As we early on have seen, it was in the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China that became the formation stage of modern Chinese nationalism and the stage of the proposition and initial usage of the concept of the 'Chinese nation.' Modern Chinese nationalism developed around the period of the May 4th Movement. And although Mao Zedong in March 1953 still referred to "Han chauvinism" to criticize his rival Kuomintang party, this drastically changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when history and memory were developed to become a new nationalistic power now for the CCP.
The centerpiece of this post-1989 state-sponsored revival of Chinese nationalism was the so-called patriotic education campaign, a comprehensive program that (even though the “China proper” of today previously was just one 'part' of the Manchu-run Qing Empire) revamped history textbooks, reconstructed national narratives, and renovated historical sites and symbols throughout China.
Where the anti-Mao Guomindang/KMT leadership deliberately used fear of the loss of territory in the 1920s and 1930s to rally political support, Deng Xiaoping re-introduced the Guomindang's “one-hundred-year history of humiliation” narrative as a new source of legitimacy of the CCP’s rule and the unity of the 'Chinese' people and CCP society. This was crowned by a new ongoing yearly National Humiliation Day.
Hence as we have seen in part one and two, the Chinese nationalism that once defined Mao Zedong’s China more recently has been replaced with a form of ethnic nationalism that focuses inward and looks to the past in a “search for roots” (xungen [寻根]).
Today's creation and the expansionism of China
In a very well researched overview of Modern Chinese nationalism Dahua Zheng from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Modern Chinese History in Beijing details how the modern notion of China dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when reformers and revolutionaries adapted foreign ideas to fortify China against the depredations of Western imperialism. Whereby in Dahua Zheng's overview, one can also see how this nation-building project, projected back onto the various empires and states that occupied the present-day territory of the People’s Republic, and as we have seen, planted the seeds of many of the country’s most fraught problems, from Xinjiang to Taiwan to the South China Sea.
The Qing dynasty, the last of China's imperial dynasties, had created a multi-ethnic realm, of which ‘China proper’ – the fifteen provinces of the defeated Ming Dynasty – was just one part. The previous Ming state lasted for almost 300 years, but it had not used China's name, either. Before the Ming, those territories had been part of a Mongol Great-State that had stretched as far as the Mediterranean: East Asia was just one part of its domain. Before the Mongols, they were controlled by the rival Song, Xia, and Liao states. These had occupied various parts of the territory we now call China and they, in turn, were different from the fragmented conditions that existed before them.
Each state was different from its territorial extent and its ethnic composition, but each needed to present itself as the legitimate successor to its predecessor. Therefore, to retain the loyalty of officials and the wider population, each new governing elite needed to claim continuity with tradition. To receive the necessary ‘mandate of heaven,’ it had to speak in certain ways and perform the rituals expected of a ruling class. In certain eras, this may have been a genuine belief; in others, it became a political theatre, but it became outright deception in some. The Mongols and Qing elites inwardly retained their Inner Asian cultures while externally presenting themselves – at least to a portion of their subjects – as heirs to the rule's Sinitic traditions. Where, then, was ‘China’? Until the very end of the nineteenth century, rulers in Beijing would not even have recognized the name ‘China.’
Both Zhongguo and Zhonghua are translated into English as ‘China,’ but they carry particular Chinese meanings. Zhong Guo is literally the ‘central state’ of an idealized political hierarchy. Zhong Hua is literally the ‘central efflorescence,’ but its more figurative meaning is the ‘center of civilization,’ an assertion of cultural superiority over the barbarians in the hinterland. These terms have deep historical roots, but they were not used as formal names for the country until the end of the nineteenth century.
It is only after the Republic of China's founding and its intellectuals who had traveled abroad and were able to look back on their homeland from afar promoted the establishment and formation of the concept of “Chinese nation.” This is what among others Chang Naide pointed out in his 1986 book, A Brief History of the Chinese Nation; Somebody called it Xia(夏); somebody called it Huaxia(华夏); somebody called it Han people(汉人) or Tang people(唐人). However, Xia(夏), Han(汉), and Tang(唐) are all dynasty names rather than nation names.1
Who were the people who founded the Qing state? They were people from what is now northeastern China, and they spoke a Siberian language: Manchu. In 1644 they had ridden out of their chilly homeland and taken over the moribund Ming state. They were people from outside the Zhong Guo, but they quickly realized that if they were to rule the former Ming domain successfully, they would have to adopt some of their predecessors' techniques. Yet even while they did so, they remained Manchu. They continued to rule in an Inner Asian style, which the American historian Pamela Crossley has called ‘simultaneous ruling.’2 Each part of their ‘great-state’ was ruled differently, according to what was thought culturally appropriate. Yet at its center, the Manchu language and the script remained the state's official language and script. The new elite sought to preserve their traditions: riding, archery, and hunting; rites, prayers, and sacrifices to ancestors. More importantly, they maintained Manchu regiments – known as banners – to control the society they had conquered. In effect, from the mid-seventeenth century, the Zhong Guo became a Manchu ‘great-state’ province.
