Even before Qin Shi Huang's time, Chinese feudal rulers have seen themselves as rulers of "all under heaven". Photo: AFP
Frank Ching
Frank Ching

Does Chinese blood really lack the DNA for aggression?

Frank Ching says however well-intentioned, Beijing's claim that there's no DNA for expansion in Chinese blood finds little support in history

Expansion is not in the Chinese DNA", Premier Li Keqiang declared during his visit to Britain, apparently in an attempt to allay fears driven by China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, "nor can we accept the logic that a strong country is bound to become hegemonic."

He was echoing comments by Xi Jinping the previous month when the president asserted: "In Chinese blood, there is no DNA for aggression or hegemony." China has moved to the centre of the world stage but has yet to truly lead, partly because of apprehension about its intentions, despite deep-seated problems dogging the United States.

At a recent summit in Shanghai of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, Xi called for an "Asia for Asians" approach, saying that Asian countries themselves could resolve security issues in the region.

Beijing has long dismissed the idea that a rising China was a threat to its neighbours, asserting that the country throughout its long history has never been expansionist.

Citing DNA as proof makes the assertion sound scientific, especially when China appears to be making progress in studying the DNA of historical figures, such as the warlord Cao Cao, who lived 1,800 years ago, and even Confucius.

However, a glance at a historical atlas will show that China's borders have changed greatly from the time of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to today. How, one wonders, did China grow so big without being expansionist?

One explanation is that China grew by being conquered, especially by the Mongols and the Manchus, who subjugated the Han Chinese and also invaded and took over other territories. According to that narrative, the Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 per cent of the population today, inherited the enlarged empire after the alien dynasties fell.

However, that is inconsistent with another official narrative, which is that Mongols, Manchus and Han are and have always been Chinese. Thus, all had Chinese DNA.

Actually, long before Qin Shi Huang, Chinese rulers sought to control what they thought of as the whole world, which was called "all under heaven".

In his book , the scholar Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University wrote: "The emperors of China's feudal times called themselves Son of Heaven, which shows that they thought of themselves as rulers of the world … The contention … was … a contention for world leadership."

This is not to say that Chinese leaders today want to rule the world. But it does suggest that, from a historical standpoint, there is little evidence to support the notion that there is no DNA in Chinese blood for aggression or expansion.

Unless, of course, ongoing studies show that Chinese today have somehow inherited only the sagely genes of peace-loving philosophers like Confucius, while those of Cao Cao and other warlords have vanished from the land.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: True blood