Seeing China Through the Turkish History Textbooks

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.

Hence, the Huns who were defined as genuine Turks had, according to this narrative, continuously defeated the Chinese Empire, which led the Chinese to construct the Great Wall of China. Needless to say the impressive pictures of the Great Wall of China in the Turkish school textbooks are still used as evidence to prove to the students the might of the early Turkish armies. Since there is no Turkish state left in the north of the Great Wall today, however, the students also had to receive a proper answer to explain their eventual defeat by the Chinese. In this regard, Hunnic and Göktürk princes’ marriages with Chinese princesses and the efforts of these princesses to sabotage the wellbeing of these nations were shown as the most important catalysts for these the decline and collapse of the early Turkic states. Thus, the Chinese were portrayed as weak and ineffective warriors who relied on women to defeat the Turks in an unjust way; i.e., not in the theatre of war, but through covert political plots.

Contrary to the Chinese, the Turks were portrayed as brave warriors who had to migrate to the west due to famine… In this respect, Chinese military pressure was mentioned as a marginal factor in this immigration. The story of the legendary Hunnic warrior “Kürşad” (Kurshad) can be seen as a good illustration of the idea conveyed. According to the textbooks, Kürşad dared to commit a raid with his thirty-nine warriors on the palace of the Chinese emperor in order to rescue the “Turkish” captives being held in the palace. Unsurprisingly, Kürşad’s story tells of the heroic death of 40 Turks only by underlining the death of hundreds of Chinese at warriors’ hands. Thus, the textbooks indirectly emphasized the unequal circumstances explaining the defeat.1

Besides these two groups, the Turkish history textbooks also highlight the Uygurs as the third important Turkish group that formed a state in central Asia. In order to stress the close relationship between Turks of the Turkish Peninsula and the Uygurs the textbooks provide the terminological meaning of the word Uygur as “ally” or “relative” in modern Turkish. While emphasizing that the Uygurs are living in China’s Uygur autonomous region, this particular land is also described as “East Turkistan” (Doğu Türkistan) while the word Xinjiang (Sincan in Turkish) is excluded from some textbooks. Despite this, it should also be noted that the word Xinjiang appears next to the word East Turkistan in the “map of the Turkic world”2 in other textbooks (on left). The “International Relations” school textbook that was published in 2014 portrayed the Uyghur Autonomous Region with East Turkistan’s blue flag 3 (On right).

Turkish nationalist sign of “wolf” next to the great wall of China.

The narratives outlined above serve to explain the affinity of Turkish peoples with the Uygur people of Xinjiang and the image of the Chinese in the eyes of the ordinary Turkish citizen. It should not be surprising to the Chinese, therefore, to witness widespread pro-Uygur protests in Turkey, some of which included such drastic actions as the symbolic execution of Mao Ze Dong in the city of Balıkesir on July 4, 20154 ] during a protest against China’s policies vis-à-vis Uygur minority or the threatening of China on social media with reference to the story of Kürşad, or the calling for the reuniting of all Turks to once more pose a threat to the Great Wall.5 All these can be understood as a concrete reflection of the Turkish education system.

In light of the above analysis, in order to understand the fundamentals of the current Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis China, the reputation of China from a Turkish viewpoint and their sensitivity towards Xinjiang, Turkish school textbooks that shaped the thought codes of Turkey’s future decision makers should be more comprehensively examined. 6


SIGNAL Scholar Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a doctoral candidate at the Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies. He is also the Turkey analyst for the Doron Halpern Network Analysis Desk’s social media watch bulletin, BeeHive, at the Moshe Dayan Center (MDC) for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.

  1. For More Details: Kemal Kara, Tarih 1 (History 1) (İstanbul, Önde, 1999) p.75 and Ahmet Yılmaz, Tarih 9 (History 9) (Ankara, Ekoyay, 2015) p.99
  2. Komisyon, Türkiye Cumhuriyeti İnkılâp Tarihi ve Atatürkçülük (The Republic of Turkey’s Revolution History and Kemalism), (Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı, 2014) p.240
  3. Erdoğan Sağdıç and Zafer Araz, Uluslararası İlişkiler – Ortaöğretim Ders Kitabı (International Relations –Secondary School Textbook) (Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı, 2014)pp.164-165
  4. Uygur Türkleri için Balıkesir’de de Mao’yu ‘astılar’” (They hanged Mao for the Uygur Turks in Balıkesir), Diken, July 4, 2015 [Accessed: October 12, 2016
  5. (Accessed: October 12, 2016)
  6. In the forthcoming months Israel based think tank, IMPACT-SE will publish a Turkish school textbooks report that was authored by the contributor of this article.
Author:Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak
Published: 27-12-2016
Bio: Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak (MA) is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center (MDC) and a doctoral candidate in Tel-Aviv University’s School of History. He is the co-editor of Turkeyscope Insights on Turkish Affairs and serves as the Turkey analyst of MDC's social media watch bulletin “Bee Hive”. In May 2015, he was awarded the Dan David Prize Scholarship in the category of “Past: Retrieving the past, historians and their sources.” His areas of expertise are: contemporary Turkish politics, Turkish Foreign policy, Turkish national security policy, Turkish social media, Turkish education system, Turkish-Israeli relations and Kurds in Turkey.