By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Understanding the 100 years of the current regime in China Part One

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently acknowledged the Tiananmen Square debacle as an attempted revolution, we will follow the example of Shaun Breslin in China Risen?: Studying Chinese Global Power (March 2021), who pointed out how important it is what leaders like Xi Jinping and the CCP say about Chinese history all the while perpetuating its own truths in addition we will analyze an extensive range of Chinese-language debates and discussions, including explaining the roles of different actors and interests.

Early on already Historian James Harrison considered the CCP party's actions of rewriting Chinese history as "the most massive attempt at ideological re-education in human history."1

In fact, even the founding date of 1 July is a myth and it seems clear from the available evidence that an organization calling itself the Communist Party of China was born a full eight months before the First National Congress as evidenced by the bulletin Gongchandang (left), published in November 1920 by Chen Duxiu’s Shanghai group, and its British counterpart, The Communist, dated August the same year:


As for First National Congress, it has been detailed that representatives, disguised as tourists, rented a small pleasure boat on which they officially formed the party and approved their first political project on 3 Aug. 1921, not 1 July.

Political scientist Peter Hays Gries stated: "It is certainly undeniable that in China the past lives in the present to a degree unmatched in most other countries. ... Chinese often, however seem to be slave to their history".2 In fact just a few days ago Xi Jinping stresses drawing strength from CPC history to forge ahead.

Buried at the end of the most important Chinese political speech in a decade, President Xi Jinping’s 66-page address to the 19th party congress in November 2017, was one short line: “The Chinese Dream is a dream about history, the present, and the future.” Tired after 71 ovations over three-and-a-half hours, the audience may have missed this sentence. Yet it illuminates how history underpins President Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation.

History plays an increasingly important legitimizing role in China. As historian Antonia Finnane writes:

Every country has its national myths, most of which are grounded in or derived from history; but in China, history alone is the bedrock. The People’s Republic doesn’t have a religion, and it doesn’t have a constitution, or at least, not one that counts. It no longer even has a revolutionary ideology. It just has history, lots of it.

In contemporary China, it’s put into practice with surgical skills. Specific memories of events deemed sensitive by the state are not just forgotten, they are winnowed out and selectively deleted. The Communist Party has succeeded in hacking the collective memory.

National amnesia has become what Chinese writer Yan Lianke calls a “state-sponsored sport”. And as Beijing’s global influence rises, its controlling instincts,  to tame, to corral, to shape, to prune, to expurgate history and historical memory, are increasingly being exported to the world.

China has also invoked history to legitimize its massive One Belt One Road international infrastructure scheme, despite critics claiming that its premise relies on mythologized history.

But even in China, not everybody believes what the State puts out, for example commenting on the Chinese Academy of History; “They aren’t following an academic path,” said a prominent history professor in Beijing, who said he declined the academy’s invitation to collaborate on a project. “These people are doing this to suck up and win promotion.”

A recent book titled The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives Edited by Timothy Cheek, Klaus Mühlhahn, and Hans van de Ven  “does not control history,” but it does know when and how to seize historical opportunities. The first story in the book is how the young Dutch revolutionary Henricus Sneevliet helped establish the party. As an envoy of Moscow, the then uncontested center of the global Communist movement, he also urged his Chinese comrades to form a united front with Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalists...Or as has been known for a long time while the PCCP/RC adopted a Soviet model of multinational state-building, being ‘Chinese’ meant ‘socialist in content while nationalist in form’.

To most observers, China, that is the current the People's Republic of China (Chinese: 人民共和国; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó; PRC) appears to be a uniquely bounded and indivisi­ble entity with a long and unbroken history, a single, unified civilization.  Asserting that it is slightly absurd to ask how China became Chinese among others, including more recently Tim Marshall 3  Jared Diamond stated that "China has been Chinese, almost from the beginnings of its recorded history."