Pictured below a silk scroll on display in the Shanghai History Museum. Note the Manchu script (left) used alongside the Chinese characters. The document is the ‘Imperial Mandate to Parents of Liu Xixiong,' dated 1780:
The following are emblems of two of the Manchu ‘banners’ on display at the former mansion of Prince Gong (Manchu name: Yixin) in Beijing. All Manchu and Mongol subjects, along with some Han, were organized into banners, military units, through which the Qing Great-State imposed order:
Meanwhile, the Qing state was busy keeping itself together, keeping out “barbarians” from the north and west, and trying with mixed success to impose itself on immediate but determinedly non-Han neighbors Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Even in the trade of ideas, China can scarcely claim superiority given how much is imported from India, Persia, Central Asia, and, most recently, the west.
It was the attacks by Europeans and Americans on “China Proper” after 1840 and then defeated by Japan in the war of 1895 that forced the Qing to engage with the outside world on new terms. Those clashes fused pre-existing Sinitic ideas of an “all-powerful” ruler with Western ideas of states' separateness to create an idea of sovereignty as a moral order rather than simply a legal arrangement. In contemporary China, sovereignty is defended as a moral imperative, a matter of life and death, rather than a convenient way to organize a complex international society.
The word 主权 - sovereignty was initially introduced to modern Chinese vocabulary thru William A. P. Martin's translation of Henry Wheaton's Elements of International Law in 1864. Previously it was also translated as 薩威棱貼. Martin's translation became definitive and also traveled to Japan. So this most important term in the international relations of modern China was coined by an American.
“China proper” – the former Ming state which the Qing invaded in 1644 – at this point was just one part of the Manchu-run Qing Empire state. The nationalists had to invent why the non-Chinese parts – Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Manchuria – should remain part of this new country. People like Zhang Taiyan would have been happy to discard the outer regions and focus on an “ethnically pure” center. Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen wanted to keep all the territory. This, ultimately, is the cause of the current unrest in Xinjiang, Tibet, and even Inner Mongolia.
As we have seen, the Nationalist textbook writers and map makers faced a pedagogic and deeply political problem. How could they persuade a child in a big coastal city, for example, to feel any connection with a sheepherder in Xinjiang? Why should they even have a connection? The general purpose of human geography was to explain how varying environments had created groups with differing cultures. However, nationalism required all these different groups to feel part of a single culture and loyal to a single state. It was up to nationalist geographers to resolve the puzzle. They found two main ways to do so. One group of textbook authors stated that all Chinese citizens were the same: they were members of a single ‘yellow’ race and a single nation, and no further explanation was needed. However, a second group acknowledged that different groups did exist but were nonetheless united by something greater. Within this group, some authors made use of ‘yellow race’ ideas; some used the idea of a shared, civilizing Hua culture. In contrast, others stressed the ‘naturalness’ of the country’s physical boundaries.
Underneath Sun Yat-sen was flanked by the flags of the nascent Republic of China. On the right, the ‘Five Races Under One Union’ flag and, on the left, the ‘Blood and Iron’ eighteen-star flag of the Republican army. On 15 February 1912, the day the Qing court formally abdicated power.
Thus, we see the two potential futures for China on the Left Han national flag representing the 18 provinces of the former Ming on the right the flag representing the five races showing a multi-ethnic future'.
When Angela Merkel embarrassed Xi Jinping
As seen in part one, the CCP party and state remain insecure as they continue to re-write history, which was apparent in 2014 German Chancellor Merkel presented to President Xi an 18th-century German map of China based on a famous 1718 Qing “Overview of the Imperial Realm.” It only showed “Sinae Propriae” (China Proper), not the other Qing territories or Taiwan. The Chinese delegation did not know how to react. The protocol required appropriate gratitude, but this was not a gift to be celebrated back home. Was it simply an innocent gesture of goodwill or a deliberate snub by the German government?
The Chinese state media editors were in a quandary and resolved it in the traditional manner of a one-party state: they faked the news. They reported the map's gift but then replaced the picture of the actual map that Merkel had presented to Xi with one of a completely different map, one that portrayed a much larger territorial claim. This was actually drawn over a century later, in 1844 by a British map-maker John Dower, and included the Qing’s eighteenth-century conquests of Tibet and Xinjiang within the empire’s frontiers.3 In fact, the map showed frontiers drawn much wider than the People’s Republic's current borders. This inaccuracy was not a problem for the Chinese media.
