Thankfully, the ongoing Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu Islands has abated temporarily. The waters off these islands may be rich in natural resources, but the real impulse fuelling this decadesold row isn’t so much economic gain as nationalism, a key tenet of which is territorial integrity. The habitually aggrieved Chinese are particularly sensitive to this notion, having been forced to cede parcels of land to foreigners in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The most humiliating surrender of Chinese land to foreigners occurred over a millennium ago, in AD938, when Shi Jingtang, a rebel governor of the Later Tang dynasty, ceded the 16 prefectures of the Yan and Yun regions, a strategic swathe of land comprising modern-day Beijing, Tianjin and the northern parts of Shanxi and Hebei, to the nomadic Khitan (origin for the word “Cathay”) in return for the latter’s protection and patronage. To add insult to injury, Shi, who became the founder of the Later Jin dynasty, honoured the Khitan ruler as his “father-emperor”, calling himself “son-emperor” and dragging down the rest of China with him in capitulation. The two Song dynasties (AD960-1279) made the recovery of the 16 prefectures their mission but were repeatedly defeated by the Khitan and their successors, the Jurchen.
The Mongol conquest of China followed. It wasn’t until 1368 that the 16 prefectures returned to Chinese hands, when the army of the Ming dynasty ran the Mongols out.