Yet, the very concepts of nation, race, nationality, and ethnic minority, especially in China, are modern political constructs. For example, as we earlier pointed out, during the dying days of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), the Chinese state sought to colonize various parts of its imperial frontier through Han resettlement. This program of settler colonialism (not unlike the intentions of the above-mentioned Nationalists) continued following the establishment of the Chinese Republic and, as recently was pointed out in The Diplomat, intensified as state power grew in the post-Mao era.


Communist scholars high­lighted the significance of the Yellow Emperor and Peking Man

The belief that history brought it to power is one of the few ideological constants in the Chinese Communist Party’s hundred-year saga.

Having grown up under communist rule in 2007 already Chinese history scholar, Weishi Yuan strongly criticized the distorted story's told in China’s history textbooks and history education while due to the publication of this article, his weekly supplement was closed down by the government showing how concerned the CCP is about letting people know about its own history.

Today, this type of interference is much stronger, as exemplified by the fact that in February 2019, the Chinese government even issued specific rules covering the printing within China of maps in books or magazines intended for sale in overseas markets. Each map would require permission from provincial officials, and none would be allowed to be distributed within the country. The possibility that a Chinese citizen might see a map showing an unauthorized version of China’s territorial claims was perceived as such a threat to national security that it justified the involvement of the ‘National Work Group for Combating Pornography and Illegal Publications,’ according to the regulations.4 To prove the point, in March 2019, the authorities in the port city of Qingdao destroyed 29,000 English-language maps destined for export because they showed Taiwan as a separate country.5

Government statements explicitly connected the mapping laws and regulations of 2017 and 2019 to the state’s ‘patriotic education’ education’ campaign. Part of their purpose was to guide the teaching of schoolchildren in the correct view of the country. Messages from the national leadership obsessively remind the population that the only way to be a Chinese patriot is to fervently seek the ‘return’ of Taiwan to control by the mainland; to insist that China is the rightful owner of every rock and reef in the South China Sea (what other call the Pacific Ocean), and insist on maximalist claims in the Himalayas. The official media constantly remind citizens of the state’s territorial claims, exhort them to personally identify with those claims and nurture feelings of hurt and shame towards unresolved border disputes. Paranoia about national boundaries in China is not merely an obsession of online gamers or Weibo patriots; it is central to the state itself. The speeches of Xi Jinping made clear that his vision of national rejuvenation can only be complete when all the territory claimed by China is under Beijing’s control.

Thus, China's rewriting of history as a The Diplomat (written by the author of the forthcoming “China’s New Empire” stated on 1 June the South China Sea disputes are today's version of the early 20th century Balkans, where “some damned foolish thing” can trigger a devastating global conflict without precedence and beyond our wildest imagination.6

As recently pointed out by Su-Yan Pan and Joe Tin Yau Lo the PRC state has adjusted its higher education policies to realize renewed international pres­tige while at the same time coping with external and internal challenges to its legitimacy due to changing international and domestic circumstances. China's educational paradigm mirrors the state’s power strategy in world politics. By serv­ing the state's diplomatic relations and national image building, Chinese univer­sities have increased their international profiles. Still, they have remained continuously dependent on foreign-trained personnel for cutting-edge research and scientific publications rather than cultivating innovation from indigenous knowledge and domestically trained personnel. Moreover, China has reasons to celebrate its ‘brain gain’ successes - i.e., the ability to import highly educated international human capital possessing the knowledge, skills, and/or potentials on which China relies for economic growth, political stability, and global com­petitiveness.

While the CCP agrees that on 23 July 1921, 50 delegates gathered in secret at an unprepossessing house in the French Concession in Shanghai and started arguing out the details of the new party, after a week of this, on 30 July, the French police raided the house. Only a dozen or so of the party members managed to escape. Less know and what we will unravel here is the wider context of this development.

Hinted at by Weishi Yuan when he referred to China as a nation of diverse ethnic groups, initially, Communist historians adopted a discursive strategy closely resembling that of the Nationalist Guomindang intellectuals.

