Distortions and Omissions
Chinese history is dominated by a nationalist interpretation that owes much to British ideas of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
‘A unique, comprehensive account of people beheading one another’ was Liang Qichao’s pithy dismissal of Chinese history writing before 1900. It was only useful to instruct an emperor or a minister, he complained, and had no relevance to the people. Instead, Liang demanded a new way of writing history, one that would give life to a new Chinese nation.
As the most influential Chinese journalist and reformer of his era, Liang’s essay, published in 1902 in the newspaper he edited, put a metaphorical bomb under the old historiography. But it is remarkable that, over a century later, the ‘New History’ that he called for remains the framework through which most people understand Chinese history. At the time he was writing, the territory that we now call China was under the rule of a decaying empire. Liang wanted to replace it with a modern nation state. First, however, he had to define the nation that should inhabit the state.
It is time to recognise how this nationalist version of Chinese history came to be written in the 1900s, whose interests it served then and to think about whose interests it serves now. Under the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, history has become weaponised to deny the different stories of Tibet and Xinjiang, to erase regional differences in places such as Hong Kong and to assert a monolithic Chinese identity pitted against the West. This was, from the outset, Liang Qichao’s intention. His views on writing Chinese history were shaped by his desire to animate a Chinese nation into existence.
Like all nationalist histories, Liang’s version of the past required distortions and omissions in order to weave an apparently seamless story of an ‘ancient nation’ surviving through adversity. It began with the mythical Yellow Emperor in 2700 BC and the original kernel of a nation that expanded over time to include everyone who lived within the nation’s ‘natural’ boundaries. Liang’s history explained why this nation, made up of people whom he described as ‘yellow’ according to European racial theories, needed to stand together against the whites. ‘The writing of history … is the mirror reflecting the nation, it is also the source of patriotism’, he declared in his essay.
A need to exist
It was Liang Qichao who did more than any other individual to create the idea of a Chinese nation: one that had always existed, right back into antiquity. He believed that such a nation had to exist and set out to write a version of history that would make its members understand that they had ‘always’ been a part of it. He defined the nation’s ‘natural’ territory as the area bounded by the Himalaya, Pamir and Altai mountains and the cultural markers that glued it together: language, script and tradition.
But Liang ignored the rather obvious inconsistencies in his definitions. Mongol people, Tibetans, Turks, Tungus and the Miao lived on both sides of those mountain ranges and the ones who lived on the Chinese side all had different languages, scripts and traditions. Even within the ‘heartland’ of what Liang regarded as Chinese culture, people spoke in mutually incomprehensible ways and followed different traditions. ‘Chinese’ script was also used by people in Japan and Vietnam. These details did not particularly matter to Liang, however, because he believed he had a vital mission: to save the Chinese nation (as he defined it) from extinction by the White Race.
Liang downplayed similarities that could have provided grounds for a different ‘natural’ order. Mongols and Tibetans, for example, share a Buddhist culture, together with people in Nepal and northern India. Mongol, Tibetan and Manchu societies share a tradition of shamanism. The Islamic Turkic peoples have cultural connections all the way west to Istanbul, while highland ‘Miao’-type minorities can be found throughout South-east Asia. These cultures are all different from those of the people of the central plains, but Liang minimised the differences and emphasised similarities to highlight the unity of ‘Chineseness’.
Liang believed that, throughout its long history, the superior culture of the Chinese had so awed the people who came into contact with it that they had ‘naturally’ assimilated. He even claimed that the outside tribes who conquered the central plains – the Tabgach/Wei (386-535), the Khitan/Liao (907-1125), the Jurchen Jin (1115-1234) and the Manchu/Qing (1644-1911) – had all been assimilated and, therefore, become Chinese. He did concede, however, that the Mongols (1279-1368) had ‘failed’ to follow this path.
Ironically, what Liang’s list of assimilated peoples makes clear is that, for more than half the period from AD 386 until his essay was published, ‘China’ had been ruled by ‘barbarians’ from the north. During those periods China had been, in effect, a colony within empires ruled by non-Chinese peoples. In Liang’s nationalist rendering of that longue durée, however, this was actually a reverse colonisation: all those foreign rulers had become part of the Chinese nation. In Liang’s view there was a Chinese essence that had survived unchanged for millennia. There is a distinct echo here of British nationalist history, in which an essential ‘Britain’ is assumed to have existed from Celtic times to the present day, regardless of invasions by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and Dutch.
