What Is China? Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, and History by Ge Zhaoguang
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 took [End Page 22] place in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century on what legitimately constitutes the Chinese territory. The author also discusses in this chapter how from the time of the Song dynasty the idea of tianxia was paralleled by an apparently contradictory sense of a "bordered" or "limited" Chinese state with well-defined cultural borders (p. 60). The Mongol Yuan and Manchu Qing dynasties made these borders problematic, however, as they merged the Han territory with lands inhabited by Tibetans, Turks, and Mongols in their vast empires. Naturally, this posed significant challenges to the narrative of the Chinese nation on the collapse of the Qing empire in 1911. In chapter 3, "Ethnicity," the author recounts the process of how these non-Han were then discursively included in the concept of the Chinese nation in the late Qing and Republican periods. Ge highlights here how the legitimacy of the young Republic of China to govern the territory inherited from the Manchu was challenged forcefully by Japanese scholars, spurring a lively political debate in China. The chapter is thus not so much about ethnicity as about the politics of narrating non-Han people and the land they inhabited as Chinese in this critical period of transformation.
In the next chapter, "History," Ge sets out to analyze Chinese culture "in a long-term perspective," focusing on the question of "exactly what is China's culture" (p. 96). While the conceptual framework of this inquiry remains undisclosed, he presents a list of five "key facets" of what he understands as Chinese culture (pp. 97–98). These are, among others, the Chinese writing system, family and clan structure, and the three teachings: Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Confucianism. Aware of the fact that this definition excludes large portions of China's non-Han population today, Ge soon feels compelled to qualify this statement by adding that China has never been just a "single culture" but rather an amalgam of multiple cultures (p. 113) which all gradually "layered onto and accumulated within Han culture" (p. 110). At the same time, however, Ge posits that this latter was nonetheless stable and had not changed for two thousand years from the Qin dynasty until the twentieth century.
In chapter 5, "Peripheries," the author briefly discusses the changing relationships between China, Korea, and Japan following the conquest of Chinese central provinces by the Manchu. The ascendency of the "barbarian" Manchu to the imperial throne shook the position of Han China as the "middle kingdom" in East Asia, with Japan making use of this situation to lay its own claims to cultural superiority and as being the new middle kingdom. In the final chapter, "Practical Questions," Ge offers his opinion on whether cultural differences between China and the West will lead to global conflict. Ge returns here to his idea of Chinese culture as a set of five elements and analyzes how these may play out in China's global rise. In particular, he considers how the idea of tianxia and the hierarchical relations with China's "others" in the past may or may not bear on the emerging China-driven world order. [End Page 23]
The book offers some insight into debates relevant to Han Chinese historians. Many of the author's reflections are directly addressed to Han Chinese readers, for example when he urges his fellow citizens to stay open to globalization and modernity. Ge also voices important concerns about the increasing nationalism within Chinese academic circles. Moreover, the idea to critically expand the conceptual apparatus developed by European and North American historians is reasonable and potentially interesting. However, this laudable undertaking quickly gets lost in primordial and ahistorical narratives of culture, nation, and state. Ge appears to believe that the aim of "postmodern theories" conceived in Europe and North America is to question "the legitimacy of the modern nation-state" (p. 17), perhaps even China in particular. Which theories he engages with remains unclear, except for his manifest scepticism towards Prasenjit Duara and especially Benedict Anderson's idea of the nation as an imagined community. Ge claims that their conceptualizations reveal "how historical studies have misunderstood the nation and the state" (p. 17). He then asks rhetorically if "the continuity of Han traditions, and the history of identification with Han political power are all coincidental and debatable" (p. 18). Personally, I do not believe that any of Ge's "postmodern scholars" would argue that they are coincidental. What I imagine these scholars would do, however, would be to focus on the material practices and political imagination with which these "traditions" and "identifications" were crafted (see Navaro-Yashin 2012). They would probably also argue that the crafting of any body politic can only occur with the intellectual, technological, material, and political means available in a specific period, producing time-specific political formations.
Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi is an SNSF assistant professor of social anthropology at the University of Zurich specializing in ethnicity and border studies, majority–minority relations in China as well as anthropology of infrastructure and place.