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China Inside Out

Pál Nyíri
Joana Breidenbach


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1For over a decade, scholars, universities, and research funding bodies have been debating the usefulness of area studies. Heir to a Western tradition of studying non-Western societies that became systematized as a by-product of colonialism, area studies in the way we know them are a Cold War artifact. Symbolically, their birth can be dated to the 1958 National Defense Education Act that provided funding for producing knowledge on areas of the world important to the United States’ security. Although in the subsequent decades, the link between American political agenda and the contents of area studies research essentially disappeared, the very organization of knowledge into politically defined geographic areas came under increasing criticism as irrelevant with the end of the Cold War and the rise of postcolonial studies and globalization theories. Essentially, the intellectual and institutional debate has been taking place along two fault lines: (1) problem-oriented versus space-oriented organization of knowledge; (2) locally specific explanations versus global theories of social change. There have been proposals to obviate the first question by redefining spatial categories of area studies based on observed social processes and allow them to shift correspondingly, instead of using permanent boundaries defined by presumed cultural traits. Most prominently, such a call has been made by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (2001).

A contextual definition of ”areas”

2The authors of this text believe that “areas” as assemblages of social processes requiring distinct, culture-bound explanations cannot be replaced with global theories, but that the meaning of “the area” can be different depending on the question one studies. The study of China and Chinese, in particular, is a good arena to challenge the disciplinary and geographic boundaries of conventional area studies for several reasons. First, because of the wealth of simultaneous processes of rapid political, social, and discursive change in contemporary Chinese society. Second, because of the problematic relationship between state, territory, nation, and ethnicity in China. Third, because China studies, perhaps more than any other area studies at the moment, are a highly competitive political and academic industry whose internal working must be critically examined. In addition, the subject of China has become one of the primary loci of contesting the meanings of globalization and the universality versus relativity of “values” and modernity.

3The last decade has seen a major shift in the focus of the study of China in the West, with issues of contemporary politics and society coming to the foreground. This has partly been driven by policy and business interest in practical understanding, as the arrival of the “Asian century” was first proclaimed and then put into question by the 1997 “currency crisis.” Culturalist explanations for the momentous strides in the development of East Asian economies gained popularity, then came under attack when the performance of those economies faltered. Most belonged to the beneficiaries and eager participants in globalizing economic and cultural processes, but while some moved gradually to plural, democratic systems, others became increasingly autocratic. Understanding the reasons requires the deconstruction of the Western concept of China and a look at the diverse but connected processes that are eroding and strengthening nation-state ideologies at once. Central among the issues of relevance here are those of nationalism and transnationalism.

4The debate on the future of, and alternatives to, the nation-state has been a central issue in political science and sociology in the post-Cold War period. This includes a renewed interest in diasporas, studies of business and religious networks, and a rapidly emerging field of studies on transnationalism, a practice of simultaneous engagement in the discourses of belonging of two or more nation-states.

Nationalism and transnationalism as geography-shaping processes

5Despite all talk about the demise of the nation-state, the post-Cold War period has seen reemergence, strengthening, and/or reassessment of nationalisms across the world. Apart from Eastern Europe, the most dramatic processes of this kind have been taking place in Asia. The Chinese Communist government, replacing a class-based discourse of belonging, has introduced a triumphalist discourse of deterritorialized Chineseness, composed of a traditionalist emphasis on essentialized cultural values, early-twentieth-century racial nationalism, and business-school “Rimspeak” celebrating the success of Chinese businesses. “Cultural Chineseness” is on the rise among ethnic Chinese outside China, aided not only by the economic attractiveness of China and the patriotic rhetoric of its government, but also by the encouragement of ethnic Chinese by many governments to translate their Chineseness into business skill. While constant references are made to the nation, the content of cultural Chineseness is shifting away from native place and kinship group toward the practice of transnational business. Both ruling elites and those opposed to them are, in many ways, benefiting from globalization processes, but also clash with and are subverted by them. Both established diasporas and new migrants are addressed and sometimes mobilized by government discourses of patriotism and development. A stream of new migration from China and the growth of global Chinese media is amplifying and mainstreaming the imaginary of “globally modern Asians.” A complicated array of transnational practices and “imagined communities” has emerged, but, unlike what is often assumed, they are not always cosmopolitan and antinationalist. How are such practices subverting or strengthening old nationalisms and creating new ones? How are minorities in China reacting to the changing discourse of Chineseness? How are nationalism and xenophobia in China’s neighbors and historic and strategic adversaries and destination countries of Chinese migration affected, and what chances are there for new regionalisms?

A non-linear text

6Contributors to the project move in, out and around China, geographically and methodologically, and interrogate social behaviors, links and flows, texts, images and policies to answer to these questions. In parallel to that, they interrogate their own research methods and relate them to other ways of studying society, and engage critically with the limitations and possibilities of mainstream Anglo-American social research and potential complementary traditions.

7The multiplicity and reflexivity of approaches is intended to help the reader develop new perspectives and see unexpected connections. The way this text is organized is meant to facilitate this process. Instead of the linear reading of a conventional textbook, the design of this text invites the juxtaposition of different trains of thought. The chapter by George Marcus reads at a different “level”: it interrogates the China Inside Out project itself.

8This project started as a 2001 summer course at Central European University, Budapest. We decided to keep some of the directness of the spoken language and reproduce parts of the lectures and discussions within the chapters. Some of them therefore read decidedly more colloquial than conventional scholarly literature, conveying a sense of dynamism and ongoing debate.


