What We Talk About When We Talk About China5 min read

Kyle Shernuk reviews Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China 

What does it mean to be American? If the 2020 presidential election and storming of the US Capitol made nothing else clear, it was that there are competing internal visions for what America was, is, and should be. That American identity is subject to change and can mean more than one thing at any given time makes it a slippery issue to discuss. It is also, arguably, a defining feature of (the myth of) America that we have the privilege to debate this with relative openness, even and especially when tensions run high.

Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China tells an analogous story about China, and what it means to be “Chinese.” The stakes of engaging in such discussions in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, are higher than in the US. The consequences of highlighting the malleability of the concept of “China” – which can be seen by the state as a form of splittism – can range from both online and physical harassment to incarceration or even being “disappeared” entirely. This notable contrast leads Hayton to raise a question that is critical for understanding modern China: Why are the definitions of China and Chineseness such sensitive issues in the PRC today?

Hayton contextualizes the official PRC positions on what “China” is in their relevant political, cultural and intellectual histories. Drawing on a wide range of journalism and scholarly research, he traces contemporary political flashpoints in China – sovereignty, territory, race, language – to their modern origins in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In so doing, he argues that the country, language, people and culture that we now call “Chinese” were artificially constructed – or invented – by intellectuals and political figures barely more than a hundred years ago.

The book begins by reprising largely well-known facts regarding the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China (ROC), the details of which he draws from a range of scholarly sources. Rather than an original study, Hayton clarifies that his book is a “work of synthesis” intended to bring into the open scholarship that has “languish[ed] in libraries and specialist academic seminars.” While I would like to think that the academy is not as insular as Hayton suggests, the point is well taken. At a time when popular narratives regarding the ‘rise’ of China are setting world powers on a collision course, it is crucial to make as much knowledge about China’s history, culture, literature and politics accessible to the public as possible. By drawing attention to the shifting borders, ethnic groups, languages and political entities that have occupied the geographic space now claimed by the PRC, Hayton gives a convincing argument about why China is not the 5,000-year, unbroken tradition it is often claimed to be.

Hayton argues that what we now call “China” was artificially constructed by intellectuals and political figures barely more than a hundred years ago”

It is perhaps owing to the synthetic nature of his work, however, that The Invention of China only partially succeeds. There is no doubt that Hayton introduces some of the most important figures in modern Chinese history (Zeng Guofan, Huang Zunxian, Li Hongzhang, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Zhang Taiyan) and that the broad arcs of the stories he tells will help readers learn more about how modern “China” came to be. Yet, if a reader with no prior knowledge of China’s history and current affairs picks up this book with the hope of finding a general introduction, they will be disappointed. For those unfamiliar with Chinese names, Hayton’s inconsistent use of multiple names for the same individual (such as Zhang Binglin/Zhang Taiyan in Chapter One and Yixin/Prince Gong in Chapter Two) will be confusing. Knowledge about recent events is also necessary, with oblique references to the issue of “separatist feeling in Tibet and Xinjiang,” but scant or only very belated explanations of the issues to which he is referring. As a result, the book’s intended audience is unclear, not quite suitable for either the general reader or the China specialist.

On the whole, The Invention of China is an incomplete but admirable endeavor. While it accurately rehearses important moments and movements in Chinese history, it fails in its attempt to draw direct and causal relationships to China’s present. If the book had focused more narrowly on unpacking specific contemporary political debacles, like he does in the chapter regarding the South China Seas maritime dispute, it would have been significantly more effective. Conversely, a broader discussion of key issues could have been equally effective if not forcibly tethered to current affairs. The consequence of Hayton’s attempt to find a middle ground is that his personal interpretations often distort otherwise correct facts (such as his reductive reading of tianxia, China’s empire of “all under heaven,” as the basis for all contemporary sovereignty concerns or his assertion that the Qing Manchu banner system served as the origin for a “race-based revolution”) in order to claim them as moments of modern China’s “invention.”

To be fair, Hayton set himself a monumental task: to explain the invention of modern China in a single book. And in this regard, he rose to the occasion. He made difficult choices about what content to include and exclude, which historical figures to introduce and omit, and ultimately provides readers with a solid, if selective, history of what it has meant and means “to be Chinese” in the long twentieth century. ∎

Bill Hayton, The Invention of China (Yale University Press, Nov 2020).