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China Inside Out

Pál Nyíri
Joana Breidenbach

Chapter 2. The Legacy of Empires and Nations in East Asia

Prasenjit Duara

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1In this chapter I will present a broad historical overview of the problems of nationalism, transnationalism and globalism, both conceptually and in terms of Chinese developments. To survey the changing nature of sovereignty and political formations from the 19th century until the present in China, we will be looking at three stages.

Stage 1: The tribute system

2Until the late 19th century, the tribute system is the model of relationships between different state formations in the region of the empire that we call China and immediately around it.

3In the Chinese and in other imperial states, the edges, the boundaries of the empire, the frontier regions, had many different types of relationship to the center. So you have “multiple lords,” multiple and overlapping sovereignties (Hevia 1995). In certain circumstances, certain aspects of sovereignty may have been with the lord of the local state, but the Qing emperor claimed overlordship.

Stage 2: The territorial nation-state system

4The second stage is the period between 1900 and 1980. During this period, the model of the territorial nation-state rules largely unchallenged. Nation-states’ jurisdiction is marked very clearly by formally demarcated territorial boundaries. This has significant implications, because the new territorial boundaries create the idea of homogeneous sovereignty. There is no competing authority but that which comes from the center.

5Let me give you one example of how territory becomes part of identity. When I was in northeast China, in Changchun in 1993–94, my wife accompanied me. She taught English at a local university. She used some American method of teaching, where you say, “OK, suppose—just to use your imagination—there is going to be a catastrophe in the world, and you can let ten people go into the survival capsule. Which ten are the most valuable ten people that you can put in?” You would expect people to say things like doctors and engineers, nuclear scientists. But a historian was often among the top five! This was very flattering to me. So she asked, “Why is the historian there?” They said, “After the catastrophe, when we come out, we have to know where our national boundaries are.”

6In making maps, it is very difficult to show regions with overlapping sovereignties. Map-making is a product of the period of territorial jurisdictions. Countries are marked with one color: you have shades for physical but not for the political attributes. Why can’t you produce maps where some areas are more pink and more yellow? We don’t think of it that way. But what is even more interesting now, in this postmodern age of the Internet, is that you can produce a three-dimensional map with all kinds of changeable and overlapping boundaries to represent a polity as not a homogenized system but one with variations.

7But that was not the mode of thinking of the period of nation-states. It was a homogenized system of equal territorial jurisdictions, derived from what in European history is known as the Westphalian system of competing states.

8In the tribute system, frontier zones were very often zones of negotiation: when I have power I can try and control it; otherwise it goes somewhere else. One of the things that happen with the transition to the nation-state is that borders get demarcated, lines are drawn on the map. And then you put military resources around it to defend it.

Stage 3: The deterritorialization of the nation-state

9Then we have the third stage from 1980 to the present. The breaking point, of course, is gradual, between 1978—the “opening” of China—and 1989, the time when the Cold War ends and global capitalism becomes a much more powerful force in the world than it had been before. Between 1980 and 1990, there is a point of demarcation for a great part of the world: the end of the Cold War. To some extent, this stage is the deterritorialization of the system of territorial nation-states. By that I do not mean that these territorial nation-states have gone away. No, the idea of the territorial nation-state continues to exist; there still are demarcated boundaries, and they are considered to be elements of great defense significance. But this territorial boundary is not as significant for all purposes.

10The idea of the nation is no longer so much of a homogeneous nation that is limited territorially. Rather, the nation becomes shaped much more by a cultural narrative, by how you develop a story about who you are as a people. It can be an ethnic, racial, or linguistic narrative that defines the body of the nation. As a result, some people are included and some people are excluded, particularly on the peripheries, because very often the territorial nation-state included many different languages, groups, and peoples.

Duara on his conceptual approach
My work has tended to focus on the history of China—though frequently within a comparative context with India and Japan—during the first half of the twentieth century. This is the time when the ideas of modernity and nationalism were beginning to radically transform non-Western societies. However, my perspective on these issues does not derive from a modernization perspective, which sees these as necessary and desirable goals, but from viewing the entire transformation as an immensely complex process. In this process, there were winners and losers, there was the promise of emancipation at the cost of eliminating cultures and people, and the narrative of progress which rewrote history to serve nationalism. There was also the gap between the global process and local situations, between elite vision and popular resistance, and between loyalty to the nation-state and forms of transnational and local identities. In this chapter, I explore not only how these relationships were different from earlier ones, but also the extent to which contemporary globalization produces different forces and relationships.
I am currently finishing a book on Manchukuo, the wartime state in northeast China. This is a taboo subject in China scholarship, because it was a Japanese puppet state. You are not allowed to talk about it except to talk about who was the victim and who was the oppressor. But at the time, the leaders of Manchukuo tried very hard to make it at least appear as a nation. And that is very interesting in itself, because at that time Japan and the rest of the world still had colonies. So why do you need to present it as a nation? It was the first case that really tried the League of Nations, the first international body that emerged to decide what a sovereign nation is. Of course nobody knew what a sovereign nation was, there were so many different criteria at that time. From that point of view, no matter how much imperialism there was, it is a very interesting exercise and reveals a lot about the relationship between nationalism and imperialism and communism.

The main argument of this chapter

11The basic argument that I want to make is that the claim that since 1980 or so the nation-state has been weakening because globalization has been becoming more important is a false statement of the problem. With globalization, you do not necessarily see a weakening of the nation-state. Rather, what you get is a reterritorialization of the nation-state, which includes the idea of deterritorialization. Deterritorialization means that the territorial nation-state is no longer the most significant entity. The cultural narrative that formulates the shape of the nation is much more significant.