This might appear to be an amusing anecdote on the surface, but it also demonstrates the anxiety and paranoia that lurk just beneath the surface of contemporary China’s politics. If Xi had given Merkel a map of eighteenth-century Prussia that excluded most western Germany, the object would have been treated as an interesting curio. The People’s Republic’s sense of self, on the other hand, is far too fragile to admit that the shape of the country may have been different 300 years ago. No debate over the state’s ‘core interest’ of territorial integrity is permitted, and the result is absurd denials of any historical evidence that underpins a different story of the past. The only acceptable version of history is the invented version that suits the Communist Party’s current leadership's needs. The party depends on these invented narratives. As it retreated from Maoist communism in the late twentieth century, it searched for new ways to generate its citizens' loyalty. One key foundation of its right to rule became ‘performance legitimacy’: the delivery of ever-higher living standards to most of its population. However, proletarians and bourgeois cannot live by bread alone, and the party also sought a new guiding idea to fill their souls and lead them in the right direction. The new people’s opium would be nationalism – not the kind that makes mobs march through the streets, but an official kind, defined by those at the top and stressing homogeneity and obedience.
In part two, 'The language wars' buried deep within the language project fear that China might be too diverse to hold together. This is a fear with deep roots, yet it remains too sensitive to be spoken out loud. We can only hear its echoes when Xi and his fellow leaders talk about the need for a ‘culturally harmonious country’ and constantly call for ‘unity.’ Disharmony and disunity are the concerns-who-must-not-be-named. The idea that Hong Kong or Taiwan – or Guangzhou or Shanghai – might have their own identities stronger than their Chinese national identity is literally unimaginable for those who lead the People’s Republic.
From the ‘yellow’ race to 'Han' Nationalism
In their book about Han-centrism by John Friend and Bradley Thayer wrote:
"China is a hyper nationalistic state and very proud of this fact. This must be recognized to compel all international actors, states, non-government organizations, human rights groups, academics, media, celebrities, and individuals, to think through the consequences of the rise of China for what they believe and value and how China’s ascent will affect their beliefs and values."4
Although Han Chinese nationalism and Chinese nationalism are different in terms of ideology, with the latter often focusing on more multi-racial nationalism, however, due to China's historical and current control by the ethnic Han Chinese, the two have been connected and frequently used together. The concept was first debated in the early 20th century; one of those debating it was Zhang Taiyan, who strongly opposed the idea of a proposed multi-racial nationalism of Yang Du and Liang Qichao and stressed the Han ethnic bloodline as evidence for the greatness of China and rejected any notion for a multiethnic China, being skeptical of non-Han ethnic groups like Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Turkic Muslims. Zhang Taiyan strongly criticized non-Han ethnic groups, notably Manchus, who accused the Manchus and other non-Han peoples as oppressors and believed they were impossible to be assimilated, if not say, understanding Han Chinese culture and customs. There were, however, significant proponents of a multi-racial form of Chinese nationalism as well, and Tibet and Xinjiang remained independent during the rule of the Republic of China.
As explained, the early Republic of China was not only the era of the early stage of modern Chinese nationalism (Zheng, 2006a, b) but also the stage of proposition and initial use of the concept of “Chinese nation(中华民族).” First, to put forward and use the concept of Nation of China(中国民族) was Liang Qichao.
In China’s great race to the 21st century, Liang was the man with the starting gun. His concept of Chinese nationalism was pivotal (including in China today) to the May Fourth Movement and all that came after.
Liang believed the nation was in an existential struggle with the white race. Talk of division, therefore, was literally suicidal: strength could only come from intermingling. There could only be one nation, and everyone in Zhongguo needed to be a part of it: there was no space for separate identities. In his view, it went without thinking that the Han were the core of the Chinese nation, and everyone else just had to assimilate. This didn’t just apply to other ethnic groups; Liang was equally uninterested in Han's local differences. Resistance to the outsider was far more important than minor differences between insiders. Liang’s vision of the nation was both ethnic and cultural. What kept the Zhonghua minzu together and allowed it to overcome invaders was its superior culture. This superior culture assimilated all those with whom it came into contact. Therefore, the history of the Chinese nation was the story of the progress and expansion of this culture.
Liang downplayed similarities that could have provided grounds for a different ‘natural’ order. For example, Mongols and Tibetans share a Buddhist culture, together with people in Nepal and northern India. Mongol, Tibetan, and Manchu societies share a tradition of shamanism.
The Islamic Turkic peoples have cultural connections with peoples all the way west to Istanbul, and highland ‘Miao’-type minorities can be found throughout Southeast Asia. These cultures are all quite different from that of the Han people of the central plains. Still, Liang minimized the differences and emphasized similarities to highlight the unity of Zhongguo-ness. As a result, his logic would preserve the Qing’s ‘five ethnicities’ (Manchu, Han, Mongol, Turkic, and Tibetan), along with their five respective territories.
These were choices he made in the early 1900s for clearly political reasons, but the consequences of those ideas have long outlasted the Qing Great-State. To this day, the Chinese ‘national history’ is usually written as a history of a territory that was not actually ‘fixed’ until the middle of the twentieth century.
Underneath the diplomat and poet Huang Zunxian (center) with some of his family. He was one of the pioneers of the ‘yellow race’ thinking in the late Qing period but later helped ensure the Hakka people were classified as part of the ‘Han race.’