In their early histories, Communist scholars high­lighted the significance of the Yellow Emperor and Peking Man in binding the heterogeneous peoples of the former Qing empire into a single, organic minzu, which, following Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, they termed the Zhonghua minzu (a key political term in modern Chinese nationalism related to the concepts of nation-building, ethnicity, and race which as explained below was borrowed from Japan). Yet, the heightened ideological struggle that accompanied the collapse of the Second United Front and the publication of Chinas Destiny forced CCP his­torians to adopt an alternative myth of national unfolding. In particular, Communist intellectuals pointed to the recent discovery of a racially distinct South Pacific hominid to counter the “fascist racism" of the Guomindang and assert the multiracial origins of the Chinese people. At the same time, faced (as were GMD scientists) with Japan's manipulation of ethnic aspirations along the Qing frontier, CCP historians also manufactured intricate ethno genealogies that placed the minorities at the very origin of Chinese history. They linked the mul­tivalent ‘‘Chinese” minzus together into a single organic, Han-centered whole. In doing so, the Communists (like the Nationalists) projected Sun Yat-sen’s desire for a future state of national unity backward in time using history, ethnology, and archaeology to demonstrate the fundamental consanguinity and antiquity of the Zhonghua minzu (Chinese: 华民; Pinyin: Zhōnghuá Mínzú) And as we have seen is still  the rhetoric used by China today.

The Zhonghua minzu lie in the multi-ethnic Qing Empire, created in the seventeenth century by the Manchus. The Manchus sought to portray themselves as the legitimate rulers of each of the ethnic or religious identities within the empire. And as Rebecca E. Karl explained, Chinese communism was part of the reaction to the depredations of Western powers beginning with the First Opium War in 1839, and the impetus for change had come from the humiliation and exploitation suffered at the hands of foreigners. There were many grievances against the emperor and the social structure, as had often been the case in Chinese history, but what ultimately discredited these entities was their failure to defend China and their obvious inadequacy compared to the leading powers of the age.7

In the dying days of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese state sought to colonize Xinjiang and other parts of its imperial frontier through Han resettlement. This program of settler colonialism continued following the establishment of the Chinese Republic and intensified as state power grew in the post-Mao era.

Contrary to Russia, where the Leninist revolution (also referred to as a coup d'etat)  was tied to its ability to replace the economic order of the Tsarist regime with something more egalitarian and more productive, whereby the Chinese Revolution, according to Jeremy Friedman, had a decidedly "nationalist emphasis and rhetoric."8

In stark contrast to Western liberalism, Confucianism, and Chinese political culture more broadly, hinges on individual rights and the acceptance of social hierarchy and the belief that humans are perfectible. Humans are not equally endowed; they vary in suzhi () or quality. A poor Uighur farmer in southern Xinjiang, for example, sits at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder; an official from the ethnic Han majority is toward the top.

But individuals are malleable, and if suzhi partly is innate, it is also the product of one’s physical environment and upbringing. Just as the wrong environment can be corrupting, the right one can be transformative. Hence the importance of following the guidance of people deemed to possess higher suzhi, the people Confucius called “superior persons” (君子) and the Communists now call “leading cadres” (领导干部).

So even a lowly Uighur farmer can improve her sushi, through education, training, physical fitness, or, perhaps, migration. And it is the moral responsibility of an enlightened and benevolent government to actively help its subjects improve or, as the China scholar Delia Lin puts it, to reshape “originally defective persons into fully developed, competent and responsible citizens.” During its seven decades in power, the Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly tried to remold recalcitrant students, political opponents, prostitutes, and peasants alike.

