The Invention of China by Bill Hayton

And the point is…?

😦

The basic premise of the book is that China, as a nation-state, only came into existence as an invention of a few intellectuals in the 19th century, and that therefore its claims to a 5,000-year-old civilisation are somehow false. It’s the “therefore” in the proposition that is the problem – the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premise. Take the UK – a construct of a few power-brokers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Does that somehow negate the shared history of the four nations prior to the Union, even if that history was often one of strife? Or take the EU, if it survives in the long-term – will future generations suggest that Europeans don’t have a shared history prior to the end of WW2?

Hayton argues that the intellectual underpinning of the idea of a Chinese nation-state was absorbed from European ideas in the 19th century – agreed, of course. He also seems to suggest that the idea of an ancient nation of “China” is used still today to promote the idea of a Chinese race, as distinct from a Chinese nationality. Well, OK, perhaps – but, in reality, is that much different to the West? We’re so tied up in questions of race and nationality that people now often need several hyphens to describe themselves – Kamala Harris, first Asian-African-American woman to become VP, etc. If we haven’t learned to think of Brits as simply Brits rather than Asian-British, Afro-Caribbean-British, etc., can we afford to be too sniffy about China’s failures on racial integration? We may talk the talk, but the year of race protests and riots we’ve just endured suggests that perhaps we don’t walk the walk much better than China.

Hayton suggests that part of China’s foreign policy is to keep the diaspora feeling that it is Chinese in order to promote China abroad, partly by automatically allowing citizenship to those descended from a Chinese ancestor. Well, while it’s not (as far as I know) British policy to exert some form of British control over its diaspora now, it certainly was in the days of Empire – we fought wars over it, eh, America? And we certainly still give priority paths to British citizenship to people descended from a Brit – my greatest fear is that Trump will remember his Scottish mother and decide to seek residency here, which we would be hard put under our rules not to grant, I believe. As evidence of China’s desire to influence its diaspora, Hayton discusses events held abroad to promote Chinese culture and heritage to emigrants of Chinese descent. Hmm, not so different, I felt, to St Patrick’s Day parades, beloved far more by the Irish diaspora than at home, and heavily promoted by Ireland nowadays to boost the tourism industry, and used in the recent past to garner Irish-American support for the IRA terrorist campaign against the UK; or Burns Night, a knees-up that is more enthusiastically attended among descendants of Scots abroad than it is here in Scotland. We even have an annual Tartan Day parade in New York, specifically promoted by the Scottish government to try to make Scottish-Americans so nostalgic about the old country they will spend lots of American money on Scottish goods. Not sure it works.

Chinese New Year – Melbourne-style

So the more I read about how different China supposedly is, the more I felt that it was pretty much the same as all the other nation-states with imperial tendencies – perhaps it just took a little longer for it to adopt an essentially European idea. And I don’t think that its modern nation-state status in any way means it shouldn’t be allowed to lay claim to its 5000-year-old history. We do. We look on Roman Britain as our heritage – iron age Britain, Viking Britain, Norman Britain, Empire Britain, multicultural modern Britain – all parts of what makes us us, for good or ill. And for most of that long history, we weren’t a nation-state either.

Hayton suggests, though, that the Chinese desire to maintain control over places like Taiwan and Tibet arise out of an untrue history that all these regions (or nations) are historically part of a nation of China which he suggests never existed before the 19th century. Again, simplistically true, but is not that always the way of Empire? China is simply at a different stage than Europe – we have been forced unwillingly to accept the loss of our Empires and redefine our nation-states and re-write our histories accordingly; China is still grimly hanging on to its claims over its ancient tributaries and, as we did, using distorted narratives and racial arguments to justify them. Let’s face it, fan though I am of the Commonwealth, it exists merely to tie together the countries that were once part of the British Empire. Is that a bad thing? The only difference is that states can leave the Commonwealth if they choose, but that’s only been the case for half a century or so. No doubt in time the Chinese Empire will go the same way, and who is to say if the breakaway parts won’t find, as with the old colonies of the European Empires, that there is a benefit in maintaining historical, cultural and economic ties once the shackles of enforced domination have been thrown off?