12The territorial nation-state also had its narrative, a dominant narrative coming out of the Enlightenment. The only form of description of the nation is the territory into which you were born. No matter what language you speak, you are a citizen. That was the narrative of the territorial nation-state. Now, in reterritorialization, the nation-state in many ways becomes transformed to respond, not to the territorial narrative of a nation, but to a modern ethnic or cultural narrative, with its different community.

13My first conclusion here is that there are losers and winners in this transition. There are people who are included more significantly in the national narrative than others. One of the changes is in terms of the constituencies. Who is the constituency of the new nationalism, and who were the constituencies of the territorial nation? It seems that the peripheral peoples, people who are minorities or people who are in the regions that were considered backward, were in fact equal citizens of the territorial nation. In the Soviet thinking and the Chinese Communist thinking influenced by it, not only were they considered equal citizens, they were given affirmative action, special rights. As the narrative of the nation changes, the constituency also changes. These minorities and peripheral people become losers in the process. Other regions that are tied more to globalizing forces become more dominant. In the Chinese case, you have a coastal area that has much more connections to overseas capital, and you have new narratives that link foreign countries with which this area interacts with the conception of China, narratives about Confucianism or Asian values or “we are the children of Emperor Yan and the Yellow Emperor.” The narratives of these emperors become much more dominant in this reterritorialization of the nation.

14My second conclusion about what I see in this change—and this is much more of a conceptual point—is that there has been a change in the nature of nationalist ideology. It has become dynamic, volatile, and changeable. And a great deal of it has to do with its commodification. It is driven by market forces. In the territorial phase of nationalism, there was an effort to protect it from market forces. Nationalist ideology was considered a state privilege. What happens once market forces or other popular forces become as much a driver of nationalism as the state?

The tribute system

Multiple sovereignty

15“Sovereignty” comes out of the idea of a territorially bounded entity that has homogeneous and noncompeting sources of authority. So is it in fact possible to apply the notion of sovereignty in the pre-nation-state situation? This is the problem of incommensurability: the pre-20th century notion of political power is not understandable in the same way as we understand modern sovereignty, because they are based on very different principles.

16This is a very important problem. Because, after all, how do territorial nation-states decide what their territory is? In the case of certain countries in Western Europe, which originated and evolved these ideas, state boundaries had a little more historical foundation. But when nationalism becomes disseminated across the rest of the world, all societies have to scramble to decide what their territorial nation-state is. Ex-colonies or semicolonies use the boundaries of the empire that they are fighting—the British Empire for the Indians, the Qing Manchu Empire for the Chinese nationalists—to demarcate and claim national territory.

17But imperial territory was not set up as sovereign territory. The principles of sovereignty did not apply. To think that somehow historically this always belonged to a certain country involves a sense of belonging that did not exist at that time. People did not have a homogenized sense of belonging. And yet the whole international system had no way but to behave as if the older ideas were commensurable with the new ideas.

18Hevia shows in Cherishing Men from Afar (Hevia 1995) how political authority, what we call sovereignty today, was established in late imperial China.


19What was, according to Hevia, the relationship between political formations in the Chinese Empire and in the wider Chinese world order? It was defined significantly by the tribute system. Hevia says that if you look at the different relationships between the imperial center in China and different kinds of political centers outside the provincial administrations, you find relationships of mutual encompassment.

20The idea of encompassment comes from the work of the French anthropologist and Sanskritist Louis Dumont, who talks about it in the case of India (Dumont 1980). He shows how religion encompasses political authority, as opposed to the political encompassing religious matters.

21Hevia’s argument about mutual encompassment tries to get at a phenomenon for which we do not really have a vocabulary, because we think of it in terms of our modern categories, where you have relationships between separate entities. The relationships between the multitude of lords are ritual relationships. When the Qianlong emperor of China met the Tibetan Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama he did so not in the imperial palace but in another area, in a formation which displayed symbols of Tibetan Lamaism. He exercised himself as a lord over a lesser lord, so in his view the lesser lord was encompassed within a conception that gave some kind of recognition of Tibetan specificity. But Tibetan accounts reflect a different view of the same events: that the Chinese emperor comes down the steps to greet the lama. The Tibetan conception emphasizes that the gifts given by the emperor to the Lama recognize the superior position of the Lama as the intellectual and spiritual teacher and leader. And therefore the Lama’s interpretation rereads that exchange not as between a superior and an inferior lord, but as between the spiritual teacher and the political authority. And the spiritual teacher is superior in some ways. So it is a very different form of encompassment, and in that theatre, where politics are being staged ritualistically, you can go home with your different conceptions.

22And if the Chinese Empire is weak at that point or the political circumstances are such, then the Lama can declare himself—to his own people in any case—the superior religious force, and frame the Chinese emperor in Buddhist terms as the ruler that is bound to the Lama. Other lords, such as the Mongols, could also make their break with the Chinese ruler at a time when they felt the empire was weak. But at other times, the imperial center could have a very powerful pull.

23It is now well known that the Qing emperor was not simply a Chinese emperor, not simply the Son of Heaven. He was many things. He was the Bodhisattva Manjusri when he went to worship the Buddha; he was the Ruler of Rulers when he went to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, he was the Aisingioro chief when he was in Manchuria. And the identities he was trying to create ritualistically were very different. The Japanese in 1940 had a ritual where Pu Yi, the emperor of Manchukuo, came out of a tent, reborn as the younger brother of the Japanese emperor and a younger child of Amaterasu, the Japanese founding goddess. This was a way of recreating the tie between imperial dynasties. But it had a political purpose: to make him a younger brother, a junior partner in this relationship.

Ritualistic performance

24The notion of ritualistic performance is very important in our understanding of this premodern polity and of how notions of sovereignty were much more negotiable and flexible. They produced their own tensions when the balance of power shifted. This allowed the little principalities in what we now call Xinjiang affect independence right into the mid-19th century, despite becoming actively colonized by the Chinese in the 18th century. In some cases, they did not send tribute to the Chinese emperor but asked the emperor to send tribute to them. This kind of situation depended very much on both the power politics of the moment and on the idea of mutual encompassment.

