By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

The invention of nation-building, ethnicity, and race in modern Chinese nationality.

As recently exemplified by "Chinese National Identity in the Age of Globalisation" (2020) by Lu Zhouxiang (Editor) that argued among others that Chinese nationalism is a factor that warrants greater consideration than it had elicited before Xi Jinping’s administration.

Also, "Construction of Chinese Nationalism in the Early 21st Century: Domestic Sources and International Implications (2014) by Suisheng Zhao (Editor) already concluded that; China has one of the highest levels of popular nationalism in the world.

During the 1980s, largely due to the relatively liberal political environment and reform-minded top leadership policies, Chinese nationalism had a moderate orientation; as pointed out, this changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when history and memory were developed to become a new power.

Deng Xiaoping’s strategy was to redefine the “one-hundred-year history of humiliation” as a new source of legitimacy of the CCP’s rule and the unity of the Chinese people and society. In turn, Xi Jinping has claimed some of the most popular moves by Deng Xiaoping as his own. While not always referring this to Deng, as the Xinhua news reported as recent as 14 October, Xi laid flowers at the feet of a Deng statue as part of the recent  Shenzhen Special Economic Zone festivities while urging a deeper integration among young people" to strengthen their sense of belonging to the motherland." Thus Chinese nationalism is also rooted in the imagined multi-ethnic community designed by the communist party.

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.

Thus the ruling political party of the People's Republic of China's current allegiance to the unchanging never-never land of a timeless past is clear in its delineation of China’s borders, based on the furthest reaches of a Manchu-led empire, the Qing, but claimed to be eternal and perpetually “Chinese.”

But it is the Maoist period that largely shaped China’s contemporary boundaries and geopolitical landscape. The Qing Dynasty's internal weakening in the 18th and 19th centuries provided ample opportunities for imperial exploitation of China by Europe and later Japan.

One of Beijing’s greatest fears about the buffer regions stems from how China assimilated them into the country. Unlike the Soviets, who moved non-Russian ethnic groups around to avoid contiguous ethnicities across borders, China moved Han Chinese into the buffer regions, slowly diluting the local populations. China still fears Pan-Turkic movements spreading through Central Asia into Xinjiang; large, organized ethnic Tibetan populations in India; Inner Mongolian herdsmen potentially seeking reunification with Mongolia; ethnic Koreans on the Chinese side of the Yalu River forging ties with a future unified Korea, and numerous ethnic minority and even militant groups moving along the borders of Southeast Asia.

The Manchu Qing court, inheritors of Inner Asian traditions of rule, had known how to play this game. They had relations with other Inner Asian peoples stretching back generations. The new Republic, however, was attempting to impose a completely different political order based upon a Western template of sovereignty and hard borders. Its leaders were obliged to find an answer for the bianjiang wentithe border question. How were they to ‘fix’ the national territory when the state was in the process of falling apart? But there was also a bigger question: how could the new state make its citizens feel loyal to each other and places that they had never seen would almost certainly never visit and yet assumed to be vital for national survival? Both of these missions, as we have seen in part one of this two-part investigation, were given to a new class of special agents, the geographers.


The China that didn't exist

It was 26 April 2019, the opening banquet of the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. As well as offering fine words about regional cooperation, Xi wanted to talk about history. ‘For millennia, the Silk Road had witnessed how countries achieved development and prosperity through commerce and enriched their cultures through exchanges,’ he told the delegations. ‘Facing the myriad challenges of today, we can draw wisdom from the history of the Silk Road, find strength in win-win cooperation in the present day and build partnerships across the globe to jointly usher in a brighter future where development is shared by all.’1 

History, or rather a particular version of history, underpins events such as this. Through staging and rhetoric, Xi Jinping presents China as the natural leader of East Asia and perhaps beyond. The metaphor of the Silk Road is deployed as a diplomatic tool: ultimately, all its roads lead to Beijing. The tool, ironically, is a European invention. The name ‘Silk Road’ was probably first coined by an early German geographer, Carl Ritter, in 1838, originally a European one, imposing an imagined order on a far more complex and chaotic history, so the very name ‘China’ was adopted by Westerners and given new meanings which were then transmitted back to East Asia. Over centuries, Europeans had developed a vision of a place they called ‘China’ based upon scraps of information sent home by explorers and priests and subsequently amplified by storytellers and orientalists. In European minds, ‘China’ became an ancient, independent, continuous state occupying a defined portion of continental East Asia.

