Keynote speaker

Why talk about “What is China” today?

Ge Zhaoguang 葛兆光, Fudan University (Shanghai)


  1. Problematizing “China”

Ten years ago in 2011, I published a book entitled Here in China I Dwell: Reconstructing Historical Narratives of “China” (Zhai zi Zhongguo: chongjian youguan “Zhongguo” de lishi lunshu 宅兹中国——重建有关“中国”的历史论述). Following the publication of this work, many Chinese scholars began discussing the concept of “China” and how to define it, which in turn led to the appearance of a significant number of related studies. In 2014, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University organized a conference entitled “Unpacking China” devoted to addressing some of the issues raised by my book What is China? Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, and History (He wei Zhongguo? Jiangyu, zuqun, wenhua yu lishi  何为中国:疆域、族群、文化与历史). In 2015, a similar symposium was held in Hong Kong. In 2016, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences also organized an academic event surrounding the question “What is China?”

It would seem that there are basically three main questions which always reappear throughout these different discussions: 1) firstly, there is the question as to whether or not the emergence of the modern Chinese nation-state followed an exceptional path, that is to say, whether this process involved a complete transformation of a traditional empire into a modern nation-state, or, alternatively, was grounded in a different logic. 2) Secondly, there is the question concerning the condition of different ethnic groups within mainland China and the way in which the Chinese government has dealt with the problem of ethnicity. 3) Thirdly, there is the recurring question concerning the specific characteristics of China as a modern nation-state and how the latter should position itself within the international geopolitical order as well as vis-à-vis its neighboring states.


  1. Why did “China” become a problematic concept?

Why did the Chinese scholarly world become preoccupied with these questions? In my view, an important factor to take into account here is the steady rise of China as a geopolitical power in recent years. While China may have moved to the center of global attention, it remains uncertain of its own identity and of how to adapt to the international order and manage its domestic affairs. China clearly faces a significant number of problems in this respect. I am thinking here of the disputes with South Korea and North Korea concerning the “Northeast Project” of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2002-2007), the problems in Xinjiang since the 1990s, the Tibet question, issues related to Inner Mongolia and the Republic of Mongolia, border disputes with India, the disputes with Japan concerning the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands and the oil and gas fields in the East China Sea, and the conflicts between China and the Philippines, Vietnam, as well as other countries in the South China Sea. Needless to say, there is also the problem of Taiwan, Hong Kong, as well as many different issues surrounding ethnic identity and integration in the People’s Republic itself. These issues extend from China’s domestic territory to is peripheries and international borders and involve questions of ethnicity, territory, religion, nationhood, and identity.

Where do all of these problems come from? I believe historians have a certain role to play in the debates surrounding these issues by retracing their historical origins. I often say that historians are like doctors skilled at making diagnoses: even though they may not be able to perform surgery or write out prescriptions, they can still tell us where certain problems come from. That is why during the past two decades, historians such as myself have been consistently preoccupied with thinking through the problem of how China should redefine itself, position itself within the international order, and conceive of the relation between its “inner” and “outer” dimensions. Whereas Chinese historians used to be quite indifferent to these issues, we have no choice today but to address the five crucial problems of territory, ethnicity (zuqun 族群) (or “nationality”, minzu 民族), religion (as well as “belief”, xinyang 信仰), nationhood (guojia 国家) (the transition from “empire” to “nation-state”), and identity (political, institutional, ethnic, and cultural identity). Put together, these five key terms bring us back to the question: what is China?

In my view, there are three reasons why the type of historical inquiry I am describing here is important and meaningful: 1) lacking the necessary understanding of the changing relations between the “inner” and “outer” throughout Chinese history, we are stuck with the stubborn and extremely narrow-minded idea that “China’s territory has been the way it is now since time immemorial”. 2) If we fail to clarify and explain the changes in the relation between China’s “inside” and “outside” in carrying out historical research, we will be left with a preconceived notion of the relation between “center” and “periphery”. In clinging to such a fixed notion of what the “center” is, there is the risk of overlooking the fact that certain ethnic groups, regions, and religions were, historically speaking, not peripheral at all. 3) If we do not properly explain the changes between “inner” and “outer” throughout Chinese history, we risk ending up with an extremely confused picture in which large portions of the histories of foreign states come to be seen as part of the history of the Chinese as a people (minzu), while, conversely, parts of China’s own history are placed in the category of the history of Sino-foreign relations.


