Opinion: A Review of Bill Hayton’s latest book, “Invention of China”

Opinion: A Review of Bill Hayton’s latest book, “Invention of China”
Chinese Flags” by Fuzzy Gerdes is licensed under the creative commons license.

An in-depth review of Bill Hayton’s latest book, “Invention of China” stands out as an accessible and expertly crafted examination of the origin of modern Chinese political thought. 

In his latest book, BBC journalist and Chatham House Fellow Bill Hayton demonstrates how commonly held beliefs in China, such as territory and national identity, were largely fabricated by late Qing era nationalists. Hayton provides the antithesis to Kang Youwei’s concept of “datong” which describes “Zhonghu” as a primordial unified state, where separation is transient and anomalous (for reference see page 107). Hayton argues that in response to the collapse of the Qing empire, Youwei, along with Sun Yat-sen, Jingwei, and Chiang Kai-shek developed and amplified a nationalist interpretation of Chinese history – later inherited and adapted by the ROC and PRC – that still persists today.

The Extent of China’s “Natural” Borders

Hayton effectively uses evidence to show that the region known today as “China” was likely settled by diverse people from various parts of Asia to create a tapestry of languages and cultures. Just as the British Isles were influenced by a multitude of events, such as the arrival of Celtic tribes, the Roman conquest, and Norman invasions, China was settled by peoples from Southeastern Asia, and conquered by peoples of Inner Asia. The diversity of China’s history explains why there is no single Chinese language, no unified ethnicity, and no clearly delineated historic borders. While Hayton explains that every state is “invented” to some extent, he believes that China’s national history as taught today is unique in its unquestioned adherence and its implications for justifying territorial aggrandizement.

Despite the diverse historic origins of the Chinese polity, Hayton argues that nationalist rulers in the 20th century, of both the Republic of China (1912-1949) and the People’s Republic of China (1949-present), gained legitimacy by painting China as a civilizational state with ancient and sacred boundaries. This type of historical revisionism is best encapsulated in a Liang quote that Hayton references: “the writing of history… the source of patriotism…without revolutionary interpretation [Chinese history is] merely a unique, comprehensive list of people beheading one another” (page 131). Hayton argues that revolutionary-era revisionist scholars like Liang played down the historical effect of dynastic changes which often resulted in shifting borders. A non-partisan understanding of history is complex, nuanced, and disunified, which is why the reformers of the late Qing period simplified history to promote nationalist goals that could fit on a pamphlet.

Hayton shows the power of history by citing modern-day examples of public outrage and nationalist fervor stemming from the revisionist portrayal of the past. The anger and subsequent boycott of the clothing brand Gap is a particularly poignant example. The issue stemmed from a seemingly innocent mistake of omitting Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea from a T-shirt shown below. The state-operated China Daily insinuated that this was an intentional attack on China’s sovereignty despite Gap promptly apologizing to the Chinese public, recalling the shirt, and “destroying” all of the product.

Source: “The Gap Apologizes For Shirts Showing Map Of China Without Disputed Territories,” Wbur

Hayton echoes the work of Gregory Moore in arguing that China’s preoccupation with Taiwan is not merely due to geostrategic or economic concerns. Instead, China has a sacred commitment to restoring public dignity –  lost during the Century of Humiliation –  through reunification with Taiwan. Hayton points out that Taiwan had only been incorporated as a province for 10 years when it was ceded to Japan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Hayton says, “the island was known by the Qing court as a dangerous frontier, notable mainly for its wild aborigines and deadly diseases (page 238).” Despite the historical indifference that the Chinese public felt towards the island, today, Hayton argues, Taiwan is a representation of the failure of Chinese reunification and a lack of face (mianzi).

The claim with the weakest historical evidence that Hayton highlights is the origin of the nine-dash-line in the South China Sea. While Taiwan is a majority Han ethnic state, giving the CCP some legitimacy in its claim to unify the Chinese people, the uninhabited islands in the South China Sea are largely based on 19th century maps drawn up by British explorers. Hayton describes the emotional connection fostered in Chinese children through claiming the James Shoal – a sandbank 22 meters below the sea and 1800 kilometers from mainland China – as a wayward island of the motherland. According to Hayton, the claims that came to constitute the nine-dash line were created by the ROC in 1946 and relied on a mistaken translation that did not distinguish “shoal” from “island.” The PRC inherited the claim that the ROC concocted and has argued that these lines are based on historic precedence dating back to the era of Zheng He in the 15th century. This claim is incongruent with the fact that many of the reefs, rocks, and islands that form the nine-dash line had not been discovered until the 19th century.

nine dash line

Source: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. “The area which is claimed under China’s nine dashed line.” By: Keanehm

Chinese Mythology in Context

While Hayton makes a persuasive argument that the Qing Court had a significant Manchu influence, he discounts the Han impact within the empire. Hayton states that, “China was, in effect, a colony of an inner Asian Empire… East Asia was just one part of its domain” (page 20). While accurate in reference to the formation of the Qing state in the mid 17th century, this statement would be inaccurate to describe the entirety of the nearly 300-year Qing rule. Hayton is engaging in the very activity that he criticizes: describing history as a monolithic tale. Hayton neglects to mention that the vast majority of the civil service was Han. Moreover, the Han dominated the most populous regions of China and there were never five equal “constituencies.” While there may have not been a seamless transition between Ming and Qing empires, it is erroneous to refer to the empire as merely Manchu, especially once Qing moved its capital from the Manchu city of Mukden to the majority Han city of Beijing.

Hayton’s use of modern examples grabs the reader’s attention, but it can also create false causation between the events in the late Qing era and present day PRC rule. The main issue with Hayton’s narrow focus on two historical periods is that the narrative glosses over nearly a century of history, including Mao’s cultural revolution which attempted to change Chinese historical education (albeit with some nationalistic commonalities with the Qing reformers). While it may not be possible to qualify every statement with additional historical context, perhaps the fundamental issue with the book is that it attempts to address too large of a subject. There is enough evidence to write an entire book on any single chapter in Hayton’s book. Nonetheless, Hayton’s survey highlights the importance of late Qing era political thought to the broader public. Hayton’s book serves as a foundational text for those seeking to understand how Chinese history has been shaped to fit modern political goals.

 Hayton’s book can be found on his website to buy, along with his various other works here

Categories: China, Debate Corner, Politics

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