The beauty of the ‘Han race’ idea for the revolutionaries also created a huge community of potential supporters who could be mobilized against a declared enemy: the ruling Manchu elite. If the Manzu were excluded, then so were the Mengzu (Mongols) and the non-Chinese-speaking minorities. Indigenous groups were relegated to the status of ‘browns’ or ‘blacks’ for whom Social Darwinism predicted only one fate: they could be ignored in the coming struggle. Increasingly, the revolutionaries – mainly young, male students living in exile in Japan, mixed old ideas of lineage, zu, with new racial ideas of biological race – Zhong. The fusion of Zhong and Zu was made possible by the imaginary figure of the Yellow Emperor: Huangdi became the father of the zhongzu. However, the question of who was and was not, a member of the zhongzu (种族 zhǒngzú) was not always so easy to answer.
Zhang Taiyan tried to establish a social, cultural, and spiritual identity of Chinese, which could counterbalance the West's dominant influences. The Republic of China is the name he gave to a newly emerged Chinese nation after the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty.
The multifaceted image of the Han Chinese nationalism further developed in the buildup of modern Chinese statehood. Han Chinese nationalists had created a hostile opinion towards ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans, viewing them as dangerous for the Chinese state due to its cultural differences and lack of sympathy for ethnic Han Chinese.
Almost every state has a history that goes back at least 5,000 years in the sense that people have inhabited most of the earth’s surface for at least that long. The claim of a 5,000-year history for China is intended to link it to the mythical birth-date of the mythical “Yellow Emperor” in 2698 BCE. The Yellow Emperor was chosen as the spiritual father of all Chinese by the man who invented the “Han Race” in 1900, Zhang Binglin. Zhang wanted to create a racial boundary between the Manchu rulers of the Qing Great State and the people he defined as the “Han,” and he did so in his Qiushu (the “Book of Urgency”) in which he traced the origin of all the Han to the Yellow Emperor.
This is a racial vision in which all true Chinese are descendants from a single ancestral stock. It is quite at odds with all the empirical evidence from genetic and linguistic research on the very diverse population of the People’s Republic of China. Nonetheless, it seems to underpin Xi Jinping’s “steamroller” approach to diversity in the PRC, the enforced homogenization of identity under the banner of the “five identifications.” A loyal PRC citizen is obliged to identify with the motherland, with the Chinese nation (Zhonghua minzu), with Chinese culture, the Chinese socialist road, and the Communist Party itself. This can only make sense if Xi Jinping believes a single nation has a single culture.
This thinking was given extra urgency by incidents of ethnic violence and protest in Tibet and Xinjiang during the 2000s when several influential figures in the PRC came to view the notion of separate minzu as a threat to the country’s future.
This emerging what is also termed 'continentalism' is in keeping with an expansionist foreign policy line that has paved the way for a geostrategic outlook oriented towards expansion.
Thus there are clearly plenty of people, at all levels of Chinese society today, who believe their state is more than ‘first among equals’ but use a particular vision of the past as justification for a new imperial outlook. It is made worse by expressions of Han chauvinism towards foreigners and treating ‘overseas Chinese’ in these countries as ‘racial allies’ and as tools of state policy.
Re-invoked by the present-day Communist Party of China (CPC), annual ceremonies are held to worship the imaginative Yellow Emperor. Due to the coronavirus, this year, to a large degree, was held online.
The origin of contemporary China’s ‘sovereignty fundamentalism’: a hybrid of Confucian chauvinism and American legalism. It melds premodern ideas of the cultural pre-eminence of the Zhong Guo with Western ideas of fixed borders and independence. At its heart lies a philosophical difference: the Chinese word for sovereignty, zhuquan ( 主權 zhǔ quán), carries the literal meaning of ‘the authority of the ruler’ – it is focused domestically, not internationally. Zhuquan mandates the continuation of a morally superior culture within the protection of inviolable boundaries. It is, in effect, tianxia (天下 tiān xià) with passport controls, tianxia in one country. This is not an idea that can tolerate intervention in a country’s internal affairs but is rather a mandate for the opposite: the exclusion of other states and their ‘international norms,’ whether on human rights or climate change.
Memories of the dynastic rituals of tribute still underpin ideas about political legitimacy in communist China. The Beijing leadership frequently deploys the performance of rituals of international respect as a status of delegations attending a ‘Belt and Road Forum,’ or a G20 summit, are widely publicized and help confer a modern ‘mandate of heaven’ upon the Communist Party. By contrast, critical commentary on the party’s performance is kept away from the people. The idea of international delegations traipsing across the ancestral land, ‘measuring, reporting and verifying’ its carbon emissions and then telling the world that Beijing is not living up to an internationally agreed standard remains anathema. Therefore, the assertion of sovereignty above all else is a means to avoid disrespect and a loss of domestic legitimacy.