This is not a coincidence, for Liang Qichao’s ideas did not spring from his mind alone. His feelings about the necessity of writing national history were borrowed from a Welsh Baptist missionary called Timothy Richard, once the most famous Westerner in China. From 1870 until 1916 he evangelised for both Christianity and social reform, working with the ‘Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge’ to spread new ideas in Chinese society.
The SDK (sometimes known as the Christian Literature Society, or CLS) translated works of religion, but also science and politics, into Chinese. (Even today Richard is recognised by the Chinese Communist Party as the first person to translate the names of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels into Chinese.) Its members focused on the elite, particularly when young hopefuls gathered for the imperial civil service exams. Between 1892 and 1896, for example, it distributed over 120,000 tracts to candidates.
Another tactic employed by the SDK was to publish the Wanguo Gongbao, a Chinese-language magazine carrying a mixture of Christian argument, articles about European progress and calls for political reform in China. Throughout 1894, the magazine devoted several issues to an abridged version of a particular history book that Richard believed would have a profound effect on its audience: a 463-page door-stopper, The Nineteenth Century: A History by Robert Mackenzie. It was not an academic work, but one aimed at a new British middle class keen to discover its place in the world.
It turned out that the Chinese middle classes were just as eager to read Mackenzie’s writings as their British counterparts. Demand was so huge that, the following year, the society published a complete translation of The Nineteenth Century with the Chinese title of The Outline of Occidental New History. It was a sensation: 4,000 copies were sold in a fortnight and tens of thousands more, both official and pirated, over the following years. Richard explained the importance of writing ‘new history’ in his preface: ‘Just as a clear mirror reveals the beautiful and the ugly, so New History reveals what flourishes and what needs to be replaced.’ The similarity with Liang’s declaration in his 1902 article is obvious.
Guide for instruction
In October 1895, Liang Qichao began working as Richard’s Chinese Secretary. Over the following months Liang compiled and published a bibliography of important texts intended as a guide for reformists. Two of his particular recommendations were Mackenzie’s book and the SDK’s Wanguo Gongbao. As the two men worked alongside each other, Liang’s ideas on reform continued to develop. For both men, ‘New History’ was more than a way to learn about the past; it was a guide to instruct modern people, modern nations and modern governments. This was what Liang was seeking: a narrative of continuity, a history like those European versions Richard had translated.
Looking back more than a century later, we can see how much of Liang’s version of the past – including his distortions and omissions – still feature in contemporary history writing about China. These accounts emphasise unity and continuity when, in fact, unity and continuity were the exceptions. They gloss over the differences between the many states that have existed in East Asia and they assume an inherent Chinese ‘core’ to the various dynasties, when for most of the time they were led by non-Chinese.
Once we understand the ‘messiness’ of these 20 centuries, we can see that it takes considerable imagination, of the kind that can only be provided by nationalism, to discern within them an essential ‘Chinese’ nation that endured throughout. At best, Liang’s version of history is really an account of a number of urban populations who recognised an emperor and wrote with a particular set of characters.
Over the past couple of decades there has been another intellectual revolution in understanding the history of the East Asian mainland. This ‘new history’ tries to avoid the temptations of assuming that China was a primordial territorial unit with ‘natural’ boundaries or thinking about cultures as superior or inferior. It tries to look at what happened in each period in its own terms, not necessarily as a stage on the way to the current situation. It frames the regional, highlighting how peoples moved, states rose and fell, frontiers fluctuated, trade flowed and cultures hybridised.
Locked in academia
Unfortunately, these new insights remain locked largely in academia. The old tropes of unity, continuity and assimilation still dominate much of popular writing about China. Too many accounts still follow a single narrative of a nation from ‘ancient times’ up to the present day. It is time to go against this grain, to show how so many ideas that we take for granted about China – the nation, national history, the Han race, the national language and so on – were constructed or invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is time to shake off the influence of Liang Qichao and see things in a new way.
Bill Hayton is an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House. His latest book is The Invention of China (Yale, 2020).