  1. “Inner” and “outer” throughout Chinese history

What I want to show in this part of my talk is the fact that relation between “inner” and “outer” has been subject to constant change throughout Chinese history. First of all, we should note that over time, certain regions have changed from an “external” to an “internal” position, that is to say, went from being “non-Chinese” to being part of China. For example, during the Qin (221-206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) dynasties, the Great Wall served as a clear line of demarcation separating China from the outside world. In the History of the Former Han (Hanshu 漢書) for instance, we read: “To expel and drive back the Rong and Di, long defensive walls were constructed, demarcating the boundaries of the Middle Kingdom” (攘卻戎狄,築長城,界中國) (Hanshu, Xiyu zhuan 西域傳, 96A). Put differently, during this time, what lay beyond the Great Wall was non-Chinese. By contrast, nowadays we are all familiar with the famous lines “Long is the Great Wall, on both sides is our home” from the popular song by Dong Wenhua 董文华, which suggest that China can now be found on either side of the Great Wall. This already goes to show that throughout a long historical process, different foreign regions became part of China, while some foreign ethnic groups became part of, or were even fused with, the Han Chinese people.

A clear example of this last phenomenon is the southward movement of nomadic peoples entering the “Central Plain” (zhongyuan 中原) throughout Chinese history, which often led to them being influenced by Chinese culture, or – as it is usually referred to- “Sinicized” (hanhua 汉化). However, the Han Chinese were in turn influenced by these peoples as well, thus becoming, so to speak, “barbarized” (huhua 胡化) in the process. Moreover, a significant amount of Han Chinese moved further south in response to the migration of these nomadic peoples, which led to the gradual Sinicization of previously undeveloped regions in southern China. At the same time, Han migrants were influenced by the original inhabitants in the South, thus being “indigenized” (manhua 蛮化) themselves. These interrelated processes of “Sinicization”, “barbarization”, and “indigenization” continuously redefined the cultural and geographical contours of “China”.

All of this should be pretty familiar. As is well-known, many of China’s famous historical figures were not Han Chinese. The Tang-dynasty (618-907) poets Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846), Liu Yuxi 刘禹锡 (772-842), and Yuan Zhen 元稹 (779-832) for example, were Xianbei. Bai Juyi’s ancestors might not have been Han at all, and Liu Yuxi was of Xiongnu descent. To give another example, the renowned Song-dynasty (1960-1279) calligrapher Mi Fu米芾 (1051-1107) may have been of Central Asian – more precisely Sogdian – origin, having descended from the Mi 米 people as one of the so-called “Nine Tribes of Zhaowu”. After settling in the Central Plain, many Indians, Sogdians, and Persians effectively fused with traditional Chinese culture. That is why certain foreign territories gradually became part of China.

In the formation of modern China, a crucial role was played by the Qing empire (1644-1911). During the Qing period, the scope of “China”, which had previously coincided with the fifteen Han-dominated provinces of the former Ming (1368-1644) territory, sometimes referred to as “China proper”, began to expand step by step. It came to include Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet under the administration of the Lifan yuan 理藩院 (“Board for the Administration of Outlying Regions”) and placed the Manchurian heartland in the northeast (the present-day provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning) under the control of the Shengjing 盛京 military governor. The eighteen provinces in which the Han population had traditionally been dominant were administrated by the Six Ministries (liu bu 六部) of the central imperial government. As a result of the military success of the “Ten Great Campaigns” launched during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96) and the policy of “replacing local chieftains with mainstream administration” (gaitu guiliu 改土归流), many areas which had previously not been considered as part of China came to be integrated into the Qing empire. This goes to show that Chinese history bears witness to a continuous and ever-changing transformation of the “outer” into the “inner”.

There is, however, another side to the story as well, namely the fact that areas which had originally been part of China became foreign territory, the most famous examples being Vietnam (Annam) and Korea. As a matter of fact, while the Han dynasty already saw the establishment of the  “Four Commanderies” (si jun 四郡) in Korea, the latter would gradually become an independent foreign country. Starting from the Northern Song period (960-1127) period, Annam too became more and more independent. Although imperial control already extended to the middle of Annam during the Qin and Han dynasties, Annam still ended up being a foreign state. Another clear example we can cite here is that of Yunnan, which had been under central control from very early an remained so until the Tang dynasty. From the Song period onward, however, Yunnan ceased being part of the Chinese territory, until it was eventually reincorporated during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). While this makes it clear that certain areas which had originally been part of China also became foreign states, we should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that these areas are either by definition “foreign” or immutably “Chinese”. The regions around the Lake Balkhash, Lake Issyk-Kul, and Lake Zaysan, which were incorporated into the massive territory governed by the Qing empire, are now respectively part of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The famous island of Sakhalin (annexed by the Qing in the late 17th century), also known as Karafuto in Japanese, is now part of Russia, but also belonged to Japan for a while. Similarly, the region of Tannu Uriankha in northwest Mongolia has long since ceased to be part of China. As such, we have to recognize that the boundaries between the “inner” and “outer” have always been shifting throughout Chinese history, both in its traditional period as an empire with “frontiers” instead of fixed borders as well as during the modern era of sovereign nation-states with bounded territories.

