Translation of Empire: Mongol Legacy, Language Policy, and the Early Ming World Order, 1368-1453

  • Johannes Lotze

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis approaches two perennial and interrelated problems in the historiographyof China-the question of the openness or self-isolation of (Ming) Chinese society, aswell as the nature and extent of the Mongol legacy in the (early) Ming-from a newangle. In spite of a growing body of scholarship on political, military, andinstitutional aspects of the transition from 'foreign' Mongol Yuan (1271-1368) to'native' Ming (1368-1644) rule, there is one aspect that has received little attention sofar: language, or rather languages in the plural, and translation between them. Bybringing the various multilingual dimensions of the early Ming to the foreground ofanalysis and studying them against the backdrop of the Mongol legacy, this thesiscovers new ground. While recognising that not all activities with which it isconcerned would have been seen as connected by early Ming actors, this thesisargues that they do collectively constitute a realm of action with a common purpose,which we can comprehend as 'language policy.' This perspective is significant,because Yuan continuities on macro levels (administrative, institutional, political) canonly be truly grasped through a systematic investigation of micro levels, such aslanguage. To achieve these aims, the thesis blends concepts and methods fromhistory, sinological philology, and Linguistic Landscape Studies (LLS).My argument is threefold. First, the Mongol heritage was not just perceptiblein institutions and newly absorbed territory but also on the level of language. Second,the early Ming, far from being 'fiercely anti-Mongol' (as one authority recently putit), consciously attempted to imitate and surpass the Yuan, and multilingualism-forboth communicative and emblematic reasons-played an important part in thisendeavour. Third, and most importantly, the year 1368 marked neither a'revolutionary' rupture nor a 'business as usual' continuation of Mongol legacies.Rather, the new dynasty attempted to strike a difficult balance, in which language andtranslation policies were instrumental in harmonising the needs for both continuitywith and a break from the past. The Ming continued Yuan traditions such as theproduction of multilingual steles and edicts to symbolise and enforce their universalimperial claim, while Chinese was (not de jure, but de facto) reinstituted as the majorimperial language, as opposed to one imperial language among many, as in Mongoltimes. The very notion of universal empire, continued from Yuan to Ming, would beat odds with monolingualism, and consequently, the Ming could not have beenmonolingual, even if they had so desired. While the distinction between 'multilingualforeign' dynasties (Yuan, Qing) and 'monolingual Chinese' ones (Ming) is notoutright wrong, it does need considerable refinement, in order to understand theMing's place in the larger Yuan-Ming-Qing transition.'Translation of empire' has a double meaning in this thesis. First, it is meantliterally in the sense of language mediation: textual legacies of the Yuan weretranslated from languages such as Mongolian or Persian into Chinese, while the newempire translated its claim to power into other languages. Second, it is a metaphoralluding to the political concept of translatio imperii, known from Western Eurasianhistory and comparable to the Chinese 'dynastic cycle' narrative: fundamentally theidea of cultural mobility, with knowledge and power moving from empire to empire.How did the Yuan-Ming transition work as a translatio imperii in both senses of theword and what can we conclude from it regarding the nature of the early Ming?
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorYang-Wen Zheng (Supervisor) & Georg Christ (Supervisor)


  • Universal Empire
  • Multilingualism
  • Language Policy
  • Linguistic Landscapes
  • Translation
  • China
  • Ming Dynasty
  • Mongol Empire

Cite this