Late 19th-century nationalists appealed to racial ideas to define the nation — a conception that often excluded the then rulers, the Manchu Qing dynasty, as well as Tibetans and other people who were part of their empire. In theory, since 1949 China’s Communist party has endorsed a multicultural view of the nation, with 56 official ethnic groups, each with their own language and culture, but all equally Chinese. In practice, officials have tried to promote the language and culture of the Han majority.
That the ambiguity survives to this day was evident in Chinese president Xi Jinping’s response to an offhand remark made last year by his US counterpart, Donald Trump, that Egypt may be an older nation than China.
“Only China has an uninterrupted culture,” Mr Xi said. “The way we look now is also the way [our] earliest people looked. Black hair, yellow skin, passed down. We call ourselves successors of the Dragon.”
This is no mere academic debate in China. Due to the coercive power of the state, these views of nationality can have sometimes devastating consequences. Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, a mainly Muslim minority living in north-west China’s Xinjiang region, are currently detained in camps, receiving what Beijing calls “education” designed to combat the religiously inspired ideas it blames for outbreaks of violence in the region.
As the scholar James Liebold has chronicled, outbursts of ethnic unrest since 2008 pushed policymakers towards the view that minority groups must be integrated through adoption of a unified culture. While rhetoric about combating terrorism is central to what is happening in Xinjiang, the drive for a unified culture also plays a role. Camp inmates are not only forced to renounce elements of Islam that Beijing deems extremist, but also to demonstrate proficiency in the Chinese language and love for the state.
Lee sees nations as “imagined communities” — social constructs shaped by political and cultural forces, rather than arising from biology or out of some pre-cultural realm. He would prefer that imperial dynasties occupying China before the republican era not be referred to as “China” at all. “Before the 20th century there was no Chinese nation-state, no Chinese nation and no China as such,” he writes. Instead, he describes “a web of multifarious peoples with their divergent languages and customs, with only the distant State far above to hold it all together”.