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?