From 1644 until 1912, ‘China’ was, in effect, a colony of an Inner Asian empire: the Qing Great-State. The Qing 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 states 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.

Western thinkers privileged their ‘China’ over other political formations in the region and promoted it, conceptually, above its hinterland. In their minds ‘China’ was the region’s dynamic engine while Inner Asia only mattered when its horse-borne hordes streamed into China to rape and pillage. In European eyes, ‘China’ was a constant presence on the historical stage while Inner Asians were reduced to playing repeated ‘ride-on’ parts before retreating to the dustbin of history. Hence the ‘Silk Road’. China was regarded as the driver of trade and Inner Asian states merely as the corridors through which it passed. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this idea of a pre-eminent ‘China’ traveled from Europe to East and Southeast Asia and found a new home in the private discussions and public journals of Qing intellectuals. These were mainly people who had traveled abroad (as exemplified above) and were able to look back on their homeland from afar.

According to Naomi Standen and other specialist historians, the earliest recorded inhabitants of this part of East Asia arrived elsewhere. The Xia people were southerners, perhaps originally from Southeast Asia, who settled the southern and eastern coastal plains. The Shang and Zhou peoples, on the other hand, seem to have been nomads who arrived from north Asia. The highland Man people formed the state of Chu in the early eighth century BCE. In the conventional telling, these groups were the barbarians, separate from the ‘Chinese.’ Yet according to the opposite: these ‘barbarians’ were the original inhabitants who adopted a settled, urban lifestyle and thereby made themselves different from their wilder relatives – they lived in towns. They were led by an emperor who ruled through a written language. These were the three markers of early civilization, not ethnicity. Cities were composed of many ethnic groups members, but by adopting an urban culture, the ‘citizens’ reinvented themselves as a new group. Around 100 BCE, the court official, Sima Qian, concocted a revised version of history to please his imperial master. He traced the origin of his emperor’s Han dynasty back to ‘ancient times,’ making sure to obscure its heterogenous roots. Sima Qian was a propagandist as much as a historian and a remarkably successful one. The tale he wove is still recycled two millennia later.1

The Han state began to disintegrate around 184 CE with the beginning of an uprising by the ‘Yellow Turbans’ religious sect.

The fighting, and the famine that ensued, killed almost 90 percent of the population, reducing it from 50 million to just 5 million. The remnants of the last Han state then fled south to the Yangtze valley. More migrants from North Asia then filled the land it had left behind. They created a new northern state with a new, ‘northernised,’ form of language. This north-south divide lasted for around 200 years until, in 589 CE, the northern Sui state, founded by the Xianbei people of central Asia, defeated the southerners.

The Sui were overthrown by what became the Tang Dynasty in 618. They, too, were part of Xianbei descent. That empire began to fragment in the ninth century and finally collapsed in 907. Several smaller rival states took its place, and the following century was characterized by upheaval and war with the northern area once again ruled by Turkic peoples. The Shatuo were replaced by the Khitan (from whom we get the archaic name for China: Cathay), who founded the Liao Dynasty until they were conquered by the Jurchen, who ruled until 1234. None of these peoples saw themselves as ruling the Zhong Guo. They were Inner Asians for whom China was an imperial appendage. Beijing became the Jurchens’ winter capital, away from Siberia's extreme cold, and doubled as an administrative capital for their subject people. This period is almost entirely glossed over in the ‘national history’ narrative, which prefers to concentrate on a rival state's existence, under the Song Dynasty, which controlled the southern part of what is now China, although its territory steadily shrank under pressure from the north.