25This very different kind of conception means we have to be very careful when applying 20th-century categories. Yet nationalism is so much a part of our own subjectivity that it is very hard to think outside it.

Regulation of trade through the tribute system

26The tribute system was very significant in the regulation of global and regional trade flows. By the 18th century, before the Europeans arrived, it was, in many significant ways, global. From the Song on, you had Arab traders, Indians, Southeast Asians, Japanese, whose scope was much more than regional trade.

27The tribute system was in some ways the political order; it was also an effort to regulate trade flows. We know that by the 16th–17th centuries, the Tokugawa shoguns in Japan began to shut down trade and limit it to one or two places. By the 17th century, the Chinese did the same. Their conception of the political order could not handle the enormous pressure of trade. They did not call it globalization, but they felt the effects.

28The tribute system was a way of regulating global flows. China was the imperial power in most of the world at that point, and the missions it sent to collect tribute were not unlike today when the American presidential jet goes to some country with businessmen accompanying him to create contracts. The tribute system governed trade relations and distributed trade privileges: who had the right to trade and what. The Portuguese and Dutch got access to Chinese trade only because they were seen as having helped in the southern conquest of the Qing.

Universality and differentiation among members of the tribute system

29We do not need to go into how China became a territorial nation-state. Suffice it to say that the most critical phase in the transformation was the period starting about 1895, with the Sino-Japanese War, but also the Qing Dynasty’s xinzheng reforms (1902–1909), which created the administrative structures of a national polity and new types of education. This process ironically led to the fall of the monarchy in 1911. By the time of the May Fourth movement, there had already developed ideas of a kind of a nation, and the idea of a geo-body, became very important.

30An instance of the importance of the geo-body was that old territories that nobody seemed to care for suddenly began to appear in the idea of “lost territories.” When the Japanese occupied northeast China and created the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932, what was considered a backward, peripheral, dispensible frontier suddenly came to be seen as lost territory.

31It is interesting to see—also in other cases, such as in Russian—Chinese relations—which areas are considered lost territory and which areas are considered just gone. When does the idea come about that something that has gone has to be retrieved, and when is something considered beyond even commenting on?

Lomanov on the irreconcilable histories of Sino-Russian treaties
The Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689 is regarded as good and equal in the Chinese narration of history and bad and unequal in the Russian version. There is no way to produce a coherent history of Sino-Russian relations because all policies that in the Russian narrative are positive are negative in the Chinese narrative, and vice versa. And what is equal in Russian histories is unequal in Chinese histories. It is a problem of compatibility in historical narratives. The Chinese say that the Nerchinsk Treaty was an equal treaty, but the Russians say it was signed under military pressure from China, when the Russian delegation to China was surrounded by Qing troops. The Nerchinsk Treaty acknowledged Chinese suzerainty over most of Russia’s current Amur Province, the southern half of Khabarovsk Region, and the whole of the Maritime Region, but an unexplored strip was left undelineated, pending further settlement.
The 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Treaty of Peking, by contrast, are treated as equal and good by the Russian narrative of history and bad and unequal by the Chinese. The Treaty of Aigun gave Russia control of the left bank of the Amur River, and the Treaty of Peking gave it the right bank of the Ussuri and granted Russian vessels navigating rights.

The example of the Ryūkyū Islands

32One of the most interesting examples of the tribute system is the Ryūkyū Islands, today’s Okinawa. They were very interested in giving tribute. Tribute is, after all, exchange, it is another form of encompassment. You get rights, when you pay tribute, to have certain trade. Okinawa was a very important point in the Pacific trade of exchange of goods from Japan, Southeast Asia, and the Chinese mainland. By the early 19th century, the most important political authority for the Liuqiu Islands (that’s the Chinese spelling) was Japan. That’s where they paid most of their tribute, and that’s where it was determined who would be their rulers. Nonetheless, they continued to pay tribute to China for a long time. They acknowledged two masters in order to gain economic advantage.

Transcendent polities

33In most political systems in world history, the political system does not see its role simply as that of sustaining its own power. It is always associated with some kind of greater purpose, whether it is the early Christian idea, the Kingdom of Heaven, or, in the Chinese context, the ideal moral society, the return to the age of the sage kings, the ideal of the junzi (the Confucian gentleman) as the ruler, who also expresses the Heaven’s Way. That is what I mean by transcendent polities.

34Look at the role of the Chinese emperor. In the later empire we have understandings of Chinese rulership that put Mencius’ idea of minben, of the people as the basis, at the heart of it. But his role is also one of cosmological interpretation, of creating harmony between Heaven and the human world, and of performing rituals that mediate the relationship between nature and Heaven, between society and Heaven, etc. He has a very powerful ritual role, signifying the higher purpose of his rulership. The same can also be found in Western society. After the Treaty of Westphalia, which brought about the establishment of the interstate system and the jurisdiction of territorial states in Europe, the idea was also that each state would have control over religion. This religious purpose was very important, and there were communities in these societies that were not happy with just having a territorial state whose goal was power for itself (Koselleck 1988). There were groups that wanted to reunite the meaning of rule, the meaning of politics with a transcendent purpose, with God, with morality. Koselleck interprets both freemasonry and the French Revolution in these terms: that they wanted to overcome the distinction between politics and religion, to reunite politics and religion for a greater purpose.

The intrinsic contradiction of the Westphalian model

35The Peace of Westphalia created the system of demarcated, territorial states. This idea then became exported to the rest of the world: that absolute sovereign authority is derived from territory, and that other states should respect the territorial boundaries that have been established.