Seen here preparing for the 1 July 2021 100th anniversary of the current regime in China High school students visit Xibaipo Memorial Hall (Xibaipo was an important base during China’s civil war)

Ein Bild, das Text, darstellend, Gruppe, angezogen enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung


From the Qing dynasty to present-day China

Following the multiethnic Qing dynasty (1644-1911), its massive territory unraveled its ethnic and provincial seams. Over the course of their long rule, the empire’s Manchu rulers had fashioned a loose nomadic-style confederation of five ethnic constituencies (today codified as the Manchu, Han, Mongol, Tibetan, and Hui nationalities), doubling the size of the previous Ming dynasty’s territory and boosting its population to 420 million from 130 million. Yet, this phenomenal growth was not balanced. The empire's population ballooned at the geographic and political center among its sedentary, densely populated Sinic communities (today reimagined as a homogeneous Han nationality). At the same time, its territorial advances occurred along the empire’s rugged nomadic and seminomadic periphery. It should come as no surprise that once this rather bloated and deformed “geo-body’’ started to decay in the nineteenth century, it was set upon by predators from both within and without. By late 1911, the core provinces of Ming China had broken away from the Qing court while many of its impoverished peasants sought out new land and opportunities in the remote and formerly sequestered frontier regions. At the same time, the dependencies of Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang sought their political independence from “China" while England, Russia, Japan, and other imperialist powers carved deeper zones of influence on the rotting Qing geo­body. Attempting to stem this tide of disunity, Chinese revolutionaries quickly announced a new Republic of China (1912-1949). They declared their intention to assert sovereignty over all the former subjects and territories of the Qing empire, which was reconstituted as a free and equal “republic of five races” (wuzu gonghe 五族共和).

What came next is important to understand the true history of the CCP and how the current People's Republic of China (Chinese: 华人民共和国; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó; PRC) and while we have pointed to the two forms of Nationalism of which the CCP/PRC is one we have to introduce a third influence. 

As we have seen, 1919 was a year of radical cultural transformation in China. Just how radical it was, as illustrated by the U-turn taken in the career of Hu Shi (1891-1962). He had been a professor at Beijing University since 1917. Today he is famous as one of the authors of the magazine New Youth (新青年; pinyin: Xīn Qīngnián) and as an early advocate of baihua (the “Plain Language” simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: 白話文; pinyin: báihuàwén), a vernacular based on the Beijing dialect and infused with Western loanwords.

With disappointment rife about the political mess left in the wake of the 1911 Revolution, many intellectuals turned their attention to what they deemed the deeper substratum of Chinese social life: its culture. Critique moved from considerations of politics as state form, now a sphere condemned as endlessly corrupt and ineffectual, to an unsparing critique of the culture that underpinned the structures of everyday social hierarchy. The major target of this critique from the New Culture through the May Fourth period (1915-1925) was Confucianism, which was imputed as the mode of the social reproduction of hierarchy in elevated and everyday behavior alike. The feudal infestation had to be overcome.

From the mid-1910s into the 1920s, the claims made for culture were totalistic. Everything was said to have a cultural root. That cultural root was not gently sinological nor quaintly traditional or harmoniously uniting, but rather entirely rotten, toxic even. Cultural rot became an explanation for all manner of vice and ill and social problem, from the high-level corruption of officials through to the everyday gendered practices that sacrificed women's individuality and men’s freedom to family honor on the altar of marriage. Indeed, the proliferation of what was identified as “social problems" went hand in hand with what were understood to be the devolutionary properties of Chinese culture, where the insuf­ficiencies of the latter were now said to subtend all failures of Chinas modern historical passage. This radical critique and condemnation of culture and China not only characterized but animated the New Culture/May Fourth movement, an extended period of existential crisis in “Chinese-ness” that constituted the first of several cultural revolutions in China's twentieth century.

An alternative paradigm of the New Culture/May Fourth purveyed until very recently in PRC/CCP scholarship, holds that this period led teleologically to the introduction of Marxism and the formation of the Communist Party (1921), which is the true revolu­tionary successor to this (petty) bourgeois phase of cultural critique. Highlighting the role of the Communist Party in organizing and lead­ing progressive historical initiatives, this PRC narrative turns the New Culture/May Fourth into a mere transmission belt for Marxism; it thus forecloses the more radical aspects of the culture critique (its anarchistic tendencies, for example), consigns to historical oblivion the competing liberal contribution and emphasizes to the exclusion of much else the coming-into-being of the Bolshevik-Communist nexus of political-cultural social relations and knowledge production. In this party-centered narrative, the Russian Revolution of October 1917 propels history into motion in a linear unbroken line traced from Russia to China to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.'9

In reality, many different people were involved in making the New Culture Movement since many groups participated in the patterning of reality, leading to the network of reference points later inscribed into the buzzword. The academics debated. The newspapers invented conspiracy theories. The politicians made their deals with foreign powers about Shandong in reference to the Paris Peace Conference. But in a way, no one really made the New Culture Movement since no one group was responsible for combining these patterns into the New Culture Movement’s matrix of reference points.