The Mongols took Beijing in 1215 before extinguishing the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in 1234. Over the following half-century, the Mongols pushed ever further south, squeezing the Song state right back to the coast before finishing it off in a naval battle near Guangdong in 1279. The Mongols named their Chinese administration the ‘Yuan Dynasty’ to make it more culturally acceptable, but it was not a ‘Chinese’ state so much as an Inner Asian great-state. Although Kublai Khan moved his capital to Beijing in 1271, ‘China’ was simply one part of a khanate that, in 1279, stretched from the Korean peninsula to the Hungarian plains.

This united Mongol realm lasted just less than a century before local insurrection pulled it apart. A great-state based upon continuous expansion was unable to cope with the demands of settled administration. The early fourteenth century was a time of centrifugal chaos, and in several places, local warlords claimed the mantle of pre-existing empires. Zhu Yuanzhang established a new southern capital (nan-jing) in Nanjing and declared himself the leader of a new dynasty, the Ming (meaning ‘brilliant’), in 1368. Although ‘national history’ writers portrayed the Ming as an authentically Chinese dynasty, they played down how much the Ming rulers consciously emulated the Mongols. Indeed, their government's basic bureaucratic structure, with a Secretariat, Censorate, and Bureau of Military Affairs, was borrowed from Kublai Khan’s court.

The same was true of the regional government. The Mongols had parcelled out the country into personal fiefs: each locality leader was the tribal chief who had conquered it. The Ming copied the principle, but when their scholars came to write the previous dynasty's history, they erased the details and made the system sound more centrally organized. In the interests of the Ming scholar-officials to present themselves as the core of a Confucian state but the real authority lay with the ‘military aristocracy’ – the descendants of the generals who had supported Zhu Yuanzhang. This, again, was a pattern directly borrowed from the Mongols. The Ming organized the population along Mongol lines, too. Military families were organized as ‘centuries,’ who were grouped into ‘thousands’ and then into ‘guards.’ Surviving census registers indicate that the leaders of the ‘guards’ were generally of Mongol heritage.

The second Ming emperor did not build a northern capital (bei-jing) in Beijing because he preferred the climate there. The location – at the gateway to Mongolia – was deliberate and strategic. He wished to be both emperors of the Ming and khan of the Mongols. By assuming the Yuan's mantle, the Ming also extended their control into two areas that had been conquered by the Mongols: the old Tai kingdom of Yunnan and the Korean-populated Liao River basin. In Liang Qichao’s version of history, the invading northerners had been ‘civilized’ and ‘Sinicised’ by the superior culture of the Hua people that they encountered in the Zhong Guo. The Ming's basic structure (and later the Qing) states tell us that culture flowed both ways. The Hua were hybrids.

For the Ming, the ‘natural boundaries’ of the great-state stretched from Yunnan's mountains, northwards and eastwards through the mountains of Sichuan, the Altun, the Min, and Qilian ranges before joining the less natural frontier of the Great Wall. These boundaries were specifically designed to keep out Tibetans, Turks, Mongols, and Manchus – physically but also psychologically. These boundaries lasted for 300 years until the Manchu Qing breached the wall in 1644. As heirs to the Khitan, Jurchen, and Mongol civilizations, Zhongguo was only a waypoint on the road to regional supremacy. Qing military campaigns would triple the amount of territory ruled by Beijing. If the Mongols created China, as nationalist Chinese historian/politician Liang Qichao asserted, the Manchus created ‘greater China’.

Once we understand the ‘messiness’ of these twenty centuries, we can see that it takes considerable imagination, of the kind that can only be provided by nationalism, to discern within them an essential ‘Chinese’ nation that endured throughout. At best, this version of history is really only an account of several urban populations who recognized an emperor and wrote with a particular set of characters.

As Tim Barrett, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London has argued, ‘The urge to reconstruct could incorporate without strain considerable intellectual innovation.’2 He notes how the writing of ‘histories’ during each time period involved considerable manipulation of evidence to present a version of the past accorded with the needs of the present. The invention of paper and scissors allowed for narratives to be cut and pasted at will. In this, the current work of the National Qing Dynasty History Compilation Committee is entirely within precedent. Its job is to edit and re-present the previous dynasty's history to legitimize the current regime and delegitimize its critics through allegations of ‘historical nihilism.’ 