Wang Huning is the brain behind Xi Jinping, just as he was the theoretician behind Xi’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. He currently sits at the apex of political life in China: on the Standing Committee of the Politburo. As a law professor at Fudan University, his first book was entitled Guojia Zhuquan – ‘National Sovereignty.’5 In it, he argued that the Chinese word zhuquan pre-dates the Western concept of sovereignty.6 We have come full circle. Wang’s predecessors fought in vain to prevent the concept of sovereignty from taking root in Beijing. Wang now claims China invented it and wants to own and control its meaning. He has chosen to ignore the roles of both the American diplomat Henry Wheaton and the American missionary, William A. P.Martin, who worked to bring the zhong guo (中 国 - Zhōngguó)into the modern world by re-creating the meaning of zhuquan. This ‘strategic ignorance’ of the foreigners’ intermediary roles enables Wang’s wider philosophical project: to fill Western concepts with Chinese meaning to underpin Beijing’s plans for a world based upon the notion of a ‘community of common critical element of its domestic political messaging. The number and size and destiny’. It fits neatly with a modern version of tianxia, in which Beijing sits, once again, at the top of a regional, or even global, hierarchy. It is a hierarchy open to all, as long as they know their place.
The re-invention of Taiwan
While we have seen that Chiang Kai-shek initially had no interest in Taiwan, and in his speech on ‘The Anti-Japanese Resistance War and the Future of Our Party,’ Chiang even argued, ‘We must enable Korea and Taiwan to restore their independence and freedom. Even more so, Mao's Communist Party had long supported independence for Taiwan rather than reincorporation into China. At its sixth congress in 1928, the party had recognized the Taiwanese as a separate nationality.
While China could not afford a military conflict with the USA but could if wanted invade Taiwan, also there its arguments as having my rights in reference to Taiwan are baseless.
Underneath map of the South China Sea drawn by Bai Meichu (who probably never went to sea in his life) for his New Atlas of China’s Construction in 1936. James Shoal (off Borneo), Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), and Seahorse Shoal (off the Philippines) are drawn as islands, yet in reality, they are underwater features. Almost none of the islands that Bai drew in the central and southern parts of the South China Sea actually:
The reinvention of the South China Sea
The ‘Land and Water Maps Review Committee’ did not have the capacity to undertake its own surveys, however. Instead, it undertook a table-top exercise: analyzing maps produced by others and forming a consensus about names.
When it came to the South China Sea, it is clear from the committee’s conclusions that its leading references were British, which had far-reaching consequences. On 21 December 1934, the Review Committee held its twenty-fifth meeting and agreed on Chinese names for 132 South China Sea features. All of them were translations or transliterations of the names marked on British maps. For example, in the Paracels, Antelope Reef became Lingyang jiao, and Money Island became Jinyin dao (金銀島 Jīn yín Dǎo) – both direct translations.
We know exactly where the committee’s list of island names came from. It contains several mistakes, which are only found in one other document: the ‘China Sea Directory’ published by the UK Hydrographic Office in 1906. This British list is the origin of all the names now used by China. Some of the names on the list had Chinese origins, such as Subi Reef in the Spratlys, while others had Malay origins (such as Passu Keah in the Paracels). Still, British navigators coined more than 90 percent translating these names caused some difficulties and a legacy that disturbs the region to this day.
The committee members were confused by the English words ‘bank’ and ‘shoal.’ Both words mean an area of the shallow sea: the former describes a raised area of the sea bed, the latter is a nautical expression derived from Old English meaning ‘shallow.’
However, the committee chose to translate both into Chinese as tan, which has the ambiguous translation of ‘sandbank,’ a feature that might be above or below water. Sea Horse Shoal, off the Philippines, was dubbed Haima Tan; James Shoal, just 100 kilometers off the coast of Borneo, was given the name Zengmu tan, and Vanguard Bank, off the southeastern coast of Vietnam, was given the name Qianwei tan. Zengmu is simply the transliteration of ‘James,’ Haima is the Chinese for seahorse. Qianwei is a translation of ‘vanguard’ and tan, as mentioned above, is the erroneous translation of ‘bank’ and ‘shoal.’ As a result of this bureaucratic mistake, these underwater features, along with several others, were turned into islands in the Chinese imagination. Ultimately this screw-up s the reason why the Sapura Esperanza was harassed while drilling for gas near the James Shoal eighty-five years later. China is prepared to go to war over a translation mistake.
The committee conferred the Chinese name Tuansha on the Spratlys. The name vaguely translates as ‘area of sand.’ In 1935 however, neither the committee nor the Chinese government was prepared to claim the Spratlys.
The man who caused China to claim non-existent islands hundreds of kilometers from its shores was a Manchu who probably never went to sea in his life. Bai Meichu was born into relatively humble origins in 1876 in Hebei province, 200 kilometers due east of the Forbidden City.
He became a schoolteacher and then a teacher of teachers at the Women’s Normal School in Tianjin. There he taught, among others, Deng Yingchao, a future senior cadre in the Communist Party and the wife of Zhou Enlai. At the same time, he was becoming a pioneer in the new subject of geography. This was not yet geography as the later generation of the above mentioned Zhu Kezhen, and Zhang Qiyun would come to define it but a hybrid of old ideas and new nationalism.
