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  • What Is China? Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, and History by Ge Zhaoguang
  • Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi (bio)
Ge Zhaoguang. What Is China? Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, and History. Translated by Michael Gibbs Hill. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018. xv, 201 pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-73714-3.

In What Is China? Chinese historian Ge Zhaoguang sets out to challenge the conceptual understanding of nations and nation-states as relatively recent political formations bound to the period of modernity in Europe. Ge posits that the Han Chinese have constituted a nation since the Qin dynasty, and that the territory which they inhabited—the nine central imperial provinces—can and should be understood as a kind of a nation-state. Ge questions the idea that following the Xinhai Revolution the imperial era in China came to an end, with a modern Chinese state built out of the imperial ruins. Instead, he suggests that today's China is to a certain extent still an empire and, moreover, that the pre-1911 empires had a lot in common with what historians understand as a modern nation-state. While the argument in the book is not always coherent, the author generally posits that because a nation-state emerged in [End Page 21] China earlier than in Europe, it cannot be analyzed with the conceptual apparatus developed by European and North American scholarship. In Ge's view, China is unique. Further, he argues that "questions concerning China's territories, nations and peoples, faiths, territorial boundaries, and identities are far more complicated than for any other country in the world" (p. 3). These are bold claims, but they remain unconvincing.

The book is structured into an introduction and six chapters. In the introduction, the author presents his views on the emergence of the nation and state in Chinese antiquity. He argues that imperial China was unlike other empires, with their vague frontiers and differentiated administrative regimes; instead, it was more like a modern state. According to Ge, this is characterized by having clear and stable borders, a cohesive national community with a clear-cut national identity and a unique national culture. In the next step, he measures imperial China against this peculiar primordial definition of the modern state, which he appears to assume is the standard in European and North American scholarship—an intellectual constellation about whose agenda Ge remains very sceptical throughout. He concludes that this definition is discriminatory as it was narrowly devised to fit the European states and does not reflect what the Chinese state in antiquity was like, namely, "shifting" in territorial and political terms but highly congruent in cultural terms (p. 10). Ge then elaborates his thesis that this culturally unified China has existed continuously since the Qin and Han dynasties.

In the introduction, it is sometimes hard to discern clear lines in Ge's argumentation. Furthermore, his conceptual inspirations remain vague and unclarified. Chapter 1, entitled "Worldviews," is in this regard much more straightforward. Ge outlines here the changes in how space was imagined by the ancient Han Chinese and traces the transformation of these representations from the China-centric "all under heaven" (tianxia) to a plural worldview in which China exists as one of "myriad states" (p. 28). This discussion of ancient spatial and cartographic imaginaries is informative. Ge ponders the longevity of the ancient imaginaries which persisted despite, among others, the entry of Buddhism from India and the arrival of Matteo Ricci and his drawing of the "Complete Map of the World" (p. 47). While, as Ge contends, among the intellectual elites these events caused important shifts in the understanding of China's place in the world, politically the hierarchical spatial imaginaries continued to dominate the way in which the empires conducted relations with their "others."

In chapter 2, "Borders," Ge focuses on the question of why China "can have such an enormous territory" and why it is legitimate for the Chinese state today to be made up of so many "nationalities" (p. 51). While to Western social science researchers these questions may appear analytically peculiar, the discussion here in fact offers an interesting insight into the debate that...


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