Just a year after its victory in the civil war, the Communist Party leadership called on its university to write a history of the Qing Dynasty.3 As one of the leading American historians of the Qing period, Pamela Kyle Crossley, has pointed out, the instruction would ‘complete the traditional arc in which each imperial dynasty declared its legitimacy by writing the history of its predecessor.’4 The party’s directive led to the Institute of Qing History's formal creation in 1978 and then, in 2002, to something far bigger. Following a proposal from Professor Li Wenhai, formerly the president of Renmin University – and also the secretary of its Communist Party Committee, director of the China Society of History and director of the History Teaching Guidance Committee of the Ministry of Education – the State Council approved the establishment of the ‘National Qing Dynasty History Compilation Committee.’ The project enjoys the kind of government financial support that makes other historians weep with envy. It has now digitized nearly 2 million pages, and images translated tens of thousands of foreign studies into Chinese, published multi-volume collections of documents, and held dozens of academic conferences.5

From the outset, the Qing Dynasty History Compilation Committee has been a vehicle for the Communist Party to direct how the Qing Dynasty is remembered. Following Xi Jinping’s ascent to the apex of power in 2012, however, the party’s hand has gripped ever more tightly around the project’s throat. There are increasingly strict limits on what can, and more importantly, cannot be said about the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The reason is obvious: facing demands for independence in Taiwan and separatist feeling in Tibet and Xinjiang, nothing can be allowed to upset the official national narrative that these places were smoothly, peacefully, and organically incorporated into the motherland and that they are therefore integral parts of a nation-state with ancient roots.

Since 2013 foreign historians such as Crossley, Evelyn Rawski, James Millward, Mark Elliott, and the many others who tell a different story about the Qing Great-State – that it was a Manchu dynasty and expanded its realm through conquest, violence, and oppression – have been denigrated in China, denounced as imperialists and denied access to archives. The same fight has also been taken to independent-minded Chinese historians. In early 2019 the Communist Party’s own ‘Chinese History Research Committee’ warned that, ‘A minimal number of scholars lack the proper vigilance against Western academic thoughts, and introduce theoretical variants of foreign historical nihilism into the field of Qing historical research.’ The phrase ‘historical nihilism’ has become increasingly common in recent years: Communist Party-speak for research does not support the party’s own view of history. The article, by Zhou Qun, deputy editor of the committee’s own journal, Lishi yanjiu (‘Historical Research’), was republished in the People’s Daily to make sure the message was widely received. Under the headline ‘Firmly Grasp the Right of Discourse of the History of the Qing Dynasty,’ it helpfully reminded readers that, ‘Studying history, and learning from history is a valuable experience of the Chinese nation for 5,000 years, and it is also an important magic weapon for the Chinese Communist Party to lead the Chinese people to win one victory after another.’6. 

Another example is the Chinese Ministry of Education agency charged with promoting the Chinese language and culture worldwide. Generously backed by government resources, Hanban now directs more than 500 ‘Confucius Institutes’ in over 140 countries worldwide.7 The institutes' work is mostly focused on language learning, but a particular view on history and culture is also part of the package. The only book on history that Hanban recommends to its students is entitled Common Knowledge About Chinese History. Together with its companion volumes about geography, the series is available in at least twelve languages: from English to Norwegian to Mongolian. This is the official ‘national history’ – guoshi – packaged up for consumption by foreigners. And the history that the Confucius Institute chooses to tell still follows the model laid down by Liang Qichao, albeit with a few communists. The theme of the first half of the book is China's primordial existence and a people called the Chinese who have existed across millennia. Even when it wasn’t called ‘China’ or was divided between rival states, it was still somehow ‘China.’ The underlying premise is continuity. We are told, ‘Many institutions initiated in the Qin and Han dynasties [over 2,000 years ago] were inherited continuously by later dynasties.’ The three centuries from the end of the Tang state in 907 to the arrival of the Mongols in 1260 are described as a ‘chaotic period,’ but ‘China’ was there throughout. When the Mongols invade China, they miraculously become a Chinese dynasty: ‘In 1279...China has unified into one nation once again.’ Even more ridiculously, the Qing Dynasty's founders are described as ‘Manchu tribes of northeast China,’ and their takeover is not even acknowledged to be an invasion.8