In 1909 Bai became one of the ‘China Earth-Study Society’ (Zhongguo Dixue Hui). According to the historian Tze-ki Hon, none of its members had any professional training in the subject. Instead, they recruited members from the old literati. Like Bai, they were people who had once expected to join the scholar-bureaucracy but were now struggling to adapt.7
Members of the China Earth-Study Society were also profoundly influenced by Social-Darwinism. In the first issue of their ‘Earth-Study Journal’ (Dixue Zazhi) they collectively declared: ‘The cause [of the rise and fall of power] is due to the level of geographical knowledge each group. Thus, the level of geographical knowledge directly impacts a country, and it can cause havoc to a race. It is indeed [a manifestation of] the natural law of selection based on competition.’ In other words, the size of any group’s territory ebbed and flowed depending on its relative civilization. In society's view, China had advanced early but then retreated in the face of Western advances. The only way to regain strength was to master geography. In the words of Bai himself in 1913, ‘Loving the nation is the top priority in learning geography while building the nation is what learning Geography is for.’8
A turning point for Bai, like so many other intellectuals of the time, was the Versailles peace conference's outcome in 1919. The decision to hand over the former German enclave in Shandong to Japan enraged students and the Earth-Study Society members. Their journal carried several articles denouncing the decision and urging the government to prevent the expansion of Japanese influence on the peninsula.
At around this time, Bai became a mentor to a young Li Dazhao, who had also studied at Jingsheng College and would become one of the founders of the Communist Party in 1921. It is possible that some of Bai’s energetic views on geography and national territory were passed directly into the communist movement.9
In 1929 Bai lost his teaching post at Beijing Normal University and moved to the women’s equivalent, instead. In 1935 he left university teaching altogether.
By chance, he came across the ‘Programme for National Reconstruction’ (Jianguo fanglue) that Sun Yat-sen had published in 1920, during his time in the political wilderness. This book inspired him to devote his remaining years to Sun’s mission from Bai's own account: from Bai's own account using geography to enable national reconstruction.
In 1936 Bai gave the world his lasting legacy: a line drawn through the South China Sea. It was included in a new book of maps, the New Atlas of China’s Construction (Zhonghua jianshe xin tu), that Bai published for schools. He included some of the new information about place names and frontiers agreed upon by the government’s Maps Review Committee, published the year before. As was typical of maps of this period, the atlas was, in many places, a work of fiction. A bright red borderline stretched around the country, neatly dividing China from its neighbors. The line was Mongolia, Tibet, and Manchuria, plus several other areas that weren’t actually under the republican government's control. However, the fictitiousness reached spectacular levels when it came to the South China Sea.
It is clear that Bai was quite unfamiliar with the South China Sea geography and undertook no survey work of his own. Instead, he copied other maps and added dozens of errors of his own making – errors that continue to cause problems to this day. Like the Maps Review Committee, he was completely confused by the portrayal of shallow water areas on British and foreign maps. Taking his cue from the names on the committee’s 1934 list, he drew solid lines around these features and colored them in, visually rendering them on his map as islands when in reality, they were underwater. He conjured an entire island group into existence across the sea center and labeled it the Nansha Qundao – the ‘South Sands Archipelago.’ Further south, parallel with the Philippines coast, he dabbed a few dots on the map and labeled them the Tuansha Qundao, the ‘Area of Sand Archipelago.’ However, at its furthest extent, he drew three islands, outlined in black and colored in pink: Haima Tan (Sea Horse Shoal), Zengmu Tan (James Shoal), and Qianwei Tan (Vanguard Bank).
Thus, the underwater ‘shoals’ and ‘banks’ became above-water ‘sandbanks’ in Bai’s imagination and on the map's physical rendering, he then added innovation of his own: the same national border that he had drawn around Mongolia, Tibet, and the rest of ‘Chinese’ territory snaked around the South China Sea as far east as Sea Horse Shoal, south as James Shoal and as far southwest as Vanguard Bank. Bai’s meaning was clear: the bright red line marked his ‘scientific’ understanding of China’s rightful claims. This was the very first time that such a line had been drawn on a Chinese map. Bai’s view of China’s claims in the South China Sea was not based upon the Review Committee’s view of the situation, nor that of the Foreign Ministry. The result of the confusion generated by Admiral Li Zhun’s interventions in the Spratly crisis of 1933, combined with the nationalist imagination of a redundant geographer without formal academic training. This was Bai Meichu’s contribution to Sun Yat-sen’s mission of national reconstruction.
According to the Taiwanese academic Hurng-Yu Chen, ‘Director-General of the Ministry of the Interior Fu Chiao-chin . . . stated that the publications on the sovereignty of the islands in the South China Sea by Chinese institutions and schools before the Anti-Japanese War should serve as a guidance regarding the territorial restoration issue.’ In other words, the government would be guided by putative claims made in newspapers in the 1930s. The meeting agreed that the entire Spratly archipelago should be claimed. Still, given that only Itu Aba (Taiping Dao) had been physically occupied, the claim should wait until other islands had actually been visited. This never happened, but the claim was asserted nonetheless.
