I often begin my classes on Chinese history by asking a question: What is China?
The question is often laughed off, at first. Many students dismiss the challenge of defining China, confident in the knowledge that, like Justice Stewart on another topic, they know it when they see it.
The question is not simply “academic”: today’s headlines about the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands ask it implicitly. Are the islands part of China? What is China?
In the hands or throats of Chinese nationalists, the answers to the question tend to be adjectives, and they often focus on the past: China has been humiliated! Is one of the most common clichés. As an antidote to that humiliation, China must be strong! When responding to international criticism—whether about the islands dispute, human rights, environmental degradation, intellectual property concerns, or anything else—the Opium Wars and 100 years of humiliation is rarely far from the surface. Xi Jinping’s first speech as CCP Secretary promised the “renewal of the Chinese nation,” and invoked the Opium War.
But what is the Chinese nation Xi aspires to renew?
When modern China’s great national hero, Sun Yat-sen, proclaimed the Republic of China on January 1, 1912, its boundaries, essentially, matched today’s PRC. After 101 years, those borders remain, more or less, unchanged.
This consistency implies that China’s external boundaries and internal unity are self-evident. All nationalists—Chinese and otherwise—promote the view that the nation-state, in its current form, has deep, even eternal, roots. In the Chinese case, nationalist ambition glosses over two fundamental contradictions, surrounding both the internal unity and the external boundaries, that have deep roots, but take particular hold in the decades leading to the 1911 revolution and the Republic that ensued.
To address this, let’s observe that Sun Yat-sen based the Republic’s boundaries on the Qing dynasty that he sought to overthrow. The rub here is that the Qing dynasty was not Chinese. Its Manchu founders conquered China in a long, bloody war 17th-century–war. More to the point, 19th and 20th century nationalists like Sun Yat-sen built their vision of China on anti-Manchu sentiment. Sun described the 1911 revolution as “throwing off the Manchu yoke.” Zou Rong, another revolutionary who was executed for sedition in 1905, described the Manchus as “furry and horned” devils who had inflicted “260 years of harsh and unrelenting pain” on China and its people.
So it’s unlikely that Sun would have chosen his borders because they were Manchu constructions, but that’s just what he did. China’s long parade of dynasties, going back at least to the Qin “unification” in 221 bce, varied widely in their geographic extent (setting aside other questions about their nature). Today’s border regions, including the Northeast/Manchuria, Xinjiang in the Northwest, Tibet, and the Southwestern provinces were rarely part of the same state as the Chinese “heartland” like the Yangzi Delta, Shandong, or other areas. These border areas are not, by most cultural, linguistic, and social definitions, Chinese. These were included in the Republic (and thus the PRC) because they had been conquered by the Qing: the Manchu devils from whom Sun sought to liberate China.
The PRC’s external boundaries are legacies of the Manchus, but internally the Chinese nation Xi Jinping will soon govern is characterized by division as much as cohesion. Take five of the important population and cultural centers of today’s PRC: Xi’an and the Yellow River valley; Beijing/Tianjin; the Yangzi delta; Chongqing and Sichuan; and Guangdong. In the distant past, these five quintessentially “Chinese” regions were often parts of different states—many of which weren’t Chinese at all. In the 19th century, regional divisions facilitated China’s defeats in both Opium Wars, the 1888 Sino-French War, the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War, and others. As China modernized—more effectively than many realize—in response to internal and external pressures, these efforts were often regional in nature. Armories, shipyards and other initiatives were led and managed by regional rather than central forces; even reforms to the Chinese military were based on regional divisions, fueling fragmentation. Partly in response to these crises, the idea of a single, unified Chinese state was a dream of nationalists.
But the contradiction goes deeper than that. The original Republican flag, later replaced by the Nationalist Party’s white-sun logo, featured five horizontal stripes, each one representing a different “race” that comprised the Chinese republic: Han, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims. The melting-pot ideal represented by the flag is at odds with the often-virulent racial nationalism Sun and other espoused. Yet they went together in the founding of the Republic.
And they persist.
Chinese nationalists embrace an eternal Chinese state. Yet, today’s People’s Republic is built on the dreams of 20th-century nationalists, whose state was the product of 18th century Manchu imperialism. The five stripes on the Republican flag are forgotten, but the huge swathes of territory they represented—Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Manchuria—are considered inviolable parts of the Chinese nation. Something they never were in the past.
Patriotism has been called the last refuge of scoundrels. In this case, it is a dangerous refuge. Diplomacy is undervalued in today’s world, and it calls for careful compromise and subtle understanding. Both compromise and understanding are difficult when one’s starting position is viewed as eternal and self-evident. For nationalists in China, awareness of their state’s imperial and multi-national roots would be a useful step away from ultimatums and toward the compromise needed for the peaceful coexistence its leaders claim to seek.
Dr. James Carter is a Professor of History and the Director of International Relations at Saint Joseph’s University; he serves as Chief Editor of “Twentieth-Century China” (http://www.maney.co.uk/index.php/journals/tcc/).