Anthropological Concepts for the Study of Nationalism

9Aihwa Ong

10This chapter discusses the formation of anthropological concepts that offer tools to deal with nationalism and transnationalism in the world of nation-states and beyond, as well as with anthropological fieldwork. It opens with an introduction to the anthro-pological perspective and goes on to discuss the ideas of print capitalism and imagined communities and concepts of contemporary globalization. It then looks at the differences between the dynamics of modernization in the “West” and the “non-West”, including the differing relationships between the contemporary state’s national project and the definition of tradition; the moral economy of Asian nations; and the “Asian values” discourse. The module finishes with examining flexible accumulation and flexible citizenship among Chinese transnationals.

The Legacy of Empires and Nations in East Asia

11Prasenjit Duara

12This chapter deals with problems of national identity and “sovereignty” in the transition from empire to nation-state from the historian’s standpoint. On what principles did premodern Chinese polities govern the communities they ruled and how did they legitimate themselves? What kinds of political identifications were produced in the empire? What were the relationships between political and nonpolitical forms of identification in these polities? What was the relationship between centers and frontiers?

13What was the impact of the emergent nation-state system on 20th-century China and how were both of the principles of governance (the sovereignty question) and of the nature of identification transformed? How did new citizens view their political identity in relation to a territorial “geo-body”? What happened to older frontier regions and peoples? What happened to the older universalist (often religious) aspirations and identities?

Researching Chinese Nationalism: the Foreign Relations Dimension

14Daojiong Zha

15This chapter starts with situating the issue of Chinese nationalism in international relations (IR) research and querying the terms commonly used in this context. It reviews the most-discussed questions discussed by IR researchers and policy analysts in regard of Chinese nationalism—including nationalism versus national interest, Taiwan and Tibet, and border disputes—but challenges the reader to be critical towards accepted explanations and calls attention to the question of who speaks for China.

On the Periphery of the ”Clash of Civilizations?” Discourse and Geopolitics in Russo-Chinese Relations

16Alexander V. Lomanov

17This chapter looks at the development of interactions between post-Soviet Russia and China from a threefold perspective. First, it examines the ambivalent role of Russia and China in the formulation of each other’s “national ideas” by various elites. Second, it discusses the geopolitical realities of economy, migration, border disputes, and regional/central power rivalries in the Far Eastern provinces of Russia and the north-eastern provinces of China. Finally, it analyses the tensions between the discourses at the centers and the agendas of the peripheries.

Minorities, Homelands and Methods

18Louisa Stein

19This chapter starts with an introduction to key anthropological concepts in the research of transnationalism, diasporas, and migration. It then deconstructs China as a society with complex, multilayered ethnicities whose sub-national groups include “minorities” (non-Han ethnic groups) and “latent” ethnicities within the Han. Turning to transnationalism, the module discusses the case of the Miao/Hmong, an ethnic group now found in China, Southeast Asia, and the United States. The following part looks, on the example of the author’s “itinerant ethnography” of the Miao, at research methods and anthropological fieldwork applied to transnationalism. Finally, the chapter examines the role of media in transnationalism and the anthropologist’s approach to media studies.

The ”New Migrant”: State and Market Constructions of Modernity and Patriotism

20Pál Nyíri

21This chapter starts with a review of overseas Chinese and emigration policy in the PRC since 1949, focusing on the changing relations of overseas Chinese with the PRC and the changing meaning of Chineseness as it is instrumentalized in these relations. The next part discusses migration from China since 1978 and the policies and discourse of patriotism developed around it. The third part of the chapter then focuses on how globalized worlds of media, migrant organizational elites, and academics co-produce the imagery of global Chineseness overseas with the PRC government.

Race in China

22Frank Dikötter

23This chapter traces how “race” has been used at various stages of the 20th century Chinese nationalist discourse to draw the boundaries of the Chinese nation and to rationalize real and imagined differences between population groups. It looks at the origins of racial differentiation, its formulation in modern terms under the influence of Western theories accompanying the transition to nation-state, and the use of racial discourse in the biopolitics of the Republic and the People’s Republic.

Outside In: Sino-Burmese Encounters

24Penny Edwards

25This chapter looks at the role of religion and ethnicity in the state construction of bilateral relations between China and Burma, and how the constructs of national identity are manipulated by the states (and rival centers of power) in the course of their changing relationship. How do these constructs, reinforced by boundaries, clash or overlap with local ethnic and religious identities as well as with everyday cross-border practices? The chapter approaches history as a series of parallel fragments, a plurality of voices, glimpsing the past from different, often awkward and restricted angles, so that what we become most aware of is that which is always hidden and resists the linear interrogations of Western historiographic enquiry.

Alterity Motives

26Dru C. Gladney

27Using the example of three Muslim ethnic groups—the Hui, the Uyghur, and the Kazak—this chapter focuses on the construction of minority identifications in China. “Hui” is originally a generic name for Chinese-speaking Muslims; the Uyghur are the titular nationality of China’s northwestern administrative region; and the Kazak are the nation-forming ethnic group of neighboring Kazakstan. The chapter looks at the role of the Han majority in defining the identities of these groups; the function of the imaging of minorities for the self-definition of the Han; minorities’ resistance to, acceptance or manipulation of those images; and the flexible use of identifications the author calls “relational alterity”.

The Contemporary Intellectual Context of the China Inside Out Project

28George E. Marcus

29This is a commentary on the intellectual approaches China Inside Outtakes and the pedagogical possibilities it opens. The author discusses how the project arises from earlier critiques of area studies, in what ways it differs from them, and to what future directions it points. The chapter thus reads at a different level from the others, helping the reader make sense of them.

30Expressions in boldface are explained in the Glossary and in the list of Main Chinese Dynasties.

31The editors thank Katalin Hegyi for her expert assistance with the preparation of this manuscript.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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