I gave up on the book halfway through, since I found the arguments tenuous, shallow and not particularly well laid-out. And, to be honest, I’m not sure if the point is one that it was worth the effort of making. China is a fascinating nation with many facets, good and bad. It does many things I find objectionable, especially in terms of its human rights abuses. But this effort to deny it its claim to its heritage seems odd – a throwback to the days when we in Europe looked sneeringly down on the rest of the world. We don’t still do that. Do we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher Yale University Press via Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

55 thoughts on “The Invention of China by Bill Hayton

  1. You make such a strong argument here, FictionFan! And it sounds as though Hayton doesn’t really see the comparisons between China and other nations although they’re right there. If your argument is based on something that’s, as you say, shallow and without substance, it’s hard to sustain it. It’s a shame, too, because I don’t know enough about Chinese history, and it would’ve been interesting to consider his points and maybe – just maybe – learn something new. I think I’d’ve gotten frustrated enough to send it to Station DNF, too…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I felt he got too bogged down in the minutiae of things like the precise meaning of Chinese words and forgot to stand back and look at the big picture. He had an entire chapter dedicated to proving that the Chinese never called China China till the Europeans gave them that name – leaving me feeling, yes, and…? It wasn’t that he was factually wrong (as far as I know), simply that I don’t agree that claiming their heritage is some kind of Communist propaganda ploy – or not only that, anyway! If the history of the region that is now known as China doesn’t belong to China, who does it belong to??

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved your review! I have long been disappointed by British / American commentators’ take on China and its culture and history. It is sad that this book continues in the same vein. As you have rightly said, China is a country which had the good and the not-so-good things like other countries, and we need a historian or a commentator who will show things on both the sides, dispassionately. Unfortunately this commentator is hard to find. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Vishy! I get very annoyed too at how we dismiss China as some kind of evil empire just because they don’t slavishly follow the way we do things in the West. You’d think a quick glance at the news would remind people that the West is in a complete mess these days! Hardly a shining example to the rest of the world, so I wish we’d stop behaving as if we know all the answers and all the other countries don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with Cathy746books. But great review. I also wonder about the point of this book. It reminds me of a book ages ago that a professor (who was later fired) wrote about the Holocaust and how “made up” some of the events were. I never understood the point of denying actual historical events.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, yes! Holocaust denial is the worst example, but there’s a kind of trend of “revisionist” history books these days, which I generally find just distort facts to suit a particular agenda… which means they’re not really history books at all! I wanted to know – if the history of the region now called China doesn’t belong to China, who does it belong to? Shall we just pretend it didn’t happen?

      Like

  4. There was a business about whether to speak Cantonese or Mandarin, but it was no more of a thing than trying to make people in West Wales speak English or people in Catalunya speak Castilian, or people in umpteen parts of the Russian Federation speak Russian. There’ve been numerous different phases of Chinese history, and different emperors have ruled over different-sized empires, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a “China” for millennia. Sometimes I think people just write these books purely for the sake of saying something different and controversial, to get attention!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think so too – “revisionist” history clearly sells. What annoys me is that often people will only read one book about a particular place or event, and if it’s skewed then they’ll come away thinking that’s the actual history. I wanted to know – if the history of the region now called China isn’t China’s history, then whose history is it??

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmmm so is this book published by an academic press? I find that really puzzling that they would publish a book with such a weak argument to begin with, surely there are better authors out there with more compelling things to say? haha

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, a few years ago I used to read a lot of Yale’s books and then they seemed to start publishing kinda populist stuff? Less academic and more polemics than history? This fell into that category – his facts might have been right, but the conclusions he drew from them seemed too much of a stretch…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read this one, so I can’t really speak to its pluses or minuses. Nevertheless, your review is well-written and makes me curious to take a look at the book if I get a chance.Sounds like you got quite a lot out of it, despite abandoning it midway through.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wait a minute! My maternal grandmother was a MacIlvanah (sp?) who married a Sullivan. Does this mean I can get British citizenship? With the Donald gone, the pressure has passed a bit, but . . .)

    There are so many of these non-fiction exposé-type books being written nowadays. And it’s no wonder when I look at the NYTimes Sunday Book Review each week: two or three novels, if that, and a dozen non-fiction books. I suppose it’s what people are buying these days. That said, my recent reviews have included some excellent NF’s, so perhaps I’m part of the problem. I can see this one clearly was a disappointment, and consider myself forewarned. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, quite probably, but think it through! Wouldn’t it be awful if you became Scottish and then the entire Trump family moved over here too?? I’m trying to find some way of becoming Australian just in case… 😉 (I wonder if that’s a version of McIlvanney – you might be from the same clan as William!)