In sum, ancient China gradually expanded to include hitherto peripheral regions in the period from the Qin and Han through to the Sui (581-618) and Tang dynasties. Wars, migrations, the development of trade relations, and other factors led to foreign areas becoming part of China and different ethnic groups merging with Chinese civilization, thus giving rise to a huge empire which saw itself as coinciding with “All under Heaven” (tianxia 天下). That said, looking back on China’s thousands of years of history, we cannot fail to notice that the territory of the empire was sometimes also reduced, so that areas which had originally been part of the Chinese territory became foreign states. There is no reason for us to consider the Chinese territory at the height of imperial expansion as coinciding with China’s necessary boundaries. Historians would do well to refrain from looking at history through the lens of the present and to avoid describing historical China on the basis of China’s current boundaries.


  1. China’s unique transformation into a modern nation-state

This brings me to the final question I would like to address in my talk: what, in the end, is China? Seeing the many changes in its “inner” and “outer” dimensions, can we still identify a stable ethnic makeup and core cultural area that is specifically Chinese? In my view, the answer is yes: China is not merely an “imagined community”. Why not? Simply because ever since the Qin and Han periods, a cultural China has continuously existed, specifically within the core areas of the Chinese territory. As such, we do not have to rush to try and  “save history from the nation”, but rather try to arrive at a historical understanding of China.

While the boundaries between China’s “inner” and “outer” were constantly shifting, we do have to remember the following facts: 1) the central area of China, as dominated by the Han ethnic group, displayed a considerable political, cultural, and social uniformity. For over 2000 years, this community persistently maintained a consistent worldview, historical narrative, and collective identity. 2) Since the Qin and Han periods, China as a central cultural and political area mainly derived its continuity from a unified system consisting of certain political institutions (the centralized system of prefectures and counties, junxian 郡县), a common culture (the integration of Confucianism and Legalism), and a specific social structure (centered around the class of literati, shishen 士绅), thus resulting in a structurally stable society with a similar culture and historical memory. The continuity and longevity of this system can be traced back to the unifying measures – the shared script, shared transportation networks, and shared social relations – imposed by the Qin and Han dynasties, which gave rise to a centralized form of government exercised through the supreme authority of the emperor. 3) We have to recognize that the Han ethnic group as it exists today is the result of intermingling and fusion and that present-day China was formed through a dynamic process of expansion and contraction. We also have to come to terms with the fact that China used to be an empire, one which had its own colonies and considered itself to be in possession of a universal civilization. In the modern era, Chinese civilization came to be replaced by what was once too a local culture, namely that of Europe, and was thus forced to fundamentally reorient itself.

That said, in the transition to a modern nation-state, China did not shed all of its traditional imperial traits. The reasons for this are quite straightforward. First of all, China’s traditional view of itself as a “Celestial Empire” at the center of the tribute system and as coinciding with “All under Heaven” survived this transition. The Chinese nation-state inherited the imperial ideal of safeguarding its “great unity”. Secondly, the humiliating experiences of modern history caused China to remain intent on rising up and turning the tables on its competitors, instead of simply accepting or going along with a new international order perceived as being the result of “foreign aggression”, “colonialism” and “imperialism”. Thirdly, the political system and values we find in modern China are incompatible with the international order and system of norms originating in Europe and America. That is why I wrote in Here in China I Dwell: “Theoretically separating the traditional imperial system from the modern nation-state not only fails to offer us with an adequate picture of Chinese history, but also does not suit the Chinese form of national consciousness and the history of the formation of the Chinese nation.” The traditional vision of China as an empire already contained within it the concept of a bounded nation-state. At the same time, the image of China as a boundless empire was also preserved within the idea of a limited state. In the transformation of China from an empire to a modern nation-state, the traditional imperial self-image was still preserved.