Although the Movement was highly influential, many of the intellectuals at the time opposed the anti-traditional message, and many political figures ignored it. "this limited May Fourth individualist enlightenment did not lead the individual against the collective of the nation-state, as full-scale, modern Western individualism would potentially do."10 Chiang Kai-shek, as a nationalist and Confucianist, was against the iconoclasm of the May Fourth Movement. As an anti-imperialist, he was skeptical of Western ideas and literature. He criticized these May Fourth intellectuals for corrupting the morals of youth.11 When the Nationalist party came to power under Chiang's rule, it carried out the opposite agenda. The New Life Movement promoted Confucianism, and the Kuomintang purged China's education system of western ideas, introducing Confucianism into the curriculum. Textbooks, exams, degrees, and educational instructors were all controlled by the state, as were all universities.12 Some conservative philosophers and intellectuals opposed any change, but many more accepted or welcomed the challenge from the West but wanted to base new systems on Chinese values, not imported ones.


Confucianism from old to a new third way

Also called the New Confucianism (Chinese: 新儒家; pinyin: xīn jiā) is an intellectual movement of Confucianism that began in the early 20th century in Republican China, and as we shall see further developed in post-Mao era contemporary China. It is deeply influenced by, but not identical with, the neo-Confucianism of the Song and Ming dynasties.

A native of Guangdong, Kang Youwei, as was the case of many of his generation, was sent by his family to study the Confucian classics in order to pass the Imperial examination at an early age. In 1879 and 1882, Kang visited Hong Kong and Shanghai. Deeply impressed by the sheer modernity of the two cities under foreign administration, he bought numerous Western works in Shanghai to study. In 1891, he opened a school in Guangzhou to teach Western learnings and offer his own interpretations of Confucianism, declaring that the Old Texts (Chinese: 古文經; pinyin: Gǔwén Jīng) was fabricated by Liu Xin also known as Liu Xiu (Chinese: 劉秀) and resulted in the sclerosis of Chinese intellectual tradition, Kang drew on foreign political systems to inform his reformist ideas that he rationalized in the framework of the New Text. Adopted by Confucians such as Dong Zhongshu, this school advocated a holistic interpretation of Confucian classics and viewed Confucius as a charismatic, visionary prophet.

Initially, the reformers of Chinese Nationalism during the anti-Manchu 19th century proposed a constitutional monarchy that would include the Manchu emperor: their notion of a "yellow race"  was broad enough to include all the people living in the Middle Kingdom. In the wake of the abortive Hundred Days Reform of 1898, which ended when the empress dowager rescinded all the reform decrees and executed several reformer officials, several radical intellectuals started advocating the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty. Not without resonance to the 1789 and 1848 political revolutions in Europe, the anti-Manchu revolutionaries represented the ruling élites as an inferior "race" which was responsible for the disastrous policies which had led to the decline of the country, while most inhabitants of China were perceived to be part of a homogeneous Han race. In search of national unity, the very notion of a Han race emerged in a relational context of opposition to foreign powers and the ruling Manchus. For the revolutionaries, the notion of a "yellow race" was not entirely adequate as it included the much-reviled Manchus. Whereas the reformers perceived race (zhongzu) as a biological extension of the lineage (zu), encompassing all people dwelling on the soil of the Yellow Emperor, the revolutionaries excluded the Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans, and other population groups from their definition of race, which was narrowed down to the Han, who were referred to as a minzu.

