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  • The Origins of the Chinese Nation: Song China and the Forging of an East Asian World Order by Nicolas Tackett
  • Paul Jakov Smith
Nicolas Tackett. The Origins of the Chinese Nation: Song China and the Forging of an East Asian World Order. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. 328. $34.99 (paper). ISBN 978-1-316-64748-6.

As I remember it, one of the big issues addressed at the closing plenary session of the 2014 International Conference on Middle Period China at Harvard was whether it was appropriate to refer to the Song as a "nation." Although the discussion was bracingly raucous, a definitive solution remained elusive. Now Nicolas Tackett has provided a resoundingly affirmative answer in his new book, The Origins of the Chinese Nation: Song China and the Forging of an East Asian World Order. The heroes of that origin tale, in Tackett's narration, are the eleventh-century courtiers of the Song Dynasty, who "came to imagine in a new way the political entity to which they belonged." Paralleling Hilde De Weerdt's study of technologies of empire in the Southern Song,1 Tackett argues that Northern Song statesmen more precisely articulated the extent of their polity; systematically demarcated its borders; began to speak of a homogeneous cultural and ecological zone whose boundaries diverged from the political boundaries of the state; and came to expect the allegiance of the "Han people" of this cross-border cultural zone. Politically, "These beliefs fueled the sentiment that the Song had the moral right to seize 'former' territory that lay beyond the limits of its political control." And at the heart of this new sense of geopolitical identity was, as Tackett puts it, "an East Asian inter-state system that reached a new degree of maturity under the Northern Song" (1).

For Tackett, as for many historians who seek to put the Song in greater geopolitical perspective, "The emergence of a multi-state system in East Asia in the eleventh century had a … profound impact on Chinese political culture" (2). Indeed, Tackett's novel and thoroughly researched exploration of the many political and cultural consequences of that multi-state system is among the greatest achievements of his book. But Tackett also wants to put the eleventh-century East Asian order in historiographical perspective, by arguing that it generated "new ideas and a new worldview that together demonstrated that there has existed in world history a viable alternative to the modern system of nation-states, an alternative consisting of what I refer to as the 'Chinese nation' and the 'East Asian world order'" (2). The notion of a multi-state East [End Page 317] Asian world order has long been established, not least by Morris Rossabi and his collaborators.2 But with his delineation of a Song-era "Chinese nation," Tackett is indeed trying something new and ambitious. For Tackett not only seeks to establish the viability of the Song as a nation, he also aims to dethrone the hegemony of the modern, largely Western model as the sole benchmark for what constitutes nationhood and nationalism. As a result, Tackett would go beyond earlier studies that identified "proto-nationalist" strands in Song-era self-conceptions,3 by positing Song notions as an alternative view of (variant) nationalism and the nation, very different from its modern, Eurocentric, incarnation.

[B]y taking the premodern nation seriously, it is possible to denaturalize the modern nation. One does so not by treating the premodern mindset as a sort of 'proto-national' consciousness in the primitive stages of a long formative process, a notion that in fact accords well with national mythmaking. One does so rather by treating modern and premodern nations as distinct incarnations of a common phenomenon, defined by an alternative set of boundaries, and driven by a distinct set of contingent circumstances.


Tackett takes as his model of nationhood Benedict Anderson's definition of the nation as "an imagined political community." In Anderson's formulation, "It is imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image...


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