Posted 01 February 2005 - 04:41 AM
This has been pretty interesting so far but there’s a crucial element that’s been missing through most of the discussion. Even the persuasive theory that locates the origin of what we today call ‘ethnicity’ in the way individuals have been classified according to loyalty to a particular state is based, inevitably, given the general nature of the vast majority of the records from this area, on the stories of the kings and bureaucrats running these states. The common people, though, are for the most part left out of the histories, as we have only become a political force in very, very recent times. (Obviously this is a worldwide phenomenon and it’s not only ancient “Chinese” history that has failed to emphasize any role played by “the masses.”) As half-serious examples, Han Wudi never had occasion, nor, presumably, would have felt the need, to go on TV and warn the Zhang Sans and Li Sis of the state “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the barbarians.” The option to go online and discuss personal perceptions of history with people from all over the world was similarly unavailable to the common people, or anybody else at the time. Things change, everywhere and constantly, and this leads us to new understandings of the world and our place in it. It’s been argued on this thread that something comparable to a ‘national identity’ existed prior to the 1800’s, but what that concept entails, and how it applies to the broad social spectrum, is subject to change given a variety of historical developments.
Feel free to explain these changes as the results of technological advances, the inevitable development of economic factors, cultural imperialism and the invasion of ‘foreign ideas,’ what have you, but many scholars argue that part of the shift that has led towards an emphasis on the role of the people has included a re-evaluation of the way a state is defined. The argument, simplified, is that ancient empires tended to be ‘center-based,’ that is, defined and understood at the time AS the Emperor and the court, while today we tend to believe a state should be understood as what’s inside its borders. (As a tangible example, on another post wuTao and Liang Jieming are raising points implying that the Great Wall may never have been viewed as the ‘border’ that we tend to assume it was today- it sure isn’t much of a border now) Since today these borders include lots of people who have more time on their hands, more access to information than ever before, and whose opinions suddenly matter, we’ve picked up the twin notions of nationalism and racism, beliefs in kinds of genealogical bonds of common heritage, and have imagined ourselves into a number of creatively-delineated communities in order to maintain the coherence of our modern states, and of course, the legitimacy of our governments.
It can possibly be argued that the PRC is currently somewhere in the middle of this transition, which is part of the reason why the government feels it can make claims and additions to ‘its history’ that seem absolutely ridiculous to ‘the rest of the world.’ While it’s standard practice to point the blame for the fact that citizens of the PRC currently have very little ‘freedom’ to examine their roles as part of the nation on the more ‘modern ideology’ of the fascist police state (the ability of the people to have the kind of discussions we have here is, put politely, still in its infancy), there may be something far more specific to the current ‘stage’ of the ‘Chinese’ historical experience at work here.
Here’s what I mean: as opposed to the (obviously indefensible) myths of ‘ethnic purity’ officially backed by a number of states historically influenced by ‘China’ --myths created under the pressure of modern nationalisms in an effort to define themselves as ‘not Chinese’ and based on erroneous perceptions of ‘relative homogeneity’-- there is zero case to be made for an unbroken ‘ethnic’ continuity, ‘Han’ or otherwise, in the history of ‘China.’ It is also impossible to argue that a unified political entity has been maintained throughout the entirety of the up to 5,000 years of “Chinese history.” What has existed, though, is a concept of correct governance, of states legitimatized by adherence to ideals that, applied in the right manner, draw the support of the ‘Mandate of Heaven,’ and (this is key) the various civilizations that have developed when states attempted to put these guidelines and historical precedents into practice. Most importantly, these ideas and others have been canonized into a huge number of texts, leading to the extraordinarily lofty position of what is possibly the single most unifying and relatively stable current in “Chinese history”- the written word. When the last few centuries moved in with their enormous social and technological transformations, as well as the total rewrite of ‘Chinese civilization’s’ place in this world, the ‘Han’ as an ethnicity was created as a reaction to the political environment to refer to the people in the more stable parts of the empire and to unify them as the carriers of the various permutations of ‘Chinese civilization.’ As mentioned in many other posts, the term has been used throughout history in a similar -but much more ‘immediately political-’ way, and one of the main differences in the modern usage is that this civilization and these social institutions are now supposedly carried on the chromosomal level.
Since today ‘ethnicity,’ ‘identity,’ ‘cultural heritage,’ ‘race,’ ‘the nation,’ etc, are such crucial concepts for our understanding of the world and ourselves, it is often very difficult for us to conceive of how newly invented these ideas are. A good place to start might be with the realization that ‘Sinification’ was probably a process in which the leaders of independent political entities chose to act within the well-established and influential frameworks we now associate with ‘Chinese civilization,’ which would first and foremost require the adoption of Chinese writing; as opposed to the very different idea of ‘acting like the Han people,’ which was most likely unconceivable at the time.
Otherwise, and the fact that this question is rarely asked and may even come off as completely unthinkable just goes to illustrate the relative uniqueness of the concept of historical ‘China’ among the other modern states, as well as its necessarily ‘multidimensional’ character- but what exactly is the justification for the common understanding that the PRC (which is slightly older than my mother) is entitled to the territory administered by the Tang Empire (618-907)? Or more relevant to the discussion given today’s terms, what connects the PRC to the Qing? Anywhere else on earth, the ‘Jurchen conquest’ of the Ming would most likely be viewed as a signal of the end of one state and the birth of another, but most dominant earlier readings of the ‘Chinese’ historical experience, having absolutely no ‘ethnic’ character, had very little difficulty fitting this ‘Manchu interregnum’ into the narrative.
An interesting effect of the ‘Han = China’ theory is that it takes the above, considerably smoother narrative of ‘Chinese History’ understood as interpretations of an idealized civilization, and smashes it up into total chaos, and by denying ‘real Chineseness’ to the ‘non-Han,’ the ‘Han’ themselves apparently get the short end of huge chunks of ‘their’ history. ‘Chinese Civilization’ is an enormously important part of the human experience that continues to have great ramifications and influence all across the world to this day. Like all nationalist projects, handing this history off to the ‘Han ethnicity’ for safekeeping is a new and temporary thing. Now we get to see how much longer this will last.