The book’s biases are particularly pronounced when, on rare occasions, it is obliged to deal with ‘non-Han’ peoples, especially when they invade and rule ‘China.’ The Xianbei people, who founded the Wei state across what is now northern China and Mongolia, apparently discovered that, ‘The key to consolidating their ruling was to...learn from the Han people.’ We’re told how the Tibetans used to live in tents but admired the Tang Dynasty culture. They received the gifts of Chinese culture through their emperor’s marriage to Princess Wencheng. Liang Qichao’s concept of ‘assimilative power’ is still going strong. Unless they learn from the Han or fight against them, the other peoples of northeast Asia are generally absent from the book, as they are from national history.

Of course, many more history books are published in China and many historians with a far more sophisticated understanding of the past. But this book is the one chosen by the Chinese government to represent its national history abroad. Its narrative is found in Chinese school books and forms the foundation of Chinese leaders’ frequent references to historical precedents. This is the narrative to which organizations such as the Institute of Qing History are working. Since Xi Jinping's coming to power, the political space for dissenting views on history – never large to begin with – has been shrunk even further. National history is reduced to a story about the expansion of a superior culture over its inferiors.

Not surprisingly, the Confucius Institutes became heavily involved in anti-Hong Kong protests where they were trying to intimidate, including when a pro-Beijing demonstrator attacked an ABC reporter.

China's new nationalism as exemplified by Confucius Institutes is the particular view of language ethnicity, and history endorsed by the Chinese leadership, which sees the history of China from the mid-nineteenth century to the Communists’ coming to power in 1949 as an endless series of humiliations at the hands of foreign powers.


The language wars

A year after the handover, the Hong Kong government decided that the official mainland version of Chinese, Putonghua, would become a compulsory subject for primary and junior-secondary schoolchildren. However, it was taught as a ‘foreign’ language, with perhaps just an hour of class time per week. Ten years later, the city authorities began to incentivize schools to make Putonghua the language of instruction. From 2008, schools were given extra funding if they agreed to teach all their subjects through Putonghua. Increasingly, Hong Kong parents started to choose these schools for their children, expecting that Putonghua's fluency would help them obtain better jobs. This seems to have amplified the generation gap between parents and their offspring, with younger Hong Kongers resenting having to learn in Putonghua. For some, it seems to have had the opposite effect to the one intended: setting them on a path towards resistance rather than integration with the mainland as particularly seen this past year.

At around the same time, fears for the future of Cantonese also emerged on the mainland. The city of Guangzhou (the ‘Canton’ in ‘Cantonese’) was due to host the Asian Games in November 2010. In July of that year, the city committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC – the body that brings together the Communist Party and other local organizations in a ‘united front’) recommended that the province’s main television stations should change their broadcasting from Cantonese to Putonghua in time for the games.

On 25 July, the protests moved offline, into the real streets of Guangzhou. At least 2,000 people (some say as many as 10,000) gathered outside Jiangnanxi metro station to voice their anger. Another protest involving hundreds of people was held a week later in the city’s People’s Park, and a solidarity rally was held in Hong Kong at the same time.9 A pan-Cantonese movement appeared to be taking shape. In response, the Guangzhou authorities backpedaled. The television station rejected the committee’s Putonghua proposal. The channel was kept off the satellite network, and the athletes and spectators of the Asian Games were obliged to receive their news in Cantonese.

It was only a tactical retreat, however. On 30 June 2014, Guangzhou TV’s hourly news bulletin switched from Cantonese to Putonghua.10.

In April 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Education and its agency, known in English as the State Language Commission11 (officially the National Committee for Language and Script Work),12 set a target for 80 percent of the PRC’s citizens to speak Putonghua by 2020. It was absurd: the chances of reaching 140 million people to speak a new language in three years were minimal, but it was an indication of the urgency with which the Communist Party views the work of nation-building. Way back in 1982, a new clause had been inserted into the national constitution mandating the state to ‘promote the nationwide use of Putonghua.’ More than a quarter of a century later, the Ministry of Education’s announcement was an admission that the change had had little effect: almost a third of the population, around 400 million people, did not speak the national language. As Hong Kong and Guangzhou (not to mention the far more serious resistance in Tibet and Xinjiang) demonstrate, the idea of a national language has not been nationally welcomed.