      Yes, there’s a lot of good non-fiction out there at the moment, but this trend for “revionist” history annoys me (as you could probably tell from my review!). Takes a few facts and spin a theory from them, and then don’t test it – just send it out into the world for poor book readers to argue with! I’m sure his facts are probably right, but after an entire chapter in which he proved at great length that China never called itself China until the Europeans gave them that name, I was left thinking… yes, and…??

      Like

    • I know – even some of the academic publishers seem to be willing to print anything these days! It did hint that that was what the book was going to argue in the blurb, but I hoped it was a case of Bad Blurb Syndrome… sadly not!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Makes me wonder if the author has an ax to grind against an ex-wife who’s Chinese, LOL. Yes, this does sound quite biased. Love this section of your review: “…we have been forced unwillingly to accept the loss of our Empires and redefine our nation-states and re-write our histories accordingly; China is still grimly hanging on to its claims over its ancient tributaries and, as we did, using distorted narratives and racial arguments to justify them.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, yes, perhaps – or maybe he got food poisoning from a Chinese takeaway… 😉 Thank you – as you will have noticed, I get very annoyed at us snootily criticising other countries for doing things we do, or have done, ourselves. Nearly every empire behaves in roughly the same way, but at different times, so let’s not suggest China is in some way uniquely bad…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree with everything you say. I believe that some countries who were never part of the British Empire have actually chosen to join the Commonwealth, they must think there’s some merit in it, or maybe it’s just for sporting reasons. I doubt if Trump would be able to cope with our weather, I live in hope of his golf courses here being re-possessed to pay debts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think you’re right that one or two non-Empire countries have joined and very few have chosen to leave – they must feel it’s worth it. I read a book about it by a former Secretary General, Don McKinnon, a few years ago, and he felt there were definite economic and security advantages for the smaller nations in membership. Haha, I hope you’re right – I couldn’t believe he’s just got permission to build another one here! Build a Wall to keep him out, for goodness sake! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Although you found this book and the premise not to be worthwhile, it has made for a very interesting review. Sneering is probably more of an individual thing to do rather than being characteristic of a whole continent, but either way, badly done by the author if that is the sense you’ve been left with.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s a shame you did not enjoy the book. I was looking forward to reading the review for this one.

    I think that he was trying to get to the idea that nationalism, at least in the west, has its roots in the 19th century, after the French Revolution, when more and more countries were unified by what makes them different (which is not very much, but that’s beyond the point) and less about their leaders. I did not read about the situation in China in the 19th century and before that, but as they had an emperor I would assume that the nationalist ideas arrived a bit later.
    The communist propaganda, and, unfortunately, I know quite a lot about that, as I was born and raised in an Eastern European country, under the iron curtain, uses the past as a way to promote the “chineseness” of their people, something that makes them different, hence less easy to understand, by the “others” (as in democratic countries). I am not sure that someone from outside the country can fully understand all those small aspects though, as they are so ingrained in the collective memory, and these small details are also very hard to understand. For example, I told a British colleague (I’m studying history) a joke from Romania and she didn’t get it. It would have taken about 15 minutes to explain the context and it might not have been enough, as the situation was so complex. But, a Romanian, would have thought the joke is hilarious, as it was part of the everyday life.

    Have you read Wild Swans by Jung Chang? It’s an incredible book about China in the 20th century, told through the eyes of the author, and including the stories of her mother and her grandmother.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think what annoys me is the idea that we’ve found all the answers and that any nations that are at an earlier stage in achieving our wonderfulness or are taking a different path from us are somehow fair game for smugly superior criticism. If we were actually getting things right I might feel differently, but it seems to me democracy is on the point of collapse in many Western countries due to people’s refusal to accept democratic decisions they disagree with, so I rather feel we should solve our own problems before we sneer too much at other people’s, if that makes sense.
      I do understand what you mean about propaganda and not fully understanding any country that you don’t know from personal experience. But I have to say that, while it was obviously to a different degree or done in a different way, Britain also told itself that Britishness was a mark of superiority, both racially and culturally, and that was used to justify our behaviour at home and abroad. Every time I think we’ve moved on, I read a book like this and realise that lots of Brits still think that our innate superiority gives us some kind of right to dictate to other countries how they should behave. We’re not as bad for that as America – the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest” at everything, but we’re pretty bad…

