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  • Hewei Zhongguo: Jiangyu, minzu, wenhua yu lishi by Ge Zhaoguang
  • Sheng Mao
Hewei Zhongguo: Jiangyu, minzu, wenhua yu lishi (What Is China: Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, and History), by Ge Zhaoguang. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2014. 181 pp. HK$88 (Hardcover). ISBN 9780199441723.

This “little book,” as its author Ge Zhaoguang calls it, consists of six short essays. It is centered on the following questions: What is “China”? How did modern China gradually come into being? What problems is China currently confronting as a country with multiple ethnicities, complicated cultures, and grand territory?

The first chapter, titled “Worldview: From Ancient Chinese Idea of ‘All under Heaven’ (天下 tianxia) to Modern Idea of ‘Multi-States’ (萬 國 wanguo)” talks about traditional China-centered idea of “all under heaven” and how the Chinese were forced to accept the idea of “world,” which emphasized that China was only one of many nations. This helps readers understand how the legacy of the traditional tributary system impacts the way the Chinese deal with the modern international world order.

In the second chapter, “National Boundaries (國境 guojing): A Discussion on the Territory of China,’” the author considers whether the “frontiers” of traditional China could become the modern “national territory” and how. Ge demonstrates that this discussion can contribute to the understanding of the territorial disputes between China and its neighboring countries.

Why China, after the Opium War, always had two themes intertwined regarding nation-state and ethnicity is the topic of Chapter 3, “Nation: Bring the Four Barbarians into the Chinese (納四裔入中華 na siyi ru Zhonghua).” One theme was how the Chinese were forced to adopt the idea of “multiple states.” The other was to prevent ethnic minorities from being independent. This helps us make sense of at least two things: why even today the Chinese have the idea of the “Great China (大中華 da Zhonghua)” and why many Chinese scholars still think positively of the term “Sinicization.”

Chapter 4, “History: Looking at Chinese Culture(s) from a Long-term Perspective,” asks several interesting questions: How was/were the Chinese culture(s) we refer to today shaped historically? Do the Chinese have only one or more than one culture? In other words, when using the term “Chinese culture,” does one needs to pluralize “culture”? The [End Page 248] author challenges the thought that the Chinese have only one culture and that one is Confucianism.

When did the mutual trust among China and its neighboring countries, especially Japan and Korea, diminish in the late imperial era? Why did affinity among East Asian countries decline? These are the questions raised by Chapter 5, “Neighboring (周邊 zhoubian): The Mutual Perceptions among China, Japan and Korea since the Sixteenth and Seventh Centuries.” This chapter aims at furthering our understanding of the history of international relations in East Asia.

In a 1993 Foreign Affairs article titled “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Samuel Huntington argues that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflicts in the post-Cold War world. In the last chapter, “Reality: Will the Differences between the East and the West Cause Clash?,” Ge Zhaoguang explains whether traditional Chinese culture could contribute to world peace and regional stabilization.

After reading this book, one may be impressed by its originality. For example, different from most Western scholars who regard nation-state as a modern phenomenon, the author argues that at least during the Song dynasty (960–1279) the Chinese already had the sense of “state with boundaries.” People in the Han and Tang dynasties, without any nomadic tribes or neighboring states strong enough to challenge them, did not have a strong sense of being surrounded by “foreign countries.” As a militarily weak country, however, the Song struggled in a multi-state international environment, causing the Song era to be a key period in the making of the sense of China as a state with boundaries. This characteristic of the Song contributes to the so-called “Tang-Song transition.” In this case, the transition from empire to nation in China is different from that in Europe.

If Ge’s argument challenges the Eurocentric perspective in the study of nation-state, his main argument criticizes the constructive approach on study of nationalism. Benedict...


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