Lydia Liu has remarked that the word minzu was invented in Japan, minzoku entered the Japanese vocabulary only in 1873. However, the word did not find more popular usage in China before Chinese students and intellectuals, who were sojourning in Japan, introduced the word with its modern meaning to the Chinese public around 1898. This was when cultural nationalism and the notion of "national essence" were booming in Japan.13

Pictured below in 1906, the library of the Society for the Preservation of National Learnings, the first private library in China, opened its door in Shanghai. 

Its founder welcomed the fact that more and more foreigners were interested in ancient Chinese objects and books. It showed that Chinese civilization had an important role to play in the progress of humanity. However, he was deeply concerned by the hemorrhaging of Chinese antiquities and books to overseas collectors, museums, and researchers. Thus, the library assumed the mission of preserving Chinese material civilization in China and had a collection of 60,000 ancient books, most of which were donated. The library issued a statement declaring: "To promote nationalism, the preservation of ancient learnings and the promotion of national radiation now bears upon the shoulders of everyone." The library later changed hand to the "Rare Book Preservation Society" during the Japanese occupation.

Thus during the first half of the twentieth century, cultural and political revolutions link together to form a historical telos that favors the CCP's revolutionary ideology. Under this paradigm, revolution dominated public life in modern China and constituted the overarching themes of modern Chinese history. Specifically, these themes are the Revolution of 1911 that overthrew the imperial system and established a Chinese nation-state; the May Fourth and New Culture Movements of the mid-1910s to 1920s that replaced 'feudal' Chinese traditional culture with Western democratic and scientific enlightenment; and the Communist Revolution from 1949 onwards that 'compensated' for the Nationalist KMT's abortive revolutions to bring about China's long-awaited national revival by the drastic steering of Chinese society, its economy, and politics in a socialist direction.

By contrast, the second dominant historiographical theme takes modernization as the dominant trend that permeated modern China. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, China's socio-political structure and technological backwardness rendered the country extremely vulnerable to colonial and imperialist profiteering advances. Inequitable treaties were imposed on the Qing government, which opened up the path for major Western powers and the Empire of Japan to penetrate China’s economy and wrestle for special privileges. The modernization paradigm emphasizes China's process of reconstruction, which began with the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861-1895), the Hundred Days' Reform (1891), and the New Policies (Xinzheng, 1901-1911). The Manchu dynasty launched these to facilitate Western technology, industry, armaments, and institutional models. Underscoring China's path to social and political modernization, this historiographical perspective portrays revolutions as counterproductive and damaging to China's interests.

Despite the contrasting visions of the two historiographies concerning revolution, both paradigms are wedded to the concept of linear progress, creating a dichotomy between tradition and modernity. 

Recent years have witnessed the rise of a historiographical trend that challenges this progressive narrative. Elisabeth Forster's monograph on the New Culture Movement proposes the story of the New Culturalists as being astute entrepreneurs and self-promoters, who took over the intellectual landscape around 1919, and not entirely due to their intellectual merit.14

At a cultural level, many revolutionary intellectuals accused Confucianism of being the spiritual culprit responsible for China's backwardness and an accomplice in the dictatorship of the absolute monarchy. Refuting Kang's advocation of adopting the Confucian calendar, Liu Shipei (1884 –1919) argued to calculate years according to the Yellow Emperor. Having referred to him before, Shipei was a philologist, Chinese anarchist, and revolutionary activist. While he and his wife, He Zhen, were in exile in Japan, he became a fervent nationalist. He then saw the doctrines of anarchism as offering a path to social revolution while remaining intent on preserving China's cultural essence, especially Taoism and the records of China's pre-imperial history. In 1909 he unexpectedly returned to China to work for the Manchu government.


Re-invoked by the present-day Communist Party of China (CPC), annual ceremonies are held to worship the imaginative Yellow Emperor


The Yellow Emperor was a native of Mesopotamia…..