Also, in May 2018, an article written by a Chinese University consultant, Song Xinqiao, on the implementation of Mandarin education in Hong Kong and uploaded onto the website of the Education Bureau reignited a firestorm on the status of Cantonese as the mother tongue of Cantonese people in Hong Kong. In his article, Professor Song argued that “mother tongue” should be defined as the language of the Han (Chinese) race. By that token, the mother tongue of the Chinese people, including Cantonese in Hong Kong, should be Hanyu, taught in modern China as Mandarin, but also known as Putonghua in Hong Kong.

Song’s thesis was premised on his vision of a hierarchy of languages in China, with Mandarin, the lingua franca, at the pinnacle and superior to all dialects.

This view runs counter to linguists’ definition of “language.” Under their definition, Cantonese would be regarded as a separate language because it is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin or other dialects of China. However, while technically justifiable, such a view would no doubt be deemed unacceptable by those cagey about the advocacy of Hong Kong as a separate political entity.

Similar to what happened with the aborted effort in Guangzhou to launch a Mandarin promotion campaign, Song’s nationalist model reopened old wounds about the rising dominance of Mandarin in Hong Kong. At the root of the resentment lies deep-seated fears about the displacement of Cantonese – both the language and the people – by the mighty mainland.

In both Shanghai and Guangzhou, it was also regional prosperity that created the problems for national language policy. Both became economically strong and, therefore, able to assert a degree of autonomy from the central government. Simultaneously, both attracted large numbers of migrants from other parts of the country, unable to speak the local topolect. The central government urged the cities to integrate the new arrivals through Putonghua's promotion, thereby simultaneously integrating the city with the nation. However, in both cities, this created a backlash among local people resentful at the loss of regional distinctiveness. This caused local authorities to take steps to protect regional identity, bringing the city governments into collision with national instructions.

China’s national language policy appears to be simultaneously succeeding and failing. While Putonghua is the national language of schooling, and the number of people able to speak it is rising, the policy also seems to be provoking rearguard efforts to defend the regional topolects. The battle is increasingly taking place in life areas that the central government finds it difficult to control, particularly the Internet. Online fora buzz with discussions about local identity and migrants' problems in a cat-and-mouse game with the regulators. In Shanghai in the 2010s, some local topolect speakers referred to incomers as ‘YPs,’ ying pan, meaning ‘hard disk.’ The largest local producer of computer hard disks was a company called West Data and the initials ‘WD’ indicated the word wai di, meaning ‘non-local.’13 In response to examples like these, in 2014, the official communications regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television, issued a formal ban on puns and wordplay in broadcasts. It, too, was mocked, and enforcement was minimal.14

Cantonese speakers have become experts in avoiding the censors. They can use the Cantonese phrase for ‘northern guy’ as a sound-alike for ‘northern profiteer.’ If they want to criticize the Communist Party, they can use the phrase ‘grass mud horse’ – cao ni ma, which sounds like ‘fuck your mother’ in Cantonese. Since the party is often described as the ‘mother’ of the people, the phrase also suggests ‘fuck the party.’ If they want to criticize party propaganda, they might sarcastically use the Cantonese pronunciation of the name of a patriotic TV series, ‘Bravo, My Country’ – lai hoi liu, ngo dik gwok – which was itself derived from a phrase used by communist organizations on social media, ‘Bravo, my brother’ – li hai le, wo de ge. It looks as though the outlook for the topolects will depend on how economically important they are. There are plenty of Shanghainese and Cantonese speakers who have sufficient resources – financial and political – to organize a defense. However, not all regional ways of speaking will so easily resist the march of Putonghua. The coming to power of Xi Jinping and his ‘Chinese Dream’ of national unity suggests that the impetus to impose the national language across the country will continue. The China State Language Commission sees a direct connection between its work and the official call for ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.’ In its ‘Outline of the National Medium and Long-Term Plan for Language and Script Reform and Development (2012–2020)’, the Commission asserted, ‘The comprehensive establishment of a moderately prosperous society, the construction of a common spiritual home for the Chinese people, the enhancement of the country’s cultural soft power, and the acceleration of the modernization of education all put forward new requirements for the language and script enterprise.’14