Buy why, one may ask, should we devote so much attention to the issues I have been discussing in this talk? For the following reasons:

  • In order to offer a response to certain debates between Chinese historians. Because modern Chinese intellectual history has been characterized by a persistent anxiety over the crises faced by the Chinese nation and the Chinese people and a continuous attempt to defend the legitimacy of China as a unified and indivisible nation, patriotism and a concern over national unity have become one of the principal tasks in the study of history. However, Chinese historians have tended to loose sight of the following three problems: firstly, China as a “unity in diversity” counts as a modern normative ideal rather than as a historical reality. Historically speaking, the Chinese people and Chinese culture have been extremely diverse and have not reached a state of integration and unity quite yet. Unity is something we are pursuing, or, put differently, has been historically pursued. Secondly, Chinese historians have usually described China’s history as a unidirectional process geared toward unification, thus neglecting the fact that certain parts of the Chinese territory became foreign states over time. This has led to a considerable backlash from and conflicts with scholars in neighboring states such as Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. At times, the notion of “minority nationalities” (shaoshu minzu 少数民族) is used rather indiscriminately and ignores the fact that some of the groups and peoples may have not considered themselves as “minorities” at a certain point in history, which implies that it might be more accurate to conceive of their relation to China at that time in interstate terms. Thirdly, because many historians still suffer from Han chauvinism and tend to conceive of the Han as being at the center of things, we are inclined to call frontier regions “peripheral”. But what do we mean by “peripheral”? Doesn’t this simply mean “far away from Beijing”? If we call a certain area “peripheral”, we always do so relative to the central area of China’s inner provinces. We have to be mindful of these things.
  • In order to offer a response to certain political developments. As we all know, many Chinese historians tend to overuse the phrase “ever since ancient times” in defending the legitimacy of the current political regime and the inviolability of the territory of the contemporary Chinese state, thus neglecting the difference between past and present-day borders. In all too often appealing to the notion of a “unified Chinese people”, historians risk overlooking the particular histories of different ethnic groups. In constantly invoking the nation, they tend to blur the distinction between government and nation altogether. Why discuss the whole problem of “what China is”? Perhaps one of the main goals in asking this question is to explain the differences between historical and present-day China, to clarify what China is as a state and as a culture, and how we should understand the Chinese government in a political sense. We have to make sure we make the right distinctions.
  • As a response to some of the theoretical issues raised by the international scholarly community. Many different developments are taking place here, with scholars debating novel issues such as “global history”, “Asian history”, postmodernism, postcolonialism, “imagined communities”, constructivist approaches to nationalism, and new concepts of national identity. I am also thinking here of the challenges posed by revisionist studies of the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the “New Qing history”. In my view, Chinese scholars have the obligation to offer a rational response to these related issues, which are all tied up with the question “what is China?”


  1. Concluding remarks

I would like to finish with some concluding remarks. Firstly, it is clear that China was formed through a historical process in which its boundaries were constantly shifting. As such, we should not distort history by pretending as if the territories and ethnic groups falling within the boundaries of present-day China were always Chinese. Secondly, we also have to recognize that the Qin and Han periods already saw the formation of a central political and cultural area as well as the emergence of a Han cultural tradition, which involved the idea of a distinction between “Chinese and barbarian” (huayi 华夷), a certain conception of China’s “inner” and “outer” regions, and a particular notion of being Chinese. Thirdly, China itself is the product of constant intermingling and its history is marked by interrelated processes of “barbarization”, “Sinicization”, and “indigenization”, with new layers of complexity constantly being added and solidified in the southward expansion of Chinese culture in response to the migration of other peoples. Fourthly, the China and Chinese people of today took shape in a complex history extending from the Song to the Qing dynasties. This history was essentially a twofold process, involving both a transition from China as “All under Heaven” to one nation-state among others as well as preservation of the traditional imperial conception of Chinese civilization constantly absorbing the “four barbarians” into its territory. As a result, modern China can be seen as a unique combination of the external form of the modern nation-state with a traditional conception of “universal empire”. Finally, this combination of modern nation-state and traditional empire is one of the reasons behind the complexity of contemporary China. China has been faced with many domestic as well as external difficulties in confronting the current international order, which took shape within the framework of sovereign nation-states that grew out of the Peace of Westphalia. The question as to how China can successfully deal with these thorny problems is something we have to continue to try and think through.


(translated by Ady Van den Stock)