      No, I haven’t read it – I’ll look out for it. Thanks for the recommendation! 😀

      Like

  12. Great review of what sounds like a rather strange book. I tend to agree with your analysis that China is at a different point on a similar historical track to the various European empires that have decolonised over the past century, with similar behaviour, and we aren’t really in a position to be sneery about it.

    You make a really interesting point about diaspora cultural events vs events in Scotland/Ireland/China – I’ve noticed this in the past, especially with Scottish Canadians and Irish Americans, but hadn’t realised that was something actually actively cultivated by various governments to encourage people to spend money!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Given the European influence in forcing China to take on Western ideas and values, I do think it’s a bit rich of us then to criticise when they behave like Europeans! Of course I hope they get past their imperial phase, but then I’m still rather waiting for us to get past ours…

      I don’t know if they were always cultivated by our governments or if it’s just that when we saw how nostalgic the diasporas often are, we decided to make use of that. I know Tartan Day is a reasonably recent creation – only twenty years or so, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Whoa, this sounds so disappointing. I know a lot of people don’t necessarily realize how ethnically diverse China is and the Chinese government doesn’t have a very good history of treating minorities fairly (or currently) but it seems really unfair and inaccurate to negate their thousands of years of history and governance. I think you’re spot on in saying that China is at a different stage of its “empire” than somewhere like Britain. Somehow, western scholars often seem very reluctant to accept that Chinese history and culture is, in fact, very, very old.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The ethnic diversity seemed to be part of his issue with China. He was suggesting that since some of the dynasties were from other “races” ruling over the territory now called China, then that meant those periods weren’t really “Chinese”. But that is like saying that when the Vikings, Romans or Normans ruled parts of Britain then we can’t claim those periods as British. I’m afraid I feel in general that Europe is still very unwilling to accept that parts of the world have older and just as prestigious heritages as ours, and we seem to feel the need to minimise them in order to keep our own egos intact. We do it to the ancient Arab civilisations too – dismiss them as barbarous and ignore the fact that our system of maths originated with them, for example…

      Liked by 1 person

      • This might be my new world upbringing talking but dismissing a whole country’s history for having multiple ethnicities and backgrounds seems bizarre! I think you’re right about the comparison to British history. If the author wants to be that picky, he needs to acknowledge that all modern nations are not as old as we say they are.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Canada is highly unusual in its embracing of its diversity though – even Australia and NZ struggled with it more until quite recently, and as for America! I’m too close to it in Britain to have an objective view and anyway Scotland still isn’t hugely diverse, but certainly the protests last year suggest that our racial minorities don’t feel that we’re doing a great job…

          Liked by 1 person

  14. This is another instance when I feel reading your review is of a lot more value than reading to book. If I am reading about countries which are unfamiliar to me, I don’t want the inevitable authorial lens to be too murky or misleading or diminishing of others’ realities.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do get grumpy when I feel an author is too heavily weighting the facts to suit a particular argument. I know it’s impossible to keep bias out altogether but when it begins to feel like distortion rather than bias then it crosses the line, as far as I’m concerned. What annoys me is that most people will probably only read one history book about a particular subject, and if they read one like this they’ll be likely to accept whatever the author says as “true”.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Too bad! I find China such an interesting country and would love to find some good books about its history and culture. I certainly don’t approve of everything which goes on there and knowing several people in Hong Kong, I find that situation highly problematic. When we recently discussed democracy in another post, I actually thought of China. As much as I disprove of some of their methods, I must admit they are highly efficient and they can certainly get results. When they want to build a large project, they just move people and build it. When UK wants a similar project, they spend 5 years discussing the consequences, 3 years persuading people to move and figuring out a suitable compensation and in the end the project stalls due to lack of finances or some unknown bureaucratic issues. And they can limit a virus like Covid, because people are used to being told what to do and know there are consequences. Anyway, I am glad I don’t live in China, but it is very interesting to follow what goes on.

    Liked by 2 people

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