“The Invention of China” by Bill Hayton

Map of China, Harbin 1932 (Library of Congress) Map of China, Harbin 1932 (Library of Congress)

When confronted with the now oft-cited statement that China has 5000 years of history or civilization, it is worth keeping in mind Heraclitus’s dictum that “You cannot step twice into the same river.” Or, as one of Bill Hayton’s interlocutors puts it in the introduction to The Invention of China, “It depends what you mean by China.”

Hayton argues in his new book that China, the country we know today—a nation with borders, citizens and national interests—is a relatively recent concept, dating from a period straddling the turn of the 20th century. Prior to that, China was not—and did not consider itself—a “country” but rather the “Qing Great-State” or Qinq Da Guo; the notion of (and name for) the “Chinese people” is of similar vintage. The Invention of China relates these developments in considerable—yet very readable—factual and analytical detail. It may not throw up many surprises to those who have already read of the development of Putonghua, the struggle to modernize in the late Qing in the face of Western pressure, the evolution of China’s modern borders or the results of Asian adoption of European-derived notions of sovereignty: the difference, and import, is in the framing. Hayton writes that


China today behaves the way that it does largely because of choices made a century ago by intellectuals and activists …


the operative term being “choices”. However interesting and informative The Invention of China may be—and it is—the book’s actual argument turns on this phrase.


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

Hayton is at pains to point out that China’s transformation from empire to nation-state was not unique:


The process through which the old Qing Empire evolved into modern China was paralleled only [a] few years later by the Ottoman Empire’s transition into Turkey.


He might have added the slower, and some ways still incomplete, evolution of modern Russia from its imperial predecessor. Indeed, he goes on:


Every modern ‘nation-state’ – Germany, Turkey, Italy and Britain, to name just a few – has gone through this process.


Hayton nevertheless portrays the process as it played out in China as particular to China:


When we look at China now we see, in effect, the victory of a small group of people who, around a century ago, created new ideas about the nature of society and politics and persuaded the rest of the country – and the wider world – to believe them. These ideas were a chaotic fusion of modern, Western conceptions of states, nations, territories and boundaries and ostensibly traditional notions about history, geography and the rightful order of societies.


One could read the The Invention of China as intellectual history, but Hayton presents it also as explanation of contemporary China:


We cannot understand the present-day problems of the South China Sea, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and ultimately China itself, without understanding how this modernising vision came to be adopted by the country’s elite…


There are other ways one might go about trying to understand these “present-day problems”. Michael Schuman, in Superpower Interrupted, for example suggests that “China was a superpower for almost all of its history, and it wants to be a superpower again”, a framing not altogether compatible with Hayton’s outline, which includes:


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.


That’s a bit like arguing that post-1066 England was really part of Normandy. One can make the case, but it seems ahistorical. Schuman on the other hand describes an enduring sense of at least cultural continuity (what one might somewhat unrigorously call “Chineseness”) that persisted from dynasty through dynasty.

More significantly, in the use of the words “choices” and “invention”, Hayton implies that a different China had been possible; yet it is hard to see what else the “intellectuals and activists” he cites could have come up with. In a world consisting of nation-states, a polity that eschews strictly-defined sovereignty and borders will find others defining these for it. A determination to


to incorporate every scrap of territory, every rock and reef, within the homeland’s ‘sacred’ national border


seems natural: anything left unclaimed will be claimed by others. Sometimes the “national border”, sacred or otherwise, appears to have little to do with it, Palmyra Atoll (the US), Clipperton Island (France) and the Chagos Archipelago (Britain) being cases in point.

If China, furthermore, were the result of “choices”, then the outcomes would presumably be specific to it. Yet many nation-states, even so-called “immigrant countries” like the United States and Australia, have had problems—like those Hayton gives for China—reconciling diversity in ethnicity, language and, in some cases, religion with the centralizing tendencies of a unitary state. So while Hayton takes China to task for its promotion (or imposition) of Putonghua, try passing an Act of Congress in Spanish, to say nothing of Navaho. Cantonese or Hakka may at some future point go the way of Breton or Veneto, but so far have not; China has on the whole been less efficient at delegitimizing and stamping out languages and dialects than Europe has.

Occam’s razor, as well as traditional international relations theory, would suggest that China makes its decisions based not on intellectual developments of a century or so ago, but rather on current exigencies. China is a large country with large countries’ interests; if that isn’t sufficient to “understand the present-day problems”, Hayton never quite explains why not. That should not, however, deter readers from the book: The Invention of China covers a lot of ground in a clear and readable fashion and rightly calls much conventional wisdom and phrasing into question.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.