Ethnicity, Assimilation & the Chinese Nation-State

A review of Ethnicity and Sinicization: The Theory of Assimilative Power in the Making of the Chinese Nation-State (1900s–1920s), by Julia Schneider. 

This dissertation discusses one of the most intriguing issues in twentieth-century China, namely the relation between ethnicity, nation and state. It has long been argued that China changed from an empire to a nation-state and in this process adapted to the new norm of nationhood that had been imported from Europe (and partly from Japan). Julia Schneider shows, however, that this transformation was a more complex one than usually assumed. While the issue of ethnicity has been an intensely debated subject in the history of both late imperial China (Millward, Crossley, Elliott) and Republican and People’s Republican period (Mullaney, Leibold), it has exactly the transformative period ranging from the 1900s to the 1920s that has still lacked sufficient attention.

By drawing on the writings of the three most central scholars that have experienced the transformation of China from empire to a nation-state, namely Liang Qichao, Zhang Taiyan and Liu Shipei, and by analyzing the representation of non-Han ethnicities in Modern Academic History writing in the 1920s, Julia Schneider presents a broad conceptual history of terms like assimilation, fusion, and mixing of races-ethnicities in late Imperial and early Republican texts.

She poses the question how the theory of a Han Chinese “assimilative power” – considering that it rests on an assumed ethnical and cultural superiority of the Han Chinese – can account for the inclusion of Non-Han regions and people into a nation-state, and how the Chinese Communist Party has “inherited and recolonized” the Manchu Qing geobody. Her focus rests on the use and transformation of the assimilation theory in the field of historiography, which has both been in the Republican and People’s Republican period a major concern for the ruling parties to legitimize and rationalize rule over a multiethnic polity.

The first chapter starts with Schneider’s thorough discussion of Chinese nationalism since the late nineteenth century when China became acquainted with the European political order of the nation-state that soon gained popularity among Chinese intellectuals such as the mentioned Liang Qichao, Zhang Taiyan and Liu Shipei. When discussing nationalism and the fate of the Chinese nation in their writings, these scholars inevitably all faced the problem who should be included into the nation, and who not. It is central to her following discussion that she considers the historian to play the decisive role in formulating discourses of nationalism. Following the introduction of discourse theory into the discipline of historiography in the decades since the 1970s, the historians became the creator of nationalism, and this conclusion, Schneider argues, is also valid for the case of China. In their imagination of the Chinese nation, however, the important driving force were rather internal factors (i.e. the conflict between Han and Manchus in the late imperial era) than the Western impact that has since long been focus of studies on Chinese nationalism (most exemplary in the writings of Levenson and Fairbanks).

It comes thus to no surprise that the author understands her work to be an addendum to James Leibold’s book Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism (2007) that has analyzed the role of Chinese periphery (def. as areas inhabited by non-Han Chinese)in shaping the modern sense of Chinese national thinking. While Leibold discusses the actual process of nation-building in the 1920s, Schneiders’s thesis focuses on the contribution of intellectuals and the scholar elites to achieve a polity that integrates both Han and non-Han into the new nation-state the the two decades before.

The central part of her dissertation then discusses the perception of the Chinese nation by the three intellectuals Liang Qichao, Zhang Taiyan and Liu Shipei. All three intellectuals developed conceptualizations of a homogeneous nation-state. Starting with the intellectual- journalist Liang Qichao who had introduced the idea of “assimilative power” into Chinese political discourse, Schneider describes how Liang’s hierarchy of ethnicities has been influenced by German nationalism (her discussion of Bluntschli’s influence on Liang offers many details and new insights), linking his idea of assimilation related to the creation of a nationalist historiography and geographical determinism. The chapter on Liang ends then with the discussion of how his “large nationalism” (da minzu zhuyi) has evolved and still today exerts great influence.

The ensuing chapter analyses the contribution of Liu Shipei and Zhang Taiyan – members of the anti-Manchu fraction – to the conception of Chinese ethnicity. Though often contrasted with the nationalism of Liang Qichao, Schneider arrives at showing that both Old Text scholars can hardly be grouped together so easily. The question of integrating Non-Han people into the Chinese nation-state differed greatly even among the members of the revolutionary group that later ignited the Xinhai Revolution (1911).  For Zhang Taiyan, naming China by defining ethnicity was a great concern, which led to (from today’s viewpoint) strange geographical imaginaries of China (by for instance including Korea and Vietnam via assimilation, only excluding Manchuria). Liu Shipei, on the contrary, considers assimilation to be impossible and thus insists on the necessity of racial purity and rejects the contamination of China’s national essence (guocui). It comes thus to no surprise that he calls for the expulsion of all Non-Han from China’s history, as put down in his two major works titled Rangshu (Book of Expulsion, 1903) and Zhongguo minzu zhi (The Ideal of an Ethnicity of China, 1905).

The fourth chapter takes a look at the integration of Xinjiang, Outer Mongolia, Tibet and Manchuria into the new geobody of the Republic of China by looking at the impact of Japanese models of history periodization during the late Qing era on Chinese historians such as Fu Sinian and the later Liang Qichao.

The fifth chapter then analyses the emergence of academic historiography, emphasizing the influence of modern historiographical methodology on this new discipline. The primary sources that are discussed here are the general histories compiled by Liu Yizheng and Lü Simian that struggled to include Non-Han people into their nationalist historiography that tried to stand up to modern criteria of history writing in the 1920s.

This study offers a fresh and rewarding insight into one of the most important ideological concepts in twentieth-century China – assimilation – by examining influential historiographical writings of the 1900s-1920s. Their role is still today of utmost importance when asking how large China – ethnically and territorially – actually is, even though the insistence on territorial integrity of China (more often than not) comes along as an openly ideological principle.

Marc A. Matten
Assistant Professor of Chinese Contemporary History
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany

Primary Sources

Liu Yizheng’s Zhongguo wenhuashi
Lü Simian’s Baihua benguoshi
Collected Writings of Liu Shipei, Liang Qichao and Zhang Taiyan

Dissertation Information

Ghent University, Belgium. 2012. 335 pp. Primary Advisor: Ann Heirman.

Image: Zhonghua guochi ditu” 中華國恥地圖, Map Collections, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Online version retrieved March 3rd, 2014 by author.

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