This seems to encapsulate the twin urges that have been driving the reformers’ efforts to construct a single national language over the course of more than a century. One desires to make the state more effective and its people stronger through a language that promotes literacy among the masses and communication between diverse communities. The other is the nationalistic desire to construct a ‘common spiritual home.’ Buried deep within the language project is the 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.

Re-writing  Chinese History, Nation, Language, and Territory, makes it easier to get around the fact that the Communists had inherited an empire and have been desperate not only to hold onto it but strengthen their grip on the non-Han regions in a way which the non-Han Manchus had not found necessary. The focus on Han identity, on genes and lineage, also explains why China acts as though entitled to assume that “overseas Chinese” whatever their nationality owe a degree of allegiance to the “motherland” whether they want to or not.

The party and state however remain insecure as they attempt 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. State media reported the gift of a map but instead pictured an 1844 British map which included the whole Qing empire. Such have been the almost childish efforts of Beijing to change the record of history, nation, language, and territory.


The globe that was not to be

Tuesday 26 March 2019 was a proud day for the director and staff of the London School of Economics. A new sculpture by the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger was being unveiled right outside the recently completed student center. Wallinger’s work was entitled The World Turned Upside Down, a literal description of the piece. It featured a globe, about four meters high, resting on the North Pole, with Antarctica nearest the sky. The title was a reference to England’s seventeenth-century Civil War, and the upending of an old order. In Wallinger’s words: ‘This is the world, as we know it from a different viewpoint. Familiar, strange, and subject to change.Wallinger’s work has often addressed nationalism. His 2001 commission at the Venice Biennale, Oxymoron, included British flags with the usual red, white and blue replaced by the green, white and orange of the Irish tricolor. The LSE’s director, Minouche Shafik, told journalists covering the launch of the globe sculpture that the work reflected the mission of academia, where research and teaching ‘often means seeing the world from different and unfamiliar points of view’. 

But one group of students was not prepared to see the world from a different point of view. Within hours of the unveiling, a few students from the People’s Republic of China noticed that Taiwan had been colored pink while the PRC had been colored yellow and that Taipei had been marked with a red square, indicating a national capital, rather than the black dot used for provincial cities. They protested to the director and demanded that the work be changed. In their view, the artist’s intent was irrelevant: Taiwan should be just as yellow as the mainland. The LSE was facing a ‘Gap moment’. Students from the PRC make up 13 percent of the total student body at the LSE,85 so a boycott could have been ruinous. At the same time, the school’s Taiwanese students and their supporters also rallied. They pointed out that Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, was a graduate of the LSE, a fact that had been trumpeted by the school when she was elected. Two days later, the artwork had expanded to include a notice stating, ‘The LSE is committed to . . . ensuring that everyone in our community is treated with equal dignity and respect.’15

A crisis meeting was called, chaired by Shafik and including representatives from the school’s Directorate, Internal Communication Office and Faith Centre, plus two Chinese students, one Taiwanese, as well as an Israeli and a Palestinian (who were upset about the depiction of the Middle East). The Chinese students then tried to broaden the discussion, saying they were also upset about the depiction of the Chinese-Indian border. According to the Taiwanese student present, Shafik apparently ‘took out her notebook’ at this point.87

Wallinger himself avoided media comment except for one interview with the LSE student newspaper, The Beaver, in which he said, ‘There are a lot of contested regions in the world, that’s just a fact.’ The arguments continued for several months until, in July 2019, the LSE and Wallinger made a minor concession. They added an asterisk next to the name ‘Rep. China (Taiwan)’ on the work and also a sign below it stating ‘There are many disputed borders and the artist has indicated some of these with an asterisk.’88 But Taiwan remained a separate color: the LSE and the artist held their nerve. They did not ‘do a Gap’ and the sculpture continues to represent political reality rather than an idealized version of ‘maximum China’ imagined by its patriots online and offline.

Borders and formally defined territories are a modern, European invention imposed on, and adopted by, Asian elites over the course of a violent century. The new Chinese nationalism that emerged from the ruins of the Qing Empire manifested itself as a desire to be a ‘normal country’, equal to the industrial powers and part of an international system. The nationalists made a choice without really realizing they had done so. By choosing to exert a Chinese claim over a multi-ethnic domain, a decision predicated upon a new Han chauvinism, they obliged the Republic to extend its reach into the furthest, most marginal regions. This was, in effect, new colonialism: expanding ‘Han’ Chinese rule into places it had never reached before. The geographers’ maps and surveys led the way and their textbooks and national humiliation maps built support for the project back in the heartland. The geographers and the Guomindang worked together to make the imaginary boundaries real and create a 'national territory' a lingtu ( 領土 ), both on the ground and in the minds of the citizens. They did so by generating a fear of loss, of humiliation, that continues to animate Chinese policy to this day. 

The Republic of China only formally recognized the independence of Mongolia under the terms of the 1946 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and following a referendum in which the Mongolians nominally exercised their right of self-determination. The border between China and Russia, ostensibly agreed in 1689 with the Treaty of Nerchinsk, was only finally settled on 14 October 2008 with a deal on islands in the Amur River. The border between Guangxi province and Vietnam, although agreed in 1894, was only formally demarcated in 2009. Tibet was forcibly incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1950, bringing a Chinese state face-to-face with India for the first time. As the T-shirt buyers of Niagara Falls know well, the continuing lack of agreement in the Himalayas has the capacity to provoke full-scale war between two nuclear-armed militaries. Taiwan’s separateness is an ongoing crisis. And then there are the maritime boundaries. But that story will be one of the subjects we will cover in part three.


1. Naomi Standen (ed.), Demystifying China: New Understandings of Chinese History, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

2. Tim Barrett, ‘Chinese History as a Constructed Continuity: The Work of Rao Zongyi’, in Peter Lambert and Björn Weiler (eds), How the Past was Used: Historical Cultures, c. 750–2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, chapter 11.


4. Pamela Kyle Crossley, ‘Xi’s China Is Steamrolling Its Own History’,, 29 January 2019.

5. Zhou Ailian and Hu Zhongliang, ‘The Project of Organizing the Qing Archives’, Chinese Studies in History, 43/2 (2009), pp. 73–84.

6.‘Firmly Grasp the Right of Discourse of the History of the Qing Dynasty’, People’s Daily, 14 January 2019, (accessed 2 March 2020).     

7. Xinhua, ‘Over 500 Confucius Institutes Founded in 142 Countries, Regions’, China Daily, 7 October 2017,

8. Office of the Chinese Language Council International, Common Knowledge About Chinese History, Beijing: Higher Education Press, 2006, pp. 123, 138.

9. Verna Yu and SCMP Reporter, ‘Hundreds Defy Orders Not to Rally in Defence of Cantonese’, South China Morning Post, 2 August 2010,

10. Rona Y. Ji, ‘Preserving Cantonese Television & Film in Guangdong: Language as Cultural Heritage in South China’s Bidialectal Landscape’, Inquiries Journal, 8/12 (2016),    

11.  Xinhua, ‘China to Increase Mandarin Speaking Rate to 80%’, 3 April 2017,

12. Minglang Zhou and Hongkai Sun (eds), Language Policy in the People’s Republic of China: Theory and Practice Since 1949, Boston; London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, p. 30.

13. Qing Shao, Xuesong (Andy) Gao, Protecting language or promoting dis-citizenship? A poststructural policy analysis of the Shanghainese Heritage Project, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism Volume 22, 2019 - Issue 3: Controversies of bilingual education in China.

14. David Moser, A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language, 2016, p. 90.

15. CNA, ‘Lúndūn zhèng jīng xuéyuàn gōnggòng yìshù jiāng táiwān huà wéi zhōngguó wàijiāo kàngyì’, 7 April 2019,


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