36But there is an intrinsic contradiction in that idea, because after all the goal of having territorial states is competition. So the territorial system is really a temporary set of rules, as it were, for controlling competition. But the goal of competition is to become the most powerful. In the end it would be empire again, when there are no competitors left, because you gain all the economic, political, and other resources.

37What nation-state and nationalism are about internally is competition; making yourself a strong body. But why do you make yourself a strong body? In order to withstand encroachment by others, in order to compete with the others. So it is also, externally, in order to get what’s out there.

The territorial state as means to competitiveness

38It is very interesting that the goal of nation-states through the 19th century was to look like empires, to have colonies to do your work for you. And the country that got the message most successfully was Japan, which was then able to transform itself into a nation-state and become an imperial power itself. Either you eat or you get eaten—this system emerges out of the nation-state. The nation-state is a way to leverage yourself out of being somebody who is eaten and to become somebody who eats, who is able to compete in this world. So to become a nation-state is a whole process of national formation. How do you make yourself into a nation-state?

From empire to nation: problems of transition

The world-system approach

39Some of the most useful writings on this is the writing on the world-system theories. I am thinking not so much of the work of Immanuel Wallerstein (e.g. Wallerstein 1974), whose name is perhaps the most famous amongst the world-system theorists, but the work of Giovanni Arrighi. He has a very important book published in 1994,

40The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of our Times (Arrighi 1994). He tries to understand the whole system of competitive states and globalization as a 500-year form. There is the work of Andre Gunder Frank (e.g. 1992) as well, who argues that the world-system was really established more than 500 years ago and China was the most important center of this world-system until 1800, when it fell behind for the first time. Wallerstein is very simple and clear: “In the world of the 19th-early 20th century, where you have imperialism, unless you are a nation-state, you become a colony.”

Incommensurability of the nation-state with older imperial practices

41The Japanese government in the 1870s received complaints of clashes between fishermen from the Ryūkyū Islands and the Gaoshan indigenous people of Taiwan. The Japanese government turned to the Qing court to find out who was responsible. The Qing court’s first reaction was what the first reaction of a nonterritorial state is: at the frontier, we let the barbarians govern each other, let them all be. The Qing did not want to take any responsibility for this because they knew it would mean indemnities for people who had been killed. Then the Japanese government replied: so you mean it is not part of your territorial jurisdiction. And Li Hongzhang, the Qing statesman—who knew something-got worried: No, no, we'd better do something about this, because it means they will take it because we say it is not part of our territory. And he made Taiwan into a province in 1885.

Where do you draw the boundaries?

42It is not clear at all. The first thing that happens in 1911—when the Qing Empire collapses3is the establishment of Mongolia. The Mongol princes say we were part of the imperial Manchu concept,and whatever is being established now, we are not part of that. So Outer Mongolia becomes established as a separate state. This is the problem of incommensurability between the empire and the nation: the Mongols saw themselves as imperial subjects but as confederates of the Manchus, not necessarily as part of the Chinese nation.

43At this point of transition from empire to nation-state, it was crucial to successfully establish your claim as a nation. Because Han Chinese nationalism centered around the imperial, because it claimed the imperial state as the nation-state, it was more developed at that point. But among the smaller nationalities, among their intellectual elites, there was a very highly developed sense of Mongol nationalism, Tibetan nationalism, and others. Mongols were the most advanced in this, they recognized what was going on and successfully achieved separation. The Tibetans, it seems, were in a situation where, for whatever reasons, political consciousness had not developed to express nationality; it was done much more in terms of their religious leadership.

Ambiguous mapping

44If you look at some of the early Kuomintang maps, you see that they include the northern part of Burma, and some include part of Iran and parts of North India. All different claims, of course. But actually it is always better that these claims are so big, because nobody can take them seriously. It is as though you have the claim just in case somebody else makes a claim. Much smaller variations on maps of the Sino-Russian border have created serious tension.

Lomanov on Sino-Russian treaties pre- and post-Westphalia
The Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) was a pre-Westphalian treaty: this is ours, that is yours, and what is in between we don’t talk about. It was a treaty that could be interpreted in the way the reader wanted. But the two later treaties were typical nation-state treaties. There you could have only one interpretation.
Before the treaty, the relationship between the Qing court and the tribes that lived in this area was completely based upon the tribute system. It was a case of overlapping or fuzzy identities. They started to overlap when Russia was expanding eastward and China was slowly expanding northbound. Finally there was a military conflict, and at Nerchinsk there was a decision not to demarcate the boundary but just have both sides step back and keep this pre-nation-state situation on the border.
This system survived more than a hundred and fifty years, from 1689 till 1857. In the 19th century of course it was a clear-cut and very fast demarcation according to the norms of the nation-states, but even the Aigun treaty designated the region east of the Ussuri—the current Maritime Province of Russia—as a joint dominion. But this was happening when other nations were pressing China to accept the Western definition of ”border.” The Russians sensed competition. Just in case we want this piece of land later, to prevent some other nation from getting it—they thought—it is better to clear up these overlapping or fuzzy identities along the border, to make a clean cut, a border corresponding to the Western definition.

45In a cultural sense, this idea that you have the map but you don’t take it completely seriously is similar to the premodern sense of the nation—it is not “zero-sum.” There is this claim, you can take it, you can leave it, you can opt in, you can opt out. What this reminds me of is those business school books about how to deal with a Chinese. They'll teach you that “the Chinese mind is different, because they do not have the ‘either-or’ logic, the zero-sum-game: if it goes to you, it does not go to me. Instead, it is a non-zero-sum-game that is beneficial for both sides.” We have to be careful about understanding this “play” with the map in its historical context rather than as an ethnically and culturally “Chinese” view. I think there are circumstances where the maps become real for everybody, when you believe in it, and there are circumstances when you play politics with the map.

