Turkey and China, two pivotal states with remarkable imperial legacies and centuries old state traditions, have enjoyed cordial ties since the formation of bilateral relations in 1971. Despite being located in different geographical regions and not sharing borders the impact of China on Turkish history has been significant.
In order to understand the basis of the relations among the countries, it is fruitful to analyze the formation of the Turkish national history narrative and its reflections within Turkish educational textbooks. Such an examination will reveal the view on China and its people in the eyes of ordinary Turkish citizens.
Following the First World War, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish war of independence (1919-1922), the effort to create a Turkish nation-state led to the formation of a new historical narrative under the newborn Turkish republic. In order to prove that the Turks had a glorious past even before their conversion to Islam (751 CE) and the formation of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the ideological father of Turkish nationalism, historian, Ziya Gökalp, formulated a historical idea that attributed a special importance to pre-Islamic Turkish history. It is this overarching idea which was to be essential in informing the perspective of the early school textbooks of the young republic.
Thus, the Huns, Göktürks and Uygurs, all of whom at some point engaged in bloody campaigns with Chinese dynasties, were mentioned as the most prominent pre-Islamic Turkish groups to have formed strong states. These groups were portrayed as ancestors of the contemporary Turkish citizen. In light of this viewpoint, the Turkish textbooks had also to portray the Chinese as the long standing opponent of these Turkish peoples. It is necessary to underline that the Turkish school textbooks’ position vis-à-vis the Chinese Empire did not change over the years. The history textbooks that were published during the 1990s and those published as recently as 2016 still portray the same basic story as their early Republic antecedents.