The influence of this Japanese culturalist nationalism among late Qing Chinese intellectuals cannot be emphasized too much. Chinese students and intellectuals began to seek exile or study in Japan during the last few years of the 1890s. This was a period in which the homogenization of the cultural nation and the political nation prevailed in Japan and penetrated the Chinese political vocabulary. It was exactly this idea of the nation as a culturally and politically unified entity picked up by Chinese intellectuals in Japan after 1898. Liu Shipei (1884-1919) wrote in 1903 that "minzu is the unique character of guomin." This culturalist nationalism carried two political imperatives in the 1900s. Chinese culturalist nationalism first emerged as both a doctrine of popular sovereignty and a movement for a Chinese nation-state independent from external oppressors. It follows that the people who formed the Chinese nation-state should be ethnically and culturally identical. Culturalist nationalism also implied that political reforms should be undertaken to preserve selectively updated traditional culture. China could only hope to have a unified and integrated modern nation-state if she borrowed wisely from different political elements within Western civilization.

But the essential point remains that culturalist nationalism reveals a complex exchange between opposing ideas. Conservative reformers and radical revolutionaries thought of culturalist nationalism in the same way. Monarchist reformers in China and Japan expressed a conservative culturalist nationalism to legitimize the Qing dynasty. They argued that the Manchu had been assimilated into the Chinese nation and began reinterpreting traditional sources to legitimize a constitutional monarchy. In 1898, Liang Qichao, who escaped the Empress Dowager Cixi's purge but continued to press for reform from Japan, even communicated in classical Chinese with Shiga Shigetaka, advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time. This was hoping to obtain help from the Japanese government to restore the Guangxu Emperor to power. In contrast, revolutionary intellectuals linked with Sun Yat-sen's (1866-1925) Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance), such as those of the National Essence School and the Southern Society, associated national essence with Chinese history. This meant that China's ancient socio-political system and cultural traditions would be seen to comply with radical political reforms inspired by modern Western politics and to rationalize revolution. As Zhang Taiyan remarked, national essence served to "incite ethnic nationalism, promote patriotism and fabricate a history of the Han."

Revolutionary culturalist nationalism was forged to fit a republican political construct. To this end, they even borrowed from the French orientalist Albert Etienne Jean-Baptiste Terrien de Lacouperie's (1844-1894) theory that the Yellow Emperor was a native of Mesopotamia. 

Lacouperie’s argu­ment was warmly accepted by Chinese nationalists such as Deng Shi (1877-1945), Huang Jie (1873-1935), LiuShipei (1884-1919), and Zhang Taiyan (1869-1935), who promoted Sino-Babylonianism to support an anti-Manchu revolution. They argued that because the Han Chinese were originally migrants from Mesopotamia, they should have the physical strength and the mental toughness to start a revolution against their oppressors. As descendants of the Yellow Emperor, the first Chinese king of the migrants from Mesopotamia, they must have faith in creating their own country.15

In addition to showing a racial genealogy from the Yellow Emperor to contemporary Han Chinese, Sino-Babylonianism revealed the complex networks of human migration that began in prehistoric times and continued to the present. For Xiong, the migration of the Bak tribe to China was merely an example of the constant flow of people across Eurasia. More importantly, migrants were often stronger and more determined to succeed in diffi­cult conditions.16 Not only did they have to adapt and adjust to the new environment. Still, they also had to compete with the locals to control land and resources.

Thus, for Xiong, the migration of the Bak tribe to China was an episode of global significance. First, it demon­strated that since prehistoric times there had been a constant movement of people from continent to continent, form­ing multiethnic communities in various parts of the world. Because of the high volume of migration, racial mixing amid racial competition had been the driving force of history. Second, for contemporary Chinese, the migration of the Bak tribe underscored the im­portance of coming to terms with the age of imperialism and colonialism. As Europeans migrated to East Asia in droves through imperialist expansion and colonial rule, they would soon be the new rulers of East Asia if the na­tives could not match their competitiveness and military prowess.