A key part of asserting the claim was to make the names of the features in the sea sound more Chinese. In October 1947, the RoC Ministry of the Interior issued a new list of island names. New, grand-sounding titles replaced most of the 1935 translations and transliterations. For example, the Chinese name for Spratly Island was changed from Si-ba-la-tuo to Nanwei (Noble South), and Scarborough Shoal was changed from Si-ka-ba-luo (the transliteration) to Minzhu jiao (Democracy Reef). Vanguard Bank’s Chinese name was changed from Qianwei tan to Wan’an tan (Ten Thousand Peace Bank). The name for Luconia Shoals was shortened from Lu-kang-ni-ya to just Kang, which means ‘health.’ This process was repeated across the archipelagos, largely concealing the foreign origins of most of the names. A few did survive, however. In the Paracels, ‘Money Island’ kept its Chinese name of Jinyin Dao and Antelope Reef remained Lingyang Jiao. To this day, the two names celebrate a manager and a ship of the East India Company, respectively.
At this point, the ministry seems to have recognized its earlier problem with the translations of ‘shoal’ and ‘bank.’.’ In contrast, in the past, it had used the Chinese word tan to stand in for both (with unintended geopolitical consequences), in 1947 it coined a new word, ansha (Ànshā) – literally ‘hidden sand’ – as a replacement. This neologism was appended to several submerged features, including James Shoal, which was renamed Zengmu Ansha.
In December 1947, the ‘Bureau of Measurements’ of the Ministry of Defence printed an official ‘Location Map of the South China Sea Islands’, almost identical to the ‘Sketch Map’ that Zheng Ziyue had drawn a year and a half before. It included the ‘U-shaped line’ made up of eleven dashes encircling the area down to the James Shoal. In February 1948, that map was published as part of the Atlas of Administrative Areas of the Republic of China. The U-shaped line – with an implicit claim to every feature within it – became the official position.
Therefore, it was not until 1948 that the Chinese state formally extended its territorial claim in the South China Sea to the Spratly Islands, as far south as James Shoal. Clearly, something had changed in the years between July 1933, when the Republic of China government was unaware that the Spratly Islands existed, and April 1947, when it could ‘reaffirm’ that its territory's southernmost point was James Shoal. What seems to have happened is that, in the chaos of the 1930s and the Second World War, a new memory came to be formed in the minds of officials about what had actually happened in the 1930s. It seems that officials and geographers managed to confuse the real protest issued by the RoC government against French activities in the Paracels in 1932 with a non-existent protest against French activities in the Spratlys in 1933. Further confusion was caused by the intervention of Admiral Li Zhun and his assertion that the islands annexed by France in 1933 were indisputably Chinese.
The imagined claim conjured up by the confusion between different island groups in that crisis became the real territorial claim.
Pratas's islands now a conservation zone, from where visitors can send postcards back home from a mailbox guarded by a cheerful-looking plastic shark. Not far away is a new science exhibition explaining the natural history of the coral reef and its rich marine life.
Overlooking the parade ground (which doubles as a rainwater trap) stands a golden statue of Chiang Kai-shek in his sun hat, and behind him is a little museum in what looks like a scaled-up child’s sandcastle.
This museum holds, in effect, the key to resolving the South China Sea disputes. Its assertion of Chinese claims to the islets actually demonstrates the difference between nationalist cartography and real administration. Bai Meichu may have drawn a red line around various non-existent islands in 1936 and claimed them as Chinese, but no Chinese official had ever visited those places. The maps and documents on the museum walls tell the RoC expedition's story to Itu Aba in December 1946 and a confrontation with some Philippine adventurers in 1956. Still, in the absence of any other evidence, the museum demonstrates that China never occupied or controlled all islands. In the Paracels, it occupied one, or just a few, until 1974, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) forces invaded and expelled the Vietnamese garrison. In the Spratlys, the RoC occupied just one or two. The PRC took control of six reefs in 1988 and another in 1994.
In the meantime, the other countries around the South China Sea – Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia – took control of other features. The real history of physical presence in the archipelagos shows how partial any state’s claim actually is.
The current mess of rival occupations is, with some exceptions, the only one that has ever existed. Understanding this opens a route to resolving the South China Sea disputes. By examining the historical evidence of occupations, the rival claimants should understand that there are no grounds for them to claim sovereignty over everything. They should recognize that other states have solid claims to certain features and agree to compromise. As the legal phrase goes, uti possidetis, ita possideatis – ‘as you possess, thus may you [continue to] possess.’ Why should this be so difficult? Ultimately, it is because of the emotional power that these territorial claims continue to exert. And those emotions first stirred in Guangzhou in 1909.