46One of the problems for many new nationalisms outside the heartland of the formation of the nation-state was that more nationalisms emerged than nation-states. If you think of it, the heartland of the nation-state is basically France, the United States, Britain, and some Latin American countries. Here we have the idea of citizenship, and national rights get incorporated into the formation of the nations.

47Two of the most prominent Chinese nationalist revolutionaries, Zhang Taiyan (Zhang Binglin) and Liang Qichao, were in charge of frontier policy. What to do with the old frontiers of the empire? They began encouraging Han Chinese settlement, which had already developed in the late Qing period, so that there could not be a very clear territorial claim from any group.

48This was not a problem only of China. This was a problem of all these countries that were breaking away from empires, and we are still living with these issues in the Balkans, for example. And it was also the problem in South Asia, in the Indian subcontinent. It came a little later, with the British Empire dissolved. Who was going to represent India? Of course, the Hindu nationalists, people like Nehru and Gandhi, believed that there was only one India, that India was the same as the British Empire. Just like the Chinese revolutionaries believed the Chinese nation was the same as the Qing Empire. But in the Indian case you had very highly developed counternationalist movements led by those who would make Pakistan, and later Bangladesh.

49To some extent, as I said, the problem is intrinsic to the Westphalian model. You are supposed to be content with your boundaries, but in fact if the goal is competition, then you want to make sure you maximize your territory. You begin to get this instability with the decolonization and with the overthrowing of old empires, in places like China and other parts of the colonized world.

50Later on, “minority” national identity was actually encouraged by Communist governments. The Soviet revolution promoted the idea that people should have nationalities. Rogers Brubaker points out that for various reasons, Lenin and Stalin encouraged nationalism among “national minorities” (Brubaker 1996). It may have been there among the intellectual elite, but they encouraged it and tried to promote nation formation through Soviet policies. But what they did not create was the idea of a Soviet nationalism, i.e., an umbrella over these nationalisms. They had the idea of a Soviet state, an object of civic loyalty but not a myth of nationalism that could make people feel that they were Soviet nationals as well. And so in 1991, when the Soviet Union breaks up, the people in the Central Asian republics and Eastern Europe feel much more nationalistic than they felt in 1919.

51Despite the existence of minority nationalisms in China, however, the idea of a super-Chinese nation, or at least the idea of China as multinational, before and during the Mao period seems to have been more successful than that of a super-Soviet nation.

“Children of the Yellow Emperor”

52One of the most important elements of modern Chinese nationalism was the idea that “we are the children of the Yellow Emperor.” Now, who are the children of the Yellow Emperor? The Yellow Emperor is a mythic figure—but you can still get into trouble for saying that. The historian Gu Jiegang, who was the first one to say so, has been brought up again and again in the media to be criticized. But what is his relationship to those people with whom the Chinese had biological or affinal (marital) links earlier, and who are now classed non-Han?

Nyíri on narratives of Chineseness on the periphery
Nowadays, when we look at people on the periphery—that is, ”minorities”—and think of to what extent they consider themselves Chinese, we usually think in terms of resistance, implying that they do not. But if you look at northern Burma and northern Thailand, outside China’s boundary, then you'll find in some cases the opposite situation: people who want to be seen as Chinese, and whom this desire for Chineseness enables to think of themselves as the local metropolitans. Thus, the Shan in Burma will show you family genealogies with Chinese ancestors. For them, being in some way Chinese is a means of distinguishing themselves from the Burman majority in the nation-state they live in, of resisting Burman dominance, and even of positioning themselves above the Burmans by linking themselves to a ”superior” political and cultural tradition.

53I do not have an answer to this but my instinct is that these would now be excluded, because those marriages had been at a very high level (that is, tributary kings would send their daughters to the imperial court), and the new nation was often based, whether in China or in the peripheral regions, on the overthrowing of those elites. But it is also interesting to see this question in terms of what Benedict Anderson says about official nationalism. He says there is a phase in the late 19th century when there is an effort by all dynasties to become nationalists.

Anderson’s Imagined Communities see pp. 5–6

54We can see this in the case of the Qing as well. The dynasties in Europe or Asia or anywhere in the world, had not thought of themselves as part of the national community. They thought of themselves in terms of aristocratic relations with other aristocrats. That was their community. Then, in the late 19th century, especially when they began to see that nationalist movements were emerging, they tried to change that and see themselves as Chinese or Dutch.

Religious and universalist ideals and their modern transformation

55Syncretic and Buddhist religious societies that had emerged in China and Tibet exercised considerable influence on people’s identities, and those identities were not national in the same way as those of the republican government: they were religious or universalistic. Dai Jitao, a Kuomintang leader and a socialist nationalist, picked up similar ideas in both Tibet and China and started a journal called Xin Yaxiya (New Asia) in 1929.

56Xin Yaxiya professed a Chinese ideology of Pan-Asianism, which expressed solidarity with the anti-imperialist movement in Asia: struggles in Malaya, the East Indies, India, etc. But it was also very important to create some sense of brotherhood with the peripheral peoples of what was becoming part of the Chinese national territory, especially its western and southwestern parts (Duara 2001).

57Dai Jitao was also important in forging the links between Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism, in appreciation for Tibetan Buddhism, but also with the intention to bring Tibetans into the nation through religious connections. But the left wing of the Kuomintang was antireligious. A political leader during the warlord period, called Xiong Xiling, wrote a very interesting letter to Chiang Kai-shek, which I found in the archives in October 2000. He writes that the Kuomintang movement in the 1920s and early 1930s was based on antireligion, while the imperial formation of China was built upon religious connections. Our people are great believers of all kinds of popular religion. How do you expect to create a strong nation or any kind of national bond if you go around attacking all these religious connections? And the last example that he gave was your own revolution—meaning the 1927–1928 Kuomintang Northern Expedition that established republican rule in most of China—had been made possible by soldiers who after they had seen so many killings, have become Buddhist monks as a way to atone for the sufferings they had caused. Now, by attacking religion you are turning against all your soldiers who made the revolution possible. Chiang Kai-shek himself was ambivalent about this idea. He was a Christian himself. But the redemptive societies had a religious idealism that was universalistic. They wanted to save the world; therefore national boundaries for them felt artificial.