The same global scope is also found in Bai Yueheng's article “Liding xingzheng qu beikao” (Notes on Dividing the Administrative Districts, 1912). Bai suggested con­stant attempts had been made to match political boundaries with natural boundaries throughout human history. When a political boundary follows “the divi­sion in the mountains and the unity in rivers” (shanli shuihe), he said, it renders what is invisible visible, making the natural boundary clear and concrete. When a political boundary allows effective use of natural resources, he asserted, it creates “peace to the country and prosperity to the people” (guotai minan.)17

In China, Bai argued, through­out history, political leaders had made many attempts to match human geography with natural geography.

But Bai considered that the success of the 1911 Revolution provided an important opportunity for rethinking and remaking the political divisions in China.18 Unlike previous attempts, he argued, the goal of restructuring the administrative districts after 1911 was not to give the central government more control over the local areas or expand the bureaucracy to remote places. Rather, the political reorganization was to reflect the characteristics of natural geography and to facil­itate the movement of people and goods. The new political division, Bai suggested, should 'model after nature,' focusing on expanding existing networks that connected the local market to regional and global markets. Its goal was to serve China and the world, making the country more con­nected to the global system of circulation, consumption, and production.19

Thus the surge in nationalist activism and the intensified insistence on establishing and preserving sovereignty around that time reflected key transformations and continuities. It marked a shift in conceptions of organizing world societies from a hierarchy of time, which was based upon the idea of progression from barbarism to civilization, from a hierarchy of time to the hierarchy of space that emphasized the right of self-determination and the defense of a conjoined territorial and political integrity. This transition in worldview led to nation-states' production that greatly resembled the sovereign units of the prior tributary order. That is, a modern China filled most of the space of the old Qing Empire.


Continued in Part Two.


1. James P. Harrison. The Long March to Power: A Political History of the Chinese Commimist Party, 1921-1972 (London: Praeger, 1972).

2. Peter Hays China's New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy, 2005, 15.

3. Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 2015.

4. Zhang Han, ‘China Strengthens Map Printing Rules, Forbidding Publications Printed For Overseas Clients From Being Circulated in the Country’, Global Times, 17 February 2019.

5. Laurie Chen, ‘Chinese City Shreds 29,000 Maps Showing Taiwan as a Country’, South China Morning Post, 25 March 2019,

6. See our analyses of can a potential future Pacific War be avoided? as exemplified in:

7. Rebecca E. Karl, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, 2002, p.195.

8. For this, see Jeremy Friedman,  Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World, 2015. 

9. Rebecca E. Karl, China's Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History, 2020

10. Chen, Xiaoming (June 5, 2008). From the May Fourth Movement to Communist Revolution. SUNY Press. p.8. 

11. Joseph T. Chen (1971). The May fourth movement in Shanghai: the making of a social movement in modern China. Brill Archive. p.13. 

12. Werner Draguhn, David S. G. Goodman (2002). China's communist revolutions: fifty years of the People's Republic of China. Psychology Press. p.39.

13. Lydia H. Liu, The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making, 2006.

14. Elisabeth Forster, 1919 –The Year That Changed China: A New History of the New Culture Movement, 2018.

15. Kai-wing Chow, "Imagining Boundaries of Blood: Zhang Binglin and the Invention of the Han 'Race’ in Modern China,” in The Construction of Racial Iden­tities in China and Japan. Edited by Frank Dikotter (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1997), 34-52; Frank Dikotter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), 116-23; John Fitzgerald, Awakening China Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 67-88; Shen Songqiao, “Wo yi wo xue jian xuan yuan: Huangdi shenhua yu wanqing de guozu piango,” Taiwan shehui yanjiujikan 28.2 (1997): 1-77; Tze-ki Hon, "From a Hierarchy in Time to a Hierarchy in Space: Meanings of Sino-Babylonianism in Early 20th Century China/’ Modern China 36.2 (2010): 139­-69.

16. Xiong Bingsui, “Zhongguo zhongzu kaoDixue zazhi 18 (1911): 3b.

17. Bai Yueheng, ‘lading xingzheng qu beikao," Dixue zazhi 7-8 (1912): 1a.

18. Ibid., 1b.

19. Ibid., 1b.


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