during the rule of the Jins;
  4. Southerner – Han Chinese during the rule of the Songs.

Furthermore, the Yuan dynasty also implemented a division into 10 castes according to “desirability”. The Yuan dynasty appeared in the light of being barbaric and humiliating for China and could not last long here (Yuan 2010). However, it shows how the traditional Chinese concept of Yi-Hua reverses depending on the ideology of the ruler.

  • The Hua and Yi Concept during Ming and Qing Dynasties

Ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese under the Yuan Dynasty led to rebellion. Together with overtaxing areas hard-hit by crop failure and almost absolute abandonment of the irrigation systems, it caused the appearance of Yuan’s. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang declared the rule of the Ming Dynasty and created a manifesto where he accused the Mongols and the Yuan of being Yi. Along with that, he also stated that the Yuan received the Mandate of Heaven to rule over China legitimately. Liu Ji, one of his advisors supported the idea of the equality of the Chinese and the non-Chinese people even if they are different. Liu was protesting against the idea of Hua-superiority over the Yi (Turchin 2009).

During the Qing period, the thought of equality was developed in many discussions. Philosopher Lü Liuliang who lived between both the Ming and the Qing Dynasties refused to recognize the new dynasty. He stated that upholding the difference between the Yi and the Hua was more significant than fulfilling the bond between the sovereign and minister. This opinion was rather exceptional. In the series of disputes, the Yongzheng Emperor proclaimed that the Chinese were not naturally superior to the barbarians. He also indicated that Yi can become Hua and vice versa (Yuan 2010). In addition, according to the Emperor, both Yi and Hua were parts of the Qing Monarchy.


The conventional description of their neighbors, Yi, and others show exactly their chauvinistic view of the Chinese culture. Although they belittled most of their neighbors’ culture, some, such as the Xianyun, were feared and caused trouble to the ancient Chinese rulers. It was a popular belief that the heavenly mandate to rule would be lost if a king’s behavior became wayward, but it would never go out to the barbarian tribes. Another consequence of the dichotomy between Chinese and non-Chinese people was the development of the Sino-Centralism tribute system that showed the dominance of Ancient China in the formation of international trade in Eastern Asia.

The majority of the Chinese Dynasties that came to the rule had to find approach to the nation in the context of the Yi and Hua differences. It meant adopting the Han Chinese culture on the local aristocracy as well as building new hierarchical systems. Both approaches appeared to have huge disadvantages. The recognition of Yi and Hua implied the establishment of equality since the Ming dynasty could bring some peace to the country and justify the relations between native Chinese and so-called strangers.

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