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  • Grand Illusions and Delusions
  • Walter C. Clemens Jr. (bio)
Bill Hayton, The Invention of China ( New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020).
Jonathan E. Hillman, The Emperor's New Road: China and the Project of the Century ( New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020).
Maria Adele Carrai, Jean-Christophe Defraigne, and Jan Wouters, eds., The Belt and Road Initiative and Global Governance ( Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2020).
Clyde Prestowitz, The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership ( New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021).

Much that people say about China represents a grand illusion. The books reviewed here aim to shatter those beliefs. The Invention of China challenges the claim that today's China is the continuation of an empire and a way of life that have endured for millennia. The Emperor's New Road suggests that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may not meet its goals for China or for its far-flung recipients. The World Turned Upside Down addresses the illusion that closer ties to Western economic institutions would transform a one-party dictatorship into a liberal democracy.

High hopes often prove illusory. The Great Illusion by Norman Angell, published in 1909, argued that, given the power of modern weapons and Europe's interdependence, no one could gain by starting a war sure to be disastrous. Despite such warnings, the first truly world war began in 1914 and quickly brought catastrophe to most of the belligerents. A second version of Angell's book appeared in 1933, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was the same year that Hitler became Germany's Führer. Even though weapons were becoming ever more destructive, the three Axis powers plunged the world into another, and even more deadly, conflagration.1 [End Page 671]

Is "China" a Mirage?

The Invention of China argues that PRC president Xi Jinping is building his expanding realm on weak foundations. Author Bill Hayton, an old Asia hand for the BBC, writes that the PRC portrays itself as the latest ruler of a Chinse state with a continuous five-thousand-year history. This history makes today's PRC the rightful authority across a vast territory stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Central Asia. "It underpins the PRC's right to rule Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Manchuria and Taiwan. It also gives it the authority to define who is Chinese and how they should behave" (p. 5).

Contrary to this mythology, for 268 years China was a conquered province of a Manchu great-state empire. Still earlier, it was for centuries part of a Mongolian great-state. The Manchu and, before them, Mongolian elites "retained their Inner Asian cultures while externally presenting themselves—at least to a portion of their subjects—as heirs to Sinitic traditions of rule" (p. 9). The Mongolian realm extended to the Mediterranean and Russia. East Asia was just a part of this domain. China as a unified and defined country existed only in foreign imaginations.

It was the Manchu people who extended this entity to the Himalayas and the Xinjiang mountains. When their rule collapsed in 1912, China's modernizing nationalists assumed the right to rule the entirety of this Manchu great-state. Hayton contends that modern China's ethnic identity, its boundaries, and even the idea of a nation-state are innovations from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These attributes claimed for China date from around 1900 when Sun Yat-sen returned from schooling in Honolulu and, with a few other young men, pressed for a modernizing Chinese polity to replace the moribund Qing empire. Their ideas energized both Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and Mao Zedong's Communists as they struggled to lead this new entity.

It was not until Sun Yat-sen and his fellow revolutionaries imagined a Chinese nation into existence in the 1890s and 1900s that the question of a national language was considered. The official language of the Qing great state was Manchu. The dynasty used the elite form of Chinese, guanhua, only within the Sinitic part of the realm. Elsewhere it used the local languages with their Tibetan, Turkic, and Mongol scripts. A Chinese linguist in the 1950s...


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