Under Xi Jinping, the party has doubled down on the narrative. On 29 November 2012, shortly after being anointed party general-secretary, Xi delivered a speech at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square in which he unveiled his big idea, the ‘China Dream’ [Zhongguo Meng (中国梦; pinyin: Zhōngguó Mèng)]. He declared, ‘Achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation [Zhonghua minzu (中华民族; Pinyin: Zhōnghuá Mínzú)] is the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in modern times.’ Which goal is ‘resuming China’s historical international status’.
And as seen above, there are many loaded ideas packed into that five-word phrase. What does Yan mean by ‘resuming’ or ‘China’ or ‘status’? Which period of history is his reference point? In the same interview, he glibly mentions the Han Dynasty of 2,000 years ago, the Tang Dynasty of 1,000 years ago, and the early part of the Qing Dynasty, 300 years ago. It requires a nationalist imagination to regard these three utterly different states as all representing an essential, timeless ‘China’. It demonstrates how every group that chooses to see itself as a nation constructs myths around itself and, if they are successful, reconstructs the state around those myths. Earlier East Asian states (‘dynasties’) did exactly this: they sought to present themselves as the legitimate successors to their discredited predecessors.
Xi thus extended support in the party and the society by appealing to nationalistic sentiment by trumpeting the “Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and pursuing foreign policies for expanding the “core interests.” Xi also played up China’s international leadership by promoting the “Major Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics.” Similarly, the Belt and Road Initiative strengthens Chinese strategic autonomy by enhancing its key positions along with networks of capital and infrastructure around the world, foster asymmetric partnerships, maximize its influence and consolidate its control overland routes from Central Asia to Europe and the SLOC beyond the South China Sea.
The People’s Republic is now an ethnocracy, a racially defined state, still in thrall to the nationalist myths constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has worked to impose ever tighter boundaries around legitimate expressions of Chinese-ness. Xi and his fellow leaders have put increasing emphasis on the ‘four identifications’, and added a fifth. They insist that all Chinese citizens must identify with the motherland, with the Chinese nation (Zhonghua minzu), with Chinese culture, the Chinese socialist road,– and the Chinese Communist Party itself. It hardly needs saying that the party regards any suggestion that a Tibetan or an Uyghur might prefer to live under another government, that a Mongol might not be willing to embrace a homogenizing view of the nation, that speakers of regional topolects might prefer not to speak Putonghua, or that any of them might reject the leading role of the Communist Party, as treasonous. As we are seeing in Hong Kong (at the time of writing), Xi Jinping’s problem is that the more worried the Communist Party becomes about national fragmentation, the more it tries to impose national unity, and the more it generates a reaction in the opposite direction.
How should the region and the world respond to these historical myths? They need to be taken seriously as drivers of Chinese behavior but not as statements of historical truth, still less as a guide to the correct order of society or regional relations. Too many people have already been taken in: there are plenty of foreign commentators happy to parrot lines about ‘5,000 years of superior civilization’ or ‘the unity of the Han race’, without any understanding of where these concepts come from. As a result, they give Chinese nationalism a free pass. A country that believes it has a superior civilization, that its population evolved separately from the rest of humanity and that it has a special place at the top of an imperial order will always be seen as a threat by its neighbors and the wider world. Chinese nationalism is (as Anthony D. Smith has shown) subject to a critique just as much as any other form.
1. Chang Naide 1986. A Brief History of the Chinese Nation, 中华民族小史. Shangxi: Aiwen Bookstore, 爱文书局 pp5–6
2. Pamela Kyle Crossley, ‘The Rulerships of China: A Review Article’, American Historical Review, 97/5 (1992), pp. 1471–2.
3. Marijn Nieuwenhuis, ‘Merkel’s Geography: Maps and Territory in China’, Antipode, 11 (June 2014), https://antipodefoundation.org/2014/06/11/maps-and-territory-in-china/
4. John M. Friend (Author), Bradley A. Thayer (Author) How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics, 2018, p.131.
5. Yi Wang, ‘Wang Huning: Xi Jinping’s Reluctant Propagandist’, http://www.limesonline.com, 4 April 2019, http://www.limesonline.com/en/wang-huning-xi-jinpings-reluctant-propagandist
6. Haig Patapan and Yi Wang, ‘The Hidden Ruler: Wang Huning and the Making of Contemporary China’, Journal of Contemporary China, 27/109 (2018), pp. 54–5.
7. Wu Feng-ming, ‘On the new Geographic Perspectives and Sentiment of High Moral Character of Geographer Bai Meichu in Modern China’, Geographical Research (China), 30/11, 2011, pp. 2109–14.
8. Ibid., p. 2113.
9. Tsung-Han Tai and Chi-Ting Tsai, ‘The Legal Status of the U-shaped Line Revisited from the Perspective of Inter-temporal Law’, in Szu-shen Ho and Kuan-Hsiung Wang (eds), A Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Prospects for Peace in the South and East China Seas, Taipei: Prospect Foundation, 2014, pp. 177–208.