58The point is that they were not simply old-fashioned religious groups; they were part of the modern transformation. They felt that they were progressive; they said that progress could only be saved by the contribution of religious thought. Otherwise, modernity and progress were too materialistic and they would just lead to a consumer society and greed. We know the power of these kinds of religious ideology in the modern world: they keep appearing, and we cannot understand them as some leftover from the past. We have to see them as modern phenomena. They are one response to modernity. Just like today, religious societies then attracted a following not just among peasants, but among educated urban and professional groups.

The mobilization of transterritorial identities and diasporas

59The territorial state had to deal with the issue of people with transnational aspirations, with universalist ideas as well. Here I am talking about huaqiao, the overseas Chinese. The territorial nation-state needed the resources of these people, who were already very wealthy at a time when China was struggling a great deal. At the time of the Republican Revolution there was a great effort to mobilize their support. First they wanted to use them as spies. But then both the Qing government and the revolutionaries realized that they could get money and support from them. It is well known that Sun Yat-sen spent a great deal of his life among various overseas Chinese communities gathering support. But in the early years the Qing government was much more successful.

60The problem here was that the huaqiao faced the appeal of different loyalties. This would become a problem much later as well, especially in Southeast Asia. They were told that they were part of a different territorial state, whether it was Thailand or Indonesia or Malaysia or the USA. Their loyalties were supposed to be to the territorial state. The Chinese state was also supposed to have the loyalty of people within its territories, and not necessarily of those who were outside its territories.

61But there we see that nationalist ideology cannot be restricted just to a territory. Transterritorial sentiments are mobilized for political purposes. But at some level they are contradictory to the ideology of a territorial nation-state. And they become, in the changing nationalist ideology that I will talk about in the third stage, nonterritorial, deterritorialized.

Creating citizens

62This is probably the biggest problem that modern nation-states have to deal with, the classic problem, not just in Asia but in Europe as well. Until the late 19th century, most peasants in what we consider the very advanced nation-state of France did not think of themselves as French citizens. They had different local, religious, and communal types of identity, and the nation-state had to create an education and a system of symbols to make them start thinking of themselves as Frenchmen (Weber 1976). Even in a country like France, it did not happen until the late 19th century. And until the 1870s, only two percent of the population of Italy spoke what we now recognize as Italian.

Nation-state solutions and agendas

The national project versus popular religion

63In the Western understanding, religion comes to occupy a compartment of life. In a peasant society like that of China, religiosity is very diffuse; it pervades every aspect of life in some way. This makes it very practical because it does not produce any strong notion of taboos.

64I have studied several gods that were important in Chinese popular culture, like the god Guandi (Guan Gong). Every kind of contract, whether the sale of land or the start of an irrigation association to share water from a limited source, is often sealed in the temple with some invocation. The idea of Guandi is used to create some kind of xinyong, trust. In the absence of law, religion often plays this role. Economic activity is inseparable from religious ideas: most important market days happened to be on the days of temple fairs.

65But in the modern nation-state, the purpose of nationalism is to make people into modern citizens, in order to be able to compete internationally. Well, if you spend your time going to religious festivities and temple fairs, you are not a modern citizen in that conception. To be a modern citizen, you have to be mobilizing your energies to build your skills and professional abilities. Religion is seen as a waste of time and inimical to a modern national being. Many early nation-building projects, even long before the Communists came to power, were combating “superstition,” mixin, and all popular religion was considered to be in the realm of mixin.

66In the policy reforms of the Qing government, the village temples, around which so much of village life was oriented, were taken over and attempted to be made into modern schools. That meant that the property of the temples, which in North China was often the only communal property, could no longer be used to hold temple fairs or for other communal purposes, and was being used for education. There was resistance to this among the peasants. Ordinary peasants did not understand the purpose of the transformation, and they did not see the benefits coming. Instead, what they saw was that whole patterns of life were being changed and attacked.

Citizenship as a contract

67The basic promise the modern territorial nation offers in return for all this transformation is the promise of citizenship, or civic nationalism. It is an implicit understanding that you affirm loyalty to the nation-state because you recognize that you develop some rights as a citizen. These rights, in the 19th-century European context, we understand principally as political rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement.

68But the notion of rights has been expanded since the early 20th century. The first important expansion beyond immediate political rights was the idea that nations have rights too, the right to self-determination. Through the 19th century it was not thought that it was everyone’s birthright to be a part of the nation. Some people’s birthright was to be colonized or assimilated into some other nation. But suddenly at the end of the 19th century, the notion that a people has collective rights as a nation emerges, and if you do not have those rights, you are slaves.

Political and economic rights

69But then, the issue of individual political rights becomes problematic because they conflict with national rights. The idea that the national collectivity is more important than the individual emerges in the thinking of people like Liang Qichao, or in the Japanese case, Katō Hiroyuki. Until the end of the 19th century, they were somewhat responsive to the liberal idea of individual rights, but immediately after that, in the early 20th century, when social Darwinist ideas and collectivist ideas of national rights appear, they say that individual rights only create more problems, and now it is more important to assert collective national rights. Instead of political rights, at the level of individual rights now comes the promise of economic rights. You can see this in the Kuomintang constitution, which contains the idea of political tutelage: you have to learn how to be a politically right-bearing person, and we will teach you how to do that later, but what we promise first is to give you a livelihood. This is the basis of understanding in the People’s Republic of China too.

