A growing literature in IR addresses the historical international politics of East Asia prior to Western influence. However, this literature has taken little note of the role of Eurasian steppe societies and empires in these dynamics. This article offers a corrective, showing that relations between China and the steppe played an important role in regional politics. I argue that Chinese elite conceptions of the steppe as other played an important role in maintaining China's ontological security. Imperial Chinese elites pursued a deliberate strategy of 'othering' steppe societies, presenting them as China's political-cultural opposite. Doing so both provided a source of stable identity to China and justified their exclusion from the Chinese 'world order'. Empirically, I proceed in three sections. First, I consider Chinese identity building, framed in terms of ontological security, both under the founding Qin and Han dynasties, and under the later Ming dynasty. Second, I address recent historiography of the steppe, showing Chinese conceptions of it were inaccurate. Third, I address the long history of hybridity between the two regions.