Inadequacy of civic nationalism

70We find, however, that nationalism can’t simply be a civic nationalism based on rights, that it also has to appeal to ideas of deep histories and ethnic, racial, cultural identities for mobilization. Because one of the most important aspects of nationalism is that it has the moral authority to tell people that they should sacrifice for the nation more than what the nation can do for them.

71Before the modern nation, the only kinds of authority that could ask for that had been religious authorities. The point is that you have to accept the authority of those who are saying that you are doing something for others. You have to accept that it is indeed for others, and not for the people in power. One of my most important projects is to understand the source of this moral authority and how it is created.


72Much of it is created through the idea of an authentic, a true national community. Authenticity is a very important word in trying to understand the power of nationalism. This becomes possible once you create the idea of deep histories. If you look at most nationalisms, they are very new phenomena. The communities involved are themselves quite new. These nationalisms, however, are written as very deep histories, which assert that these nations have always been united, have had a single origin (see Hobs-bawm and Ranger 1992). This is what we call essentialization: they make certain traits the essence of a people. It is deep history that produces moral authority to say that you should do this or that for the unity of the nation.

Authenticity as the source of moral authority

73What we call “regime of authenticity” is really a political force. Whoever gets to control what the authentic, true nation is can get people to do for them what they want. So it is very important who gets to be the custodian of this authenticity. Very often in the society there are different groups who compete for it. The most recent example of custodians of authenticity may be the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban believe that modernization did not capture the authentic idea of Afghan Islamic authenticity. But you can see it in America, too, where the militia movements believe that true American values mean getting out of the United Nations and attacking the government, because the government has lost the essence of what America is.

The state as custodian of authenticity

74So there can be different custodians of what is authentic. In the Chinese case, through the 20th century, the state has been able to assert itself as the keeper of the authentic, except during the Cultural Revolution.

Lomanov on who controlled authenticity during the Cultural Revolution
It is an open question whether the Cultural Revolution must be excluded, because if we see Mao Zedong as a real emperor in the Chinese view, we can see the rebellion as being against the bureaucracy with the support of a benevolent emperor, who was not able to confront that bureaucracy by himself. That’s why it is very hard to say what exactly was the Cultural Revolution: complete rejection of Chinese nationalism or Chinese nationalism in a highly extreme form.

75In the Cultural Revolution, although it was engineered by Mao Zedong, the Red Guards had a vision of what is true Chinese communism—true communism and Chineseness. And they believed that the state was not reflecting that idea. That was the cultural rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution.

The need to preserve symbols of authenticity

76It is very important, especially for a state, to make sure that the control over authenticity does not become subject to market forces. In many countries, like Japan or Britain, the royalty has been a symbol of authenticity. In Japan the imperial formation is supposed to be eternal. It symbolizes the essential unity of the Japanese people. By contrast, the British royalty has become commodified, exposed to every scandal magazine to see who is having an affair with whom. Can it still be a symbol of authenticity?

Deterritorialized nationalism after 1980

77The nation-state is still based on the territorial idea, but what is more important now is the ideology whereby you construct Chineseness. In the new ideology of nationalism, it is important to create a sense of Chineseness that can get investment capital and make the state more competitive in a global scheme. This is what I mean by the deterritorialization of nationalism: a different sense of community is being formed, one that is not restricted to the territorial area. The losers in this are peripheral people, people in the hinterland. This is why China’s new policy to develop the western part of the country, the internal areas, is very important. It is an effort to make sure that this deterritorialization does not run away and divide the country.

Theories of weakening of the nation-state are misplaced

78What is happening to the state in the course of this reterritorialization? There is a simple view that argues that with the new globalization, nationalism and the nation-state are weakening. I think that nationalism and the nation-state are changing, but not necessarily weakening. New institutional and regulatory forms are being created for interactions between subnational groups and groups from other nations.

Reterritorializing through new institutional forms of interaction between populations

79The prefecture of Fukuoka in Japan, which was not doing too well economically, decided to create cross-national links with parts of China that have historically had some Japanese trade and influence, and some important cities like Dalian, which have had very strong Japanese influence earlier. Fukuoka now has its own government representatives in Dalian and in Shandong Province for the promotion of trade and interaction. This is a local-to-local kind of interaction. This means that the Yellow Sea region of China is developing as a kind of a trading area relatively autonomously.

The state’s role can actually increase in recharting the relations between locality and center

80But localities are not necessarily defying the national government. Very often, local-to-local arrangements involve a sharing of power. For example, the Fukuoka representative in Shandong will convince the local Shandong cadres to pressure Beijing in order to create an airport, or to pressure Beijing to pressure Tokyo to create an international airport in Fukuoka. In this way, sometimes there is competition between center and locality, sometimes there is arrangement and facilitation, and sometimes there is none.

Neglect of hinterland and irredentism on peripheries

81But the effect of all this is, on the other hand, a neglect of the hinterland and irredentism. Precisely because territorial ideologies are weakening, for example, Turkic identity for Xinjiang Muslims becomes more important. Of course—as Gladney shows in his chapter—there are a lot of internal contradictions there, too. But even in Inner Mongolia now Mongol nationalism is growing, exemplified by the cult of Genghis Khan. And there are interesting developments in the southwest, in the Yunnan area, with cross-border ties between ethnic Tai in China, Thailand, and Laos.

Edwards on cross-border Tais
The Dai speak a language akin to modern Thai, celebrate Thai festivals and share other traditions both with the Thai and with the Shan of Burma. In addition to these specific ethnic links, the Dai share Buddhist beliefs with the ethnic majorities of Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. But it is only during the last decade that Chinese authorities have actively advertised their existence to the region.
This cultural diplomacy began with a Dai-Thai encounter orchestrated in Xishuangbanna in China to cement Sino-Thai links in the early 1980s. Thousands of Thais now flock to Xishuangbanna annually to see their cultural roots. To the Thai tourist market, these tours are packaged as a means of reconnecting with an ”authentic” Dai ancestry. The tourist sector in Yunnan has designed a number of attractions centering on ethnic minorities. A Dai nationality village was built on the banks of Dianchi Lake in Kunming in 1992 as the first ethnic enclave in the Haigeng Nationality and Cultural Village, a 580-hectare tourist complex scheduled to encompass 26 different ethnic minorities by 1995. Ethnic Dai from Ruili and Xishuangbanna reside in the artificial village, which incorporates Buddhist pagodas and bamboo houses and venues for tourists to sample Dai food, Dai music, and Dai dance.
In 1996, Zheng Xiaoyun, director of Yunnan’s Cultural Anthropology Institute, asserted that ”the integration of tourism, trade and ethnic culture can help promote economic development in the Dai regions.” For Thailand, this cultural dialogue dovetails with government strategy to shift economic activity from Bangkok to the North and Northeast. In 1993, Thailand opened a consulate in Kunming. In 1994, China established a consulate in Songkhla. In 1996, Thailand invited official representatives from Yunnan, Laos, and Cambodia to Thailand for the Songkran (Water festival), which is celebrated by ethnic Thai in all four countries. A Thai Foreign Ministry working paper of 1996 stressed the potential of ”common cultural practices” between ethnic Thai in diverse domains to promote ”friendship and cooperation.”

82These possibilities come from reterritorializing, where territorial boundaries are not that important any longer. Provinces that do not possess such cross-border possibilities, such as Guizhou and Shanxi, are also seeking to regain their status in the new deterritorialized nation.

The ideology of the deterritorialized nation

83Since 1978, and especially since the mid-eighties, the Chinese government has shifted its discourse of the nation from a territorially oriented “peoples of China” (Zhongguo ge minzu) to a culturally or racially focused “Chinese people” (Zhonghua minzu) and to traditional culture and “values.” I think it was Arif Dirlik who said that the number of conferences on Confucianism in China is about hundred times higher than that of conferences on Marxism. I was invited to a conference last year by the father of Chinese sociology, Fei Xiaotong—at least the invitation had his stamp on it—which was a conference at the Institute for the Children of the Yellow Emperor. I was quite shocked.

Commercialization and consumerism replaces the productionist ideal as driver of nationalism

84Especially during the Maoist phase, the nationalist ideal was that the nation must produce more to be strong. Now, it seems the engine behind nationalism is consumerism. By consuming you become a stronger nation. That is a very important change, and an important role here is played by the media. The media is particularly important in the Chinese market, where it is the fourth or fifth largest industry. Since it is a socialist country, the media has many constraints, but nationalism is allowed to some extent.

Role of the media: commodification of sacred myths threaten the state’s hold on authenticity

85We come back to Benedict Anderson’s idea of the imagined community pushed by print capitalism. Nationalism is one acceptable commodity in the Chinese media market. And once it becomes that, the sacred myths of the nation are no longer in the hands of the state alone. Take the myth of Mao. Mao is of course a real figure, but he represents something more than what his life was. He represents the cause of the revolution. From the early 1990s, there emerged a Mao cult, a plethora of various com-modified representations of Mao, which Geremie Barme (1996) has written about. As this became increasingly commercialized, more and more of Mao’s life became exposed. Can his myth still be maintained? It may, at any rate, no longer have the same meaning.

Yoshino on the coproduction of nationalism by the state and the market
in ”Introduction,” in Kosaku Yoshino (ed.), Consuming Ethnicity and Nationalism.
Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999; pp. 5–6.
(Zygmunt) Bauman ... writes that ”as the interest of the state in culture faded (meaning that the relevance of culture to the reproduction of political power diminished), culture was coming within the orbit of another power,” that is, the market. But does the market replace the state in forming nationalism? (...) The crucial question in this regard is: what are the intricate relationships between the state and various market-based agencies of cultural production and reproduction such as advertising agencies, travel agencies, the media and consultancy?
(... ) While culture industries are still, in part, state-led, they increasingly work in and through mechanisms of the market, where the new middle classes are key players. Many theorists maintain that it is these sections of the population who seek the experience of cultural differences and novelty (... ) As such, they are prominent producers, reproducers and consumers of ethnic, national and other identities in the marketplace.

86The spread of these ideas happens through the market. Their effect becomes multiplied by the fact that the market can circulate them that much wider. Whether or not you get them in the classroom through state media, you also get them through market mechanisms. There is nothing new in that—Karl Deutsch (1961) says that media is what makes nationalism possible-but there is a particular connection between media and market in China today that intensifies it.

Nationalism becomes more intense and volatile

What does the school curriculum taught to students of different generations say about China?

87All over the world, we see sudden outbursts of nationalism that then subside again. To mention one example, before the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during NATO’s bombing in 1999, people in China were going to McDonald’s and coming to America. During the bombing, there was a certain resistance to America, but after the bombing, almost immediately again, people went back to McDonald’s.

88Nationalism becomes so tuned in with market cycles, with the different opportunities of life in the market, it can come and go like that. How can we understand the relationship between market, globalization, and nationalism? There is greater anxiety in market societies than ever before, because you do not have as much sense of community and stability as you did earlier.

Is new nationalism controllable by the state? What is the role of globalization and diasporas?

89This produces a greater need for consumption of the symbols of identity and authenticity. But the more commodified the symbols become, the more they lose their value-so there is greater anxiety and more need for symbols.


Prasenjit Duara is Professor of History at the University of Chicago. His first book, Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900–1942 (Stanford, 1988) won the prizes of both the American Historical Association and the Association of Asian Studies. He also published Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago, 1995). He is working on questions of identity in East Asia under Japanese colonialism, with